One of my chief complaints about the history textbooks available in Texas is that they are, ultimately, dull. They don’t sing. The narrative quality suffers. To meet Texas standards publishers make sure to pack the chapters with facts and factoids. But students have a difficult time figuring out what the story is, why the story is important, and why they should care. One way I know things are working in my class is when kids tell me “that’s not in the book, and that’s cool” (even though, yes, it is in the book). If the kids think it’s a good story, they let me know — and it sticks with them.
History is where we tell our cultural myths, and I use the word “myth” in the sense that a rhetorician or rhetorical critic would: Those stories around which we build our lives.
I hope to be able to present the Texas State Board of Education with serious criticism of the textbooks in the next round of approvals, to urge them to let the publishers loose to really tell the stories that make up the story of America — knowing about the de Llome letter might be part of an interesting narrative of the Spanish-American War, but the narrative should be the focus, not the letter itself (if you don’t know what that letter is, you’re in good company; it’s an interesting factoid, but not really critical to understanding the war, or the times).
I look around the web to see what other teachers see and think, too. At a blog called In the Trenches of Public Ed., a veteran and probably very good teacher addresses the same issue. Go see.
History is not a collection of dates memorized. History’s value is in the stories, told parable-like, that warn us from future error, or call us to keep on a steady path. George Washington’s story is impressive, for example; it’s more impressive when we recognize and understand that he fashioned his life around that of his hero, Cincinnatus, the Roman general who, given the powers of dictator in 458 B.C., vanquished the threatening armies of the barbarians, and then resigned the dictatorship to return to his plow. That story is not in the textbooks. More the pity.