Do you like history?
Your answer will more than likely be “yes” or “no”. Not “sometimes” or “not so much” or “it depends on the era”. Having asked that question of a lot of people for a lot of years, I’ve determined that there is very little middle ground here. It’s almost always black or white, with very little gray area.
I’ve also determined, if the person I put the question to elaborates a bit, that the reason he or she either likes or dislikes history is almost always traceable to a particular history teacher in their past.
The reason for that is simplicity itself. History teachers usually come in only two models. One makes students memorize dates and events. The other – I suspect you’re already predicting that this is my strong preference of the two – tells stories.
That’s right. They tell stories.
Rudyard Kipling, who was certainly no slouch in the storytelling department, maintained that “if history were taught in the form of stories it would never be forgotten.”
I’m proof of that.
I took my first stab at college back when we were still sending men to the moon and “Gunsmoke” was still on television (you use your chronological landmarks and I’ll use mine; okay?). I had an American History professor that first semester that never smiled and never looked anything but bored with his daily task. The chances of him cracking a joke were right up there with us locating Jimmy Hoffa. Who, I just realized as I wrote that sentence, had not yet gone missing at the time.
Anyway, that fellow gave us the dates of battles, wars, coronations, deaths, treaties, and other such goings on with about as much emotion as he might have employed to recite a grocery list. And I guess he assumed that we would determine their relevance from the pages he assigned in a textbook that was about the size of a shoebox. Then, on quizzes and examinations, we were asked to regurgitate those dates and answer tricky questions designed to see if we’d actually done the reading.
I hadn’t. Partly because I was not yet mature enough to realize that oftentimes we have to do things we don’t really want to do. But mainly because that dry-as-toast teacher had failed to spark any interest whatsoever in me regarding American history. In fact, he did just the opposite; he made me think that the past was as dry, dusty, and useless as his delivery of it.
When I dropped out of the university it caught the attention of a relative I didn’t even know I had – an Uncle Sam – and I spent the next two years, per his request, in the army. When I mustered out I went back to college and signed up for a full load of courses, one of which was American History.
The professor this time didn’t lecture. He told story after story, making long dead generals and presidents come fully to life in my imagination. I wrote frantically in my notebook to keep up with him. He assigned probably the same pages in the big textbook that my previous teacher had, but this time I couldn’t wait to read them every night, because I wanted to know as much as I could about the things we were studying.
That man didn’t so much teach me history as he invited me into it. And in doing so he proved to be what I now consider an excellent educator: Someone who not only knows a lot about his or her field, but loves it. And, most importantly, is able to share it.
The theme of today’s harangue is twofold. First, teachers – of history or anything else – would do well to follow the example put forth by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales when he described the Oxford Cleric, a young fellow who would forego much to buy more books. “For gladly would he learn,” Chaucer wrote, “and gladly teach.”
Second, and this won’t come as a surprise if you’ve dropped in here before, the very best way to communicate, to convey information that is essential, informative, or simply entertaining is to make it palatable and – just maybe – enjoyable.
In other words, tell a story.