Don’t Know Much About History

For the fantasy world I want to build so I can set a bunch of loosely related stories there, I’ve been reading a lot of history. I’ve always been a big history buff. I read history for fun and most of my electives in college were history courses. And yet I’m still learning new things. There are aspects of history that I’m only just now starting to understand.

I know it’s a broad topic, but in general, I think the way history is taught in American (or possibly just Texan) schools is woefully inadequate. All my junior high and high school history teachers were coaches. That meant they taught history by telling us to read the chapter in the textbook and answer the questions at the end of the chapter while they sat at their desks and read the sports sections of all the newspapers the library got. Occasionally, they’d show a film. Even so, they never seemed to get all the way through the textbook. In eighth grade, American history, part one, ended just before the Civil War, even though the textbook covered the Civil War (though I guess we were lucky there because some schools in the south never cover much other than the Civil War). Then in 11th grade, it picked up after Reconstruction but barely got beyond WWII. World History was even worse. I got so frustrated in that class that I took over and started teaching it in a vain attempt to make it even slightly interesting.

If all you knew of history was what you learned in school in the schools I went to, you’d be utterly ignorant, which explains a lot about our nation today. Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, and all that.

I picked up more in college, but those were deep dives into particular topics, and I was focusing on modern European history because at the time my goal was to be a foreign correspondent.

I didn’t get a really good understanding of the American Revolution and the issues relating to it until I started researching the Rebels books. In my recent reading, I finally get what was going on with the Thirty Years War, in spite of growing up with ruins from it all around me. I’m starting to have the big picture of world history click into place, which makes some current events make more sense.

The problem with the way they tend to teach history (at least, in my experience) is that they focus on names and dates, when really it’s about stories. Some of this stuff, you couldn’t put it in a fantasy novel because it would be considered too outrageous to be believed.

I kind of love that it now counts as “work” to read lots of books about history. I seem to be working my way through the history section of my local library branch.

6 Responses to “Don’t Know Much About History”

  1. Anki

    My history teachers in junior high and high school weren’t coaches, but otherwise the experience sounds much the same (New Englander, here). We got a *lot* of stuff on the American Revolution, but it was still mostly of the names and dates variety. And I had the same “eighth grade US History goes up to the Civil War, eleventh grade US History picks up after it” experience. As a result, I am still woefully uneducated on that period of history.

    I want to learn more and fill in the gaps, but the available sources are, quite frankly, more than a little overwhelming. I’m not even sure where to start.

    • Shanna Swendson

      I’ve mostly filled in gaps by reading stuff that relates to my work, and then I get interested in a topic and follow it down the rabbit hole, reading more and more about it. It’s still not a comprehensive history education, but I pick up bits and pieces of the things I find interesting.

      • Beani

        I totally agree! I went to 4 different high schools in 4 different states: Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, & Minnesota. The first 3 years, in IL, Oh, & Md, history class was so boring & unmemorable, like you said just names & dates. But my senior year of high school, in Minnesota, I was lucky to be at a school where you could take some of your classes at the local college. I decided to try history class there, & after my dad, who was a philosophy professor there, asked around about the different styles of the history teachers, I chose one.
        Suddenly history came alive for me! The professor would write an outline on the board of the topics he would cover that class, then just proceed to tell a story. It was fascinating, immersive, & memorable! 🙂
        That should really be how all history is taught, as compelling stories 🙂

  2. Debra

    Most of the fun I have had with history lately has been with musicals. Les Mis, 1776, and now Hamilton.
    I have been wondering Shanna what you think of Hamilton?

    • Shanna Swendson

      I haven’t seen Hamilton. I’m curious, but I’m also not much of a fan of the rap style, so I don’t know how much I’d like it. I watched the PBS special about it and was surprised by how much I liked what I saw, but I figured I wouldn’t fight the big fans for tickets when it was in town. They’re apparently doing a movie of the stage version, so I’ll probably see that.

      Les Mis is pretty much my all-time favorite musical.

      • Debra

        Les Mis is hands down my favorite musical and I have seen Hamilton. I was dragged (kicking and screaming) I might add to listen to the soundtrack I don’t like hip hop or rap but it isn’t all that, it is more of a homage to American music, there is eighties style R&B, Andrews sisters style harmony, and some very clever writing and you can understand what they are saying! I will see the movie in October (and Leslie Odom can sing to me or read the phone book or sing the Nationwide commercial anytime).

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