In history books, the world is ordered and analyzed according to Important Events: the reigns of inbred hereditary dictators; tiffs over dead archdukes that result in seventeen million other deaths; and intercontinental invasions euphemized as discoveries. In our house, however, events tend to be wrangled into a haphazard semblance of context according to whether they happened, say, before Twelfth Night, or soon after A Christmas Carol, or at about the time of James Herriot.
In the past couple of years, the twins have developed an ardent affection for a whole host of dusty old volumes full of references to shillings, coal scuttles, and doublets. They have not developed an equal fondness for fourth-grade Social Studies lessons.
“I hate history,” says Lizzy flatly. “Learning history is like, ‘Blah, blah, blah, and then in 1982, something happened, blah, blah, blah.’ But I like historical fiction.”
“Nineteen eighty-two,” I point out, “is when I was your age.”
“Oh.” She contemplates my ancientness for a moment. She shrugs.
I’ll admit it: the twins’ knowledge of history is as much of a disorganized disaster as the drawer in which we keep the eggbeater, the potato masher, and eleven chopsticks. In my responsible-and-educated-grownup role, I worry about this – and feel guilty. Because, via some sort of genetically-linked penchant for obliviousness, I’m almost certainly to blame.
Raised in a household entirely comprised of ardent history buffs, I was a defensive contrarian. Names, dates, dead presidents, blah, blah, blah. I get it, Lizzy. I shouldn’t admit it, but I totally get it. Yet, like Lizzy and Molly, despite my hatred of schoolbook history, I fell in love with novels that were not intended to be historical fiction, but which had become so, over time.
Indeed, the twins’ penchant for reading archaic literature surpasses even that of my own childhood. For one thing, the passage of more than thirty years between my elementary years and theirs has rendered antique all my “contemporary” recommendations. Wait… Henry and Ribsy is not historical fiction! Furthermore, many of the best recent stories aimed at the 8-12 set abound with voracious human-sized rats and parent-murdering wizards. Such fare is anathema to my kids – especially at bedtime. Tamer offerings are often written at a reading level that the twins dismiss as babyish. What they want are 400-page densely written, well-crafted, vocabulary-rich stories in which the level of terror doesn’t go much beyond getting lost in the fog, spraining an ankle, and being rescued by charcoal-burners.
Well, yeah. They’re these old guys who hang out in the woods making charcoal. Obviously. Also, logs are chopped with axes, wood-carts are pulled by horses, milking is done by hand, torn clothes are darned, and children signal each other between farmhouses with lanterns, using Morse Code, because they have neither electric lights nor telephones. But, whatever – none of that is the point of the story, which is about this awesome adventure with sailboats and pretending to be pirates and camping and…
Children’s tales from bygone eras were (mostly) not written to be “historical”. Thus, all the details of the past are skimmed over as understood, as normal, as background. The setting rarely coincides with an Important Event. Even if it does, that Important Event often seems utterly incidental. In Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy novels, the young protagonists collect scrap metal for the war effort, raise money for a War Bond by holding a concert, and try canning the produce from their large Victory Garden -- but the focus is wholly on the joy and drama of the collecting, the performing, and the cooking. The war itself is never pontificated upon, or even named.
Intentionally-historical fiction tends to focus much more heavily on the designated Important Things – but a truly history-resistant child can overcome this problem. When I was eight, I read a novel entitled Rebecca’s War, checked out of the library by my big sister. In order to win that week’s Summer Reading Program prizes, Sarah and I gave, consecutively, brief oral reports. My mother later told me that the kindly librarian who had to sit through these synopses was deeply amused by the radical discrepancies in our focus. While Sarah offered up details of the setting and background – it was 1776, and the British were occupying Philadelphia during the American Revolution – I merely noted that there were soldiers and stuff. Then I got to the good part, which mostly involved a young girl smuggling gold and alcohol.
My children likewise fail to even feign historical sagacity. They seem happy to focus on story, character, and action, while brushing aside such details as whether anyone happens to be wearing petticoats and button-boots. They flit from the “long ago” in which two Prince Edward Islanders are disappointed by the gender of the orphan they are sent, to the “long ago” in which Mario makes friends with a cricket in a New York subway station, to the “long ago” in which a wretched child from Colonial India discovers a garden door under trailing ivy – all without even noting the turbulence. The Bastable children were invented by E. Nesbit not in the last century, but in the one before that. Nonetheless, the twins are eager to decide which of these immensely relatable siblings they like best.
“Oswald”, says Molly with a grin, “I love how he thinks you won’t guess it’s him telling the story, and it’s SO obvious!” Lizzy leans in favor of Alice, who is tough and reckless and fiercely protective of her laughably poetic twin brother.
The coal-tenders, farthings, pinafores, and ink-wells all make perfect sense in context, and pose no challenge to the ten-year-olds of 2016. Even Shakespeare’s bodkins, bavins, and bawcocks don’t throw them off much; kids the twins’ age are learning, on average, about twelve new words every day.
Yeah, that’s right. Twelve new words. On average. Every day.
