Friday, May 29, 2015

History Stories

I think that history is often taught the wrong way. Kids learn history as unconnected chunks of stuff they have to memorize, as boring lists of names and dates, as stuff that happened once upon a time a long time ago.

I recently read "The Last of the Doughboys" by Richard Rubins. The book is a history of the American involvement in WWI told through interviews with American veterans of the war. Interviews the author conducted in the early 2000s. One interview I found particularly interesting was done in 2003, with a man who was 110 years old. He talked a bit about his experiences as a combat engineer in 1918, repairing railroads for the Allies and blowing up German bridges. He also talked about his parents, who had been born slaves in the antebellum south and had been married, as free people, just after the Civil War ended.

My personal connection to history only goes back as far as the 1920s, to the depression in Germany after WWI and my grandfather's story of how he got a million marks for his bar mitzvah and that was just enough money to buy a candy bar in the store around the corner. Yet in 2003, while I was in college, there was a man in this country who could remember his parents stories, the experiences of people who were adults when Lincoln was elected. I've been to a few Civil War battlefields, read the markers and looked at the memorials and cannon and tried to imagine what it was like to have been on those fields when those guns were firing. As recently as 2003, there was someone who could remember his parents telling him what it was like to wait for news of those battles.

That's what history is, and how it should be taught. History is memories, stories from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. And from other people, and their parents and grandparents. Anyone who could have talked to this man about his life would have listened to his stories. When people get together, that's what we do. We trade stories about our lives, about our personal histories. The older the stories and the more different than our own, the more interesting they are. People who found it boring to memorize who Lincoln and Davis were, to remember names and dates like Fort Sumter, 1861 and Appomattox Court House, 1865 would have found it easy and interesting to listen to this man talk about his parents.

As a rule, the best histories are the ones that, like novels, focus on the experiences of a handful of main characters and tell the story of the events through their experiences. When history is, "This happened at this place to these people on this date, and then this happened to these people on this date, and then…" it's artificial and boring. When history is used as a tool for moralizing,  whether it's the apocryphal story about Washington and the cherry tree or the myth of the pious shtetle, it becomes a fairy tale, something that happened once upon a time a long time ago to story characters who aren't like us or anyone we know. When history is the stories people tell about themselves, their family and their friends it's real things that happened to real people, anecdotes that we would happily spend an afternoon trading with friends. 


  1. I find movies or novels do a great job of this. For example, see Testament of Youth, based on the book of the same name about one woman's true experiences during WWI

  2. With respect to your last paragraph, I recently read "Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend" about Anne's friend Hannah Goslar with my son, and I found it unusually evocative of what it was like to be a normal teenager caught up in the Holocaust. It's an excellent book.

    With respect to your first paragraph, I recently arranged for my 91-year old father to speak to some teens about his WW2 experience as a soldier and engineer at the uranium separation plant in Oak Ridge, TN. To these kids, the making of the atomic bomb really is ancient history.