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Liberating History

 

History (that is, as it comes packaged in school classes) tends to be one of the sad casualties of these times. I mean, very few people get charged up about the past from going through the text, answering the questions at the end of the chapter and doing the mental gymnastics necessary to memorize the requisite names and dates for the test. Some short time down the road, most people do a brain dump, shaking out said names and dates like old candy wrappers from a waste basket in order to have room for the next class's temporary storage needs.

In spite of having put in a number of years in college and grad school, I never really 'met' history until years later, after I'd started homeschooling my kids. Paul was supposed to study California history for fourth grade (this was back when we still paid attention to the 'right' curriculum for a given year), and as I skimmed through the old state text I'd salvaged from a pile of giveaway books, I knew for certain that Paul, a devoted reader, would no more be enticed by this stuff than a kid who's been served a plate of sawdust while everyone around him gets pizza.

I started through the material, looking for the main points (the story, really), and after much searching, knee-deep in the aforementioned names and dates, I found it. California history became a story we recited, a one-thing-leads-to-another tale that made sense and that, hence, was easy to remember.

I discovered the importance of good metaphor in teaching. I poked into Roman history and began to realize that history is simply human nature played out over and over on a huge canvas. Eventually we discovered British techno-historian James Burke's original 'Connections' series--wonderful, fascinating stuff that filled in the answers to the 'why' questions I suddenly realized I'd been carrying around for years.

The boys--all four of them--are History Channel junkies. Without any directives from me, they've learned much more than I did in all my years of school. It's been a simple matter of discovery (and it's amazing the difference in retention between things you have to do and things you get to do.) They can explain what the Maginot Line is, tell you what went wrong in World War II, discuss the evolution of weaponry or the motivations of the Vikings. Better yet, they're absorbing history's lessons and applying them to what they see going on today. They recognize the parallels, they know the trends and where they're likely to lead... because they know where they've led in the past.

Also, thankfully, they never learned to think of history as a plate of sawdust. If only school classes in history could be presented in a way that's equally compelling. How much history would we not be doomed to repeat if people were to truly absorb the lessons of the past?

 

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