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How to Make History Interesting by Ray Notgrass

Theodore Roosevelt suffered from severe asthma as a child. He overcame this difficulty by a strong determination to succeed. He attended Harvard and was elected to the New York state legislature. Then in 1884, within a matter of hours and in the same house, his mother died at the age of 48 and his wife died at the age of 22 after giving birth to a child.

Roosevelt left it all and went out to the Dakota territory. He raised cattle and took up hunting in the daytime, then read classic literature by the campfire in the evenings. He finally found himself, returned to New York, remarried, and entered politics. As police commissioner of New York City, Roosevelt often patrolled the streets at night.

He became a reform governor of New York, then in 1900 was nominated for vice-president to run with William McKinley. Some speculate that Republican politicians in New York encouraged his nomination to get him out of the state and out of their way. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, the cowboy-philosopher became President of the United States.

Somehow I find this more interesting than simply reciting the facts of Roosevelt's presidency. I imagine you do, too.

Ken Burns, award-winning producer of PBS series on the Civil War and other topics, has said that the key to making history interesting is to engage the emotions. If we can find some personal, moving connection with history, we will want to learn more.

The last five letters of the word explain it: history is a story. We all love stories, and we relate better to stories than to a listing of facts, dates, and wars. History is our story. It is the shoulders on which we stand to see farther in our own day. The story of human beings, of people who have courageously become immigrants, used their God-given abilities to produce great inventions, and given their lives in a noble cause, is not boring.

Here are some suggestions on how to make your study of history come alive.

  1. Don't depend on textbooks. Textbooks try to organize and arrange the material for the convenience of the teacher, not necessarily for the enjoyment of the student.

    At one of our seminars, a homeschooling mother in Alabama told me that she had started studying Alabama history with a standard textbook. Both she and her daughter were bored to tears. She put aside the textbook and began checking out library books that told about people and events in the state. They both love it and now find history fascinating.

    It is helpful to have some overall framework in which to place people, events, and trends; but I encourage you to find a source that is a good narrative of the story of history and not simply an outline of facts. Supplement this with real books, living books, that make the story personal.

  2. Emphasize individuals. The one hundred people who came to America on the Mayflower were one hundred individuals, each with a story. Today the Mayflower Society is composed of descendants of the passengers on the Mayflower. They know personally what that courageous voyage meant.

    World War II to me is not just a big war that started with Germany and Japan being aggressive. My dad served in World War II. He landed in northern France the day after D-Day. He endured the Battle of the Bulge and enemy bombings. It was while he was stationed in England before the D-Day invasion that he met the woman who became his wife and my mother. World War II is personal to me.

    The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is perhaps the most vivid example of making history personal. On the long marble wall are etched the names of the 58,000 Americans who died in that conflict. We visited Washington on Veterans Day weekend a few years ago. At the wall we saw legless veterans in wheelchairs who were not able to hold back their tears. We saw flowers and notes addressed to "Daddy" at the base of the wall. History was never more personal than it was that day.

    Read biographies and autobiographies. Talk to people who have participated in history. Do some genealogical research in your own family to find your personal connection with history. Persons make history.

  3. Learn the stories. Historical novels are a good way to appreciate how the lives of individuals are affected by historical events. Movies such as "Fiddler on the Roof" give beautiful portrayals of everyday people being swept along by changes in society.

    You may not care much about the Populist movement of the late 1800s, but you would love Sockless Jerry Simpson. Simpson was a Kansas politician who ran for Congress in 1890 as a man of the people. His opponent was a wealthy railroad company lawyer. Simpson cast his opponent as a tool of big business whose silk hosiery showed his priorities. Simpson's opponent sneered back that it was better to wear silk stockings than no stockings at all, a put-down of Simpson's commoner status. Simpson turned the put-down into a political asset, became "Sockless Jerry," and won the election.

    Read the stories of people who lived in earlier times, not just books about them. Read "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and see if your blood doesn't boil at what that former slave endured. Read "Up from Slavery" to learn the hardships that Booker T. Washington overcame. The possibilities are endless.

  4. Make a connection with your interests. Let your study of history be guided by what you enjoy. You don't have to emphasize wars and diplomacy and Congress if you are fascinated by architecture, for instance. You might find it interesting to learn what people cooked and sewed in earlier times. Study the history of farming or road building or doll-making if that is where your heart is. Again, it is helpful to be learning the framework of history for perspective; but leave enough time for a topic that will click with you or your child.

  5. Take field trips. This may be the most effective way to make history interesting. I can't tell you the excitement I felt when we stood at Sycamore Shoals near Elizabethton, Tennessee, where so much early Tennessee history was made, or when we went to the place near Kingsport where John Donelson's flotilla left on its fateful journey to help found Nashville. The battle of Shiloh will mean more to you after you visit the battlefield. In our nation's capital you can see the actual Star-Spangled Banner that inspired Francis Scott Key, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, and much more.

    We have always traveled on a tight budget, saving up for a while, making meals from groceries instead of going to restaurants, combining sightseeing with business trips, and camping out instead of depending on motels every night. It is possible to take great field trips on a family budget.

Plato said, "Those who tell the stories change society." It is why Jesus told parables. It was true with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, a story that changed society. I believe that those who know the stories, such as well-trained homeschoolers, can also change society. I invite you to become an avid student of history and, in that way, become an avid student of life.

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Comments on How to Make History Interesting by Ray Notgrass



Alex Seftel 11-25-2012 19:17
Hi there,
Do you have a source for the Ken Burns quote?
I'm looking to use it for an essay.
Regards,

Alex


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