That the brains of children are so sponge-like makes me even more concerned that they are missing out on a prime opportunity to learn history. Isn’t this their big chance to cram all those names and dates and battles into their tender young skulls?
Or is it? “I hate history,” says Lizzy. But she likes stories from long ago. She like those a lot. And, although these stories hardly ever feature dates of Important Events, and skim right over the names of dictators and generals, our read-aloud sessions with books from bygone eras do often sidetrack into discussions of substantive societal changes. Is the invention of plastic – and our entire dependence on oil – really so recent? Why would someone disapprove of a girl wearing shorts, or going to college? Why are Native Americans referred to in ways that are insulting or just weirdly wrong? What the heck was going on in Colonial India, anyhow? Wasn’t school free, back then? Because Molly and Lizzy care about the fictional Oswald and Alice and all the rest of them, they also care about the characters’ struggles, their choices, the obstacles thrown before them, and the limitations of the worlds in which they live.
I now realize that one of the reasons that school-book history felt so abhorrent to me was that it didn’t feel human. Even the heroes were not vivid and real. I was told about Harriet Tubman’s most important exploits, and I thought her brave and admirable, but I was never asked to imagine her sharing a joke with a friend or whispering softly to a child. Of course, we don’t know what words Tubman might have whispered to what child. If we make them up, we are falsifying history. But are there ways in which fiction can actually feel truer to life than a history book does?
The connection between truth and history feels slippery to me. I’m pretty sure no one learns anything worth remembering if they’re told an over-simplified and prettied-up pile of falsehood. I like to think that even as a little kid, I could tell how much was being glossed over, and how much of the “history” I was taught was a pack of outright lies. Columbus. Yeah. Him.
On the flip side, no one can know the Full Truth of History. For starters, the world is a large place. If most Americans don’t even know what continent to find Togo on, it’s doubtful that they know everything that has ever happened there. Second, recorded history covers a fair bit of time. Do you know all your Chinese dynasties yet? Good luck. And, even if we could wrap up all that in a tidy bundle, it would still be the tip of the iceberg. What we call “archaeology” rather than “history” encompasses more than ninety-five percent of the 200,000 years that modern humans have been busy doing modern-human things with our big, awkward, complicated, modern-human brains. Finally, even picking from among the scraps of that which is recent and recorded, the veracity of the recorders ranges from “iffy” to “manipulative liar” to “were these monks on ‘shrooms, or what?”
In a young-adult attempt to recover from the history-phobia of my childhood, I read Howard Zinn’s classic, A People’s History of the United States. It was radically different from almost everything I’d been taught. It was a heck of a lot more interesting. It also felt truer – but still not, perhaps, entirely true. The author, after all, still has a slant, a bias, a perspective that he wants to present – and he is only addressing a very limited space of time, on one part of the globe. He wants to tell a story – or a series of stories. But, I am gradually coming to realize, labels be damned – stories are precisely what history IS.
Sure, there are those Important Events that we’re told constitute History, but even when carefully ordered and dated in a textbook, they no more tell the “whole” and “complete” and “true” story of the past than Dickens does. Or Montgomery. Or Cleary.
So, what is it, exactly, that I want my kids to internalize, by learning history? Blah, blah, blah, and then in 1982, something happened…
All educated people have a working knowledge of history is no more a meaningful answer than is, I want my offspring not to seem dumb amongst intellectuals at cocktail parties in the 2040’s. Even the easily-accepted adage that learning about history helps us avoid the mistakes of the past is up for debate – notably, in a new book by David Rieff that I have to admit to not having read yet.
So, no, I don’t need my kids to memorize a pile of heavily edited semi-facts just for the sake of memorizing them. But I do want them to know that humanity covers a broad swath of time and space, in richly complex diversity. I want them to know that shit goes wrong a fair bit. People fight for incredibly dumb reasons. People are compelled to fight for reasons they don’t understand. Governments rise and fall and struggle and try to reinvent themselves and try to right injustices and sometimes do so, but much too slowly.
I want my kids to know that in the context of what the textbooks call “history”, the relatively egalitarian bubble in which they live is new-blown and fragile. For most of the last few thousand years, being a girl has been a bum deal, and being white has often been way too good a deal. Conversely, I want them to know that things were probably a lot less unequal during the 95% of our hunter-gatherer human past that we don’t call history. In this way, perhaps more than any other, history feels like a lie.
But through all this, I also want my children to know that people are people. Kids are kids. They might wear pinafores or leaves or rope sandals or body paint. They might happen to exist at a time when Important Events are occurring. Regardless, the core of their lives is most likely in the small adventures, the friendships, the daily discoveries, the humor, and the family travails. Children – let’s say, kids just about exactly the twins’ age – have stories to tell. They have stories about the cake to which they accidentally added liniment instead of vanilla; about Albert-next-door’s uncle who doesn’t get mad when they almost bury Albert while digging for treasure; and about the heart-lifting realization that the gray rosebushes of winter will burst forth in growth and flower, come spring. They have stories not about history, per se, but about being human.
This is true whether they lived before Twelfth Night, or soon after A Christmas Carol, or at about the time of James Herriot.
Or in 1982.