Let's Tell it Right

Posted: June 1, 2019

Ask a group of high school seniors to imagine the spectacle of the Battle of Blackwater. They will be able to recall, with deft precision and excitement, the amphibious attack on King’s Landing, the screaming of burning soldiers, the sinking of an entire fleet of ships, and the stunning, climactic finish. Now, tell them to visualize the Battle of Normandy. Most, if not all, will need help. How is it that the largest seaborne invasion in history, with more twists and turns than a blockbuster action thriller, is so quickly forgotten? How does a fictional battle on HBO command greater retention and thrill than an actual one that changed the course of world history? And how is it that Broadway was the only medium through which so many of us learned of the fascinating life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton?

This is because history is taught in schools like math and science. The “one size fits all” approach to education is archaic and redundant. Historians are not sending rockets into outer space or conducting robotic surgeries, so why should history be taught with the same techniques and framework as a lesson on finding derivatives or the molarity of solutions? Just as music nurtures the soul, history enriches the mind. The purpose of studying history, in large part, is to train the mind to reflect and contemplate, to learn to think intellectually with a perspective that has benefitted from a view in the rear mirror.

To achieve this purpose, the study of history needs to be liberated from the confines of dry, insipid textbooks, the needless drills of memorizing dates and events, and the shackles of testing that is wholly unproductive. When students cram up chapters of dense material days before the exam, regurgitate all of the information on test day, and then promptly purge it from their system with a sigh of relief, nobody wins. In 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported the proficiency of high school students in US History at a dismal 18%.

Instead, history should be handled like an informal elective, where the teacher guides a robust, discussion-based lesson, with liberal use of audiovisual resources. Let students experience the thrill of the Battle of Antietam, find inspiration in the iconic address of Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington, and witness the drama of the Siege of Stalingrad. What we need is a hands-on approach to learning history that is driven more by our interest and inquiry than by the dictates of standardized testing and finishing a rigid curriculum. 

After all, history is storytelling at its best. Let’s tell it right.