My husband has a degree in history, and a doctorate in political science. To say that he’s a history buff is probably an understatement. When I once, early in our relationship, told him that I was not a huge fan of history in school, he said that it was because history was taught wrong. It was reduced to memorizing dates and battles, with no discussion of the human stories that make it happen. So it was with interest that I read The New History Wars on the New York Times, an article about the revision of the curriculum framework for the advanced placement test in American history.
After that conversation long time ago, I started reading biographies, and I was hooked. Since I didn’t grow up in the United States, I thought American history would be an appropriate starting point. I read biographies of Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. I read Franklin’s autobiography – as much a study in time and life management as an account of a historical period. When I finished David McCullough’s 1776, I immediately went looking to see if he wrote “1777” because it read like a riveting novel, and I wanted more. I read personal letters from the wars. I read biographies, memoirs, essays.
When I started started traveling for work, I would prepare for a trip by reading Lonely Planet, and then whatever my local library had on the country’s history. I read about India, Indonesia, Turkey, and Egypt. It began making sense. What happened to people in one place didn’t happen in temporal or geographic isolation. If you want to understand the Palestinian conflict, start with a good read, like Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree. Then read something on the same topic from a completely different perspective.
As I started reading different books on the same topic, I started thinking about the observer effect in physics. Maybe history too, has an observer effect. After all, the historian is the product of his time, her education, his belief system, her heritage. What she sees and observes is not independent of who she is and when she writes. Then here is the depth of field. Is it a wide angel, seeing the 6 million Jews who died, lists of camps, dates of liberation? Is it focussed on the young life of Ann Frank, showing us the impact of history on the very real girl? Is it the recollections of Primo Levi, bearing witness to the events he lived through? While all these views might be historically accurate, the stories they tell are not the same.
Facts are facts, right? Maybe the reason that we teach kids dates and battles is because accepting ambiguity and gray areas is a more mature skill. It seems to me that there are lots and lots of gray areas in history. It seems to me that American history is not a static thing. The very nature of the melting pot, or salad bowl or whatever menu item you wish to call the composition of our country, dictates that history has to be inclusive. Our history is the history of the Roman empire, the British colonies, independence. But it is also the history of India, and China, and the Maya and the Inca, and the Spanish empire.
So what is a vital mommy to do when she teaches her children history? What’s vital of course. Help them to memorize the dates and battles, then get the atlas and show them where it happened. Take them on a field trip, even if its only to the local library. Read. Read. Read. George Santayana is credited with the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To that I say that those who do not understand the interpretation of their history, and bound to misunderstand it.
By the way, if you need some examples from Peru, I suggest that you start with The Last Days of the Incas, and then read William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru. For more fun, start with Turn Right at Machu Picchu, a fun adventure yarn with just enough history to make you curious for more.