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history pragmatic historian

History’s Hierarchy of Purpose – Education & Entertainment


History's Hierarchy of Purpose infographic by Mary Warner, 2017.
History’s Hierarchy of Purpose infographic by Mary Warner, 2017.

My Experience with History Education

Working our way up from Resource Location & Preservation on History’s Hierarchy of History, we come to Education & Entertainment.

When most people think of history, they think of their history education in school and how much they hated it.

When I was in high school, history was presented as a series of events, names and dates to memorize, typically jumping from war-to-war, with very little of what happened between events being covered. This data was difficult to memorize because no connection was made between it and our personal lives.

While history was usually presented in timeline fashion, from earlier dates up to more current dates, because we didn’t learn about what happened between the wars, we missed out on the context linking events from one era to another. The timeline never reached the point we were currently living in, so we had no sense of how we connected to this history. Forget about world history altogether. History was solely focused on United States history and then primarily on the perspective of the victors and the leaders, certainly not on the enslaved, displaced, downtrodden, or average citizens.

It wasn’t until college, when I took art history classes, that the timeline of history started to make sense to me. Using visual arts, which illustrated artists’ views of what was happening at the time they created their pieces, I was finally able to see cause-and-effect and world history. It makes perfect sense that Art Nouveau followed the Victorian Era, with the later Art Deco being a stripped down reaction to Art Nouveau.

Because I was an art major, I now had a personal investment and interest in history. I was entertained rather than bored while being educated.

When my children went through school, I saw them follow the war-to-war history curriculum, although there seemed to be more stories included from people other than leaders or victors. As for making history personal, my son once had an assignment to create a genealogical chart. That was a good assignment because it introduced the idea that students could find their own history at home by talking to their relatives. History doesn’t get much more personal than that.

The History Is Boring Narrative

None of my children are in school any longer, but from what I hear about the state of education with its emphasis on STEM, or STEAM if a school district is expanding its horizons, history education isn’t faring well. Historians are discussing what to do about this.

As one of my historian friends recently said of society and the media, “We have to quit using the narrative that history is boring.” She cited Harry Potter as an example of how this idea is perpetuated, with main characters of the series indicating how boring the History of Magic class is. Educator and historian Heather L. Bennett discusses the subject of the “history is boring” trope in relation to Harry Potter in more depth on her blog.

If history is being taught as a standalone topic, rather than being lumped into social studies for expedience and because it doesn’t fit the nation’s goals of STEM or STEAM education, how do we break the cycle of history as the memorization of names, events and dates? How do we make history education entertaining?

History as Entertainment

Before I share my thoughts about marrying education and entertainment, let’s look at history’s purpose in terms of entertainment. Because, for as many people who automatically assume history is boring when presented in an educational setting, there are just as many consuming history presented as entertainment. They may even be the same people.

Think about popular movies and TV shows like the National Treasure and Indiana Jones series, Downton Abbey, and The Crown. There’s an entire cable channel – The History Channel – devoted to history, plus countless documentaries based on history that audiences enjoy. Blockbuster museum exhibits attract throngs of crowds. Genealogy consistently ranks among the most popular hobbies. Biographies and books covering various aspects of historical events around the world continue to be published and consumed by readers.

We are accustomed to being entertained by history, even if we don’t recognize how much we are enjoying our consumption of history.

So what’s our issue with being educated about history?

Is it that in school we feel force fed with history, like it’s some sort of bitter medicine we must take because it’s good for us?

Yes, we do need a good baseline of history to navigate our world and be informed citizens, and it needs to be introduced somewhere. However, there is too much history to cram into students’ heads over a few short years. I have been studying the history of one county for over 20 years and I have barely scratched the surface of its history.

A Better Approach to Teaching History

A better approach to teaching history is to marry education with entertainment. Allow students to pick a topic of personal interest to them, thus making it entertaining, and have them search out the history of that topic by looking for historical resources. (If they want to study the history of comics or video games, by all means, let them!)

Make sure they use more resources than the internet or books. Take them to a local museum to look for resources there. They can also use three-dimensional artifacts as resources.

Show them that they are being private investigators or adventurers while doing this search. They are asking questions, hunting for clues, and tracking down mysteries.

Help them analyze the reliability of the sources they use.

Urge them to create their own timelines of their topic’s history and how it fits into the history of the wider world. (Kinda like how I got a great introduction to world history through art.)

In short, teach students historical methods. These will serve them in good stead for all the history they encounter throughout their lives, as well as giving them the skills they need to engage in civic discourse and democratic society.

Don’t Be Like Professor Binns

While teaching historical methods, or even passing along history using standard lectures, be sure to convey your excitement for the topic. Don’t be like Professor Binns in Harry Potter, droning on about history in such a dull manner that everyone in class dozes off. You’re giving history a bad reputation that we pragmatic historians find difficult to overcome.