Thursday, October 21, 2010

Don't Know (or Care) Much about History

I've been hearing a lot of this lately, "My kids aren't interested in 'old stuff.'" I last heard it in an antique shop where someone proclaimed that they could not pass their collections on to their children because the children did not care. It turns out that the lady in the antiques shop had never explained to her children exactly what made her collections so wonderful. One can pull something off a shelf and expect the viewer to oooh and ahhh. Or, one can provide information that demonstrates what makes that thing so wonderful in the first place.

I grew up knowing that my penchant for history was unusual. It was the favorite subject of few of my peers. However, for one thing, I was lucky enough to have a father who shared his love for history programs on television with me. We'd sit together watching "World at War" and Dad would connect it to our ancestors who had left Europe to escape persecution and conflict. I was not interested in "World at War." Not really. In fact, I try to skip over the bits about military tactics and warfare in the history books that I now read . (Should I admit that?) But I was fascinated by the history that connected to my life and was energized by my dad's enthusiasm for the subject. I was able to find something that interested me in a broad context that my father shared. Today I am intensely interested in how people respond to conflict and relate it to how my family had to adapt to it in the 1930s and 40s.

With this in mind, I refer the reader to an engaging blogpost this week by titled "A Return to the Narrative," which discusses a renewed British emphasis on facts and figures at the expense "drawing out the thinking processes on which the discipline depends." Author Alix Green concludes that "thinking with history" is at least as important as knowing the details of our historical past and argues that the skills gained from such thinking allow us to be better policy and decision makers . I would like to add one more piece to this. Learning to use history to think critically makes history interesting, shows students (including life-long learners) that history is worth learning, and encourages us to value our past and find use for it in the present.

History helps build self- esteem by allowing one to better understand from where they came and why they are here. One can be carrying on a family's sense of survival. Or, one can be overcoming hardship and recognizing situational similarities in persons who are unrelated to them, giving them strength to better themselves. From history, one can also develop a broad sense of community, recognizing one's peers and like-minded members from many aspects of society. History allows us to understand our place in civilization, making sense of events that surround us, and helping us to build an appreciation for culture and cultural objects.

I have recently been wondering why we don't start teaching history in school when kids are much younger. Along with reading, math, and science, history should be taught in early elementary school as part of the regular curriculum. When I introduce young children to history through an American Girl book club that I run, or show archival resources to children in libraries, they are fascinated. I relate history to them and explain what it means to live at this particular moment. I try to help them develop an understanding of how people from the past got us to where we are today. Sometimes a few facts and figures are thrown in, but the key is really to create a foundation of knowledge that allows the little ones to see that people came before them and that they should care about that fact because it tells us a lot about who we are and where we may be going.

Instead of saying, "my kids aren't interested in 'old stuff'" think about the messages that adults are giving them about the past. Are we instilling an appreciation for history in the next generation or are we continually showing them that shiny and new is better? Remember, that "new stuff" wouldn't be here without the early ideas that lead to this point. So, next time your children run out to buy the latest computer game, use the opportunity to tell them about the ENIAC, the first computer (weighing in at 50 tons and filling a room.) And make sure that you care about what you are passing on. Find ways to connect yourself to the past. Research the history about the things that interest you the most to enrich your own life. There is much to know about in history, but first we have to care.

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