That Terrifying Word: “History”

That I wrote in yesterday’s post how after I’d completed it I was returning to [writing] “Robert,” “Henry,” “Carolina,” “Marie-Thérèse,” and others in the late 1700s, pushed my mind to thinking on that word so many university students fear: history.

The Obelisk, Trent Park, London. [Photo by me, 2016.]
The Obelisk, Trent Park, London. [Photo by me, 2016.]
I thought it was worth “attacking” this morning. As a lecturer, I saw “the look” in so many students’ eyes. The mere word “history” is enough to terrify even the best of non-history majors:

Excerpt from "Passports," on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.
Excerpt from “Passports,” on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.

“Is this going to be on the test?” Oh, the number of times I remember hearing that!

That snippet above is indicative. History may sound like a breeze to teach, but it is actually very difficult to teach well. Moreover, the way it has to be taught in introductory courses invariably lends itself unfortunately to problems for non-majors.

[Photo by me, 2016.]
[Photo by me, 2016.]
Don’t think the lecturers themselves don’t know history is so much more than men writing out documents with quills, or wearing armor and charging another group of men in armor and slaughtering each other until one side “wins.” The big problem in “intro” courses is the instructor has to start somewhere. For classes aimed at non-majors that is usually with “big events” and “important dates,” because those do need to be touched upon before one can even begin to get one’s head around more of the personal.

If one doesn’t know, say, that the Bastille was stormed in 1789, it’s hard to discuss what went on afterward in the French Revolution, who was impacted, and what it might have meant.

Historical fiction can play its part for student and non-student like. It helps any reader absorb quite a bit of history without realizing they are doing so. Weaving history subtly into a tale is the key.

Case in point. Some time ago I had written on here about The Winds of War novel. It revolves around fictional characters living in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

That huge novel is not so much about presidents, dictators and faceless Nazis crowds; it drills down into the distinctly human. Thanks to its fictionalized characters, one gets a very real sense of them as well as about contemporary life in the U.S. and Europe.

Such is, I think, an excellent way for anyone to face down “history phobia.” When we are involved in a story with fictional people with whom we identify, and when it’s based around reasonably contextualized history, we are subsciously learning some history, too. See, nothing to be afraid of, really. 🙂

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