Why History is Boring — And What Can Be Done About It

I remember when I was in high school, a very long time ago, history as it was taught bored me to tears and nearly put me to sleep.  I did not know then that I not only had a lot of interest in history, but that I had the ability to be an exceptional researcher.  Like most people, history seemed to be an endless string of dates to be memorized and that was something I really detested.  I could not understand why I had to remember dates at all and why all that history was important in the first place.

I now have a master’s degree in U.S. History.  The irony of that was not lost on me and I considered for a long time why I had been previously so bored by history.  The reasons were quite simply actually.  Historians typically wrote in a very narrow manner.  That is, they would attach a single or maybe two events to why something historic happened.  That methodology was challenged in the later 1970s by Clifford Geertz, a sociologist, who wrote a treatise on why Napoleon was defeated by Wellington at Waterloo.  He contented that his “thick interpretation” took into account every factor involved in the battle and did not allow the fact that Wellington had the high ground to be the most important fact leading to Napoleon’s defeat.  This thick interpretation of history changed the way many historians chose to retell events from then on.  Dates became secondary and circumstances or all sorts primary.

A couple of years ago I reviewed five different texts commonly used in high schools.  What I found was a group of texts that were mediocre at best, and some, published by well-known publishers, to be complete failures.  These text engaged in disparate ideas that were not logically presented and poorly tied together.  None of the texts took the time to define some of the most basic concepts presented to the students, i.e. what is a civil war, what is the definition of a revolution, and why is the event they are presenting important historically.  The books assume understanding by the students where it might actually be lacking.

The books, and the teachers, fail to engage students in the pursuit of historical knowledge.  Today’s students find it difficult, for example, to understand the fear that existed when America started its revolution with England.  My proof came when I presented that subject to a group of students.  To give the students perspective, I told them how many people lived in Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, and Concord.  Then I presented them the size of the British army that was descending upon the residents of those towns.  This simplest of processes allowed the students to gain a quick understanding of the situation in 1775.  I further engaged them by relating how boys as young as 14 were a part of the patriot force.  This, of course, is unimaginable to them but it kept their attention.

I have found that the way to engage people in a way that gets their interest in a particular historical event, is to lay out the sights, smells, temperatures, and when possible, the individual accounts of that event.  Tell people, for example, that “strikers awoke to the acrid smell of coal-burning, the stink of horse manure in the street, and the biting cold of the day, that they chose the warmest clothing with the fewest holes,” gives a person today a much better feel for the actual day.  It makes it come to life.

History is a truly amazing subject and, when properly related, is more gripping than anything the best “reality tv” or movie drama can give us.  In my blog about 10 must read books, I put in one historical novel, “Ghettostadt.”  I found that book to be a page turner.  That was entirely because the author took the time to relate what the people saw, how they felt, among all the other details of the Lodz Ghetto.  It took that historical event down to a personal level, and in my opinion, there is no better way to relate history.


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