Sunday, March 08, 2009

history through literature

Just read this thought-provoking post by Mama Ava, talking about how some people would rather not discuss distasteful history anymore in the classroom. You know, that darn history will insist on being SO un-pc!

Mama Ava says, "I have learned more, felt more, and grown more from these men [Boo Radley, Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson, Huck Finn, etc.] than I have from any history textbook."

Amen. When we first started homeschooling Georgie, we used a curriculum that thoroughly integrated literature and history. Georgie was always reading books that were set in the time and place she was studying in history. It was wonderful! I learned a lot, and I realized that like Mama Ava, the really important things in history, the things that I've puzzled over, cried about, and remembered, I've learned through literature. Quoting Mama Ava again, "We are all of us shaped by our past, even if it's a past that we don't feel like we can 'relate' to anymore. That's where literature comes in. I can read about any event in history and learn all about it. The only way I can even begin to emphathize or get any glimpse into what it was really like is through the arts, and that's literature for me. It's those words, those images, that we are so fortuneate to have received, that show us what those historical events mean, what they did to people."

Last year Lidia read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for her homeschool studies, which also integrated literature and history. It was a very disturbing read for her and at times I thought it might be a little beyond her maturity level. However, she later said it was the best book she read for school that year.

Lidia pointed out to me a few days ago that every single book on CD we've listened to this year on our school commute has been historical fiction. We've been in 8th century England and Scandanavia, WWII England, Commonwealth London, Victorian London, and now Victorian New York. (We HAD to get out of England!)

I wonder why history is not taught through literature to a greater extent in our schools. Any thoughts?


Meg said...

I think your 2nd sentence answers your question well. Unlike newspapers, magazines, ezines... what have you - literature is not PC.

I commented during Cocoa's Wordful Wednesday that it's interesting to me to read people's "Why I love to read" posts. The titles that continue to make the "Books that Affected me the most" lists...the ones that move people and keep them loving to read and learn are almost identical. The same titles get mentioned over and over.

I think that's because the human (mortal- whatever) experience is not poitically correct. And the stories that touch us most deeply and teach us the most about ourselves and those sharing this life experience, are not PC.

Schools are, generally, designed to be neutral. Gray. Non-PC books rock the boat. It doesn't fit the "feel good" curriculum so prevalently taught.

I could be totally out in the's just the first explanation that came to mind.

Chocolate on my Cranium said...

It seems that the public school system wants to stay away from anything that can offend anyone (except for teaching about gays) so the children ultimately suffer.

I think Meg has a point with the books that avid readers have read. There are those same ones that come up as being pivotal in a person's life that created a hunger for more books. I have many friends whose love of reading was snuffed out because of the "required reading" in school. The books were so bland or way out there that it was no fun anymore.

celtishbee said...

Authors, like artists and composers, go in and out of fashion as do philosophies and artistic and musical styles.
What was pc ten years ago is not so now but may be in another twenty.

Perhaps educators are hedging their bets by staying away from the messiness of passions and beliefs found in literature and trying to teach only the "facts" of history which is impossible.

Mama Ava said...

No kidding. With PC out of hand, you lose Skippyjon Jones. And THAT would be a tragedy.

I for one am doing my part. My afterschool club will be reading Skippyjon and making Holy Frijole Nachos.

It's not To Kill a Mockingbird. But it's a start.

Mama Ava said...

On a more serious note, the issue that is bugging me more is not the "PC" aspect as much as the relevance aspect. Isn't one of the hallmarks of great literature the fact that is IS relevant decades or centuries later? Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Austen, Steinbeck...don't they all have something to say about the human condition? Don't we all learn a bit more about our world, our fellow humans, and ourselves when we finally turn that last page?

It is difficult to read many of these great books for a variety of reasons. They are archaic in their language, they are violent, they are painful, they are disturbing. Reading them at the right time and with the right support--whether that's a book club, a teacher, or whatever--is important to opening the doors of understanding. For students, I believe it is the teacher's job to make those text relevant to a student's life.

Anonymous said...

You can teach history without literature but I don't see how you can teach literature without history. If you look at Robinson Crusoe without the historical background then its boring and useless.
Its completely impossible for a school to be neutral even though they try. After all, just having girls and boys in the same classroom with the same curriculum is radical in some countries and even some cultures in the U.S.. So neutrality is impossible.
I think that teaching the dark scary dreary parts of history puts better into perspective the efforts of those who tried to change things and it puts into perspective how easy many children have it today. In the U.S. elementary school is taken for granted. Let the kids know they are blessed with education and to do that you have to show them the corruption of the world. Wake up and deal with it. What on earth is everyone afraid of? There is nothing more ridiculous then dummying down or trivializing life.
Good Grief!!

athena said...

I wonder why history is not taught through literature to a greater extent in our schools. Any thoughts?

too busy teaching to the test and incorporating other supposedly neat ideas i gather. i questioned this when the elementary school that our son attends placed more emphasis on introducing up and coming texan authors to the kids through the bluebonnet reading program. i dissed it and made up my own must read list based on american history for him to read seeing that that was what he was studying for social studies this year. and the funny thing is, most of the books on the bluebonnet list are pathetic (i read a couple of the titles).

Meg said...

Good point Athena.

We saw this a few years ago in Chicago when they sent dd home with a study packet for ISATs one year. She was in 4th grade.

Roxie said...

History itself is not PC, not just the literature from it and about it. I recently read a book about the Revolution and my stomach was doing all kinds of flips as I read about things that happened then. The history and lessons we can learn through books are things that you really can't learn in any other way.

Mama Ava said...

Of course, many many many teachers are dismayed at the cuts in school subjects. No one I know enjoys the shift in having to prepare for mandatory tests. No teacher I know supports No Child Left Behind. While we all understand that there is a definite problem,the idea of mandatory tests is not the way to fix it. There is intense pressure on teachers to get kid up to that arbitrary level and sadly that comes at the expense of so many other things.

Anonymous said...

Testing has gotten out of control is some European countries especially England. Wales and Scotland have stopped them and children are doing better. Scandinavian countries stopped years ago and their children do better then anyone. Next year they will stop testing here in the Netherlands (although its to late for my kids).
Testing is just a political idea that has proven not to work. Schools can train kids for tests and they found that children in schools that do that can read well and do maths but know nothing about history, science and social studies.
I don't know the answer to helping all children but testing just does not work. The answer is probably a number of things and not one simple answer and people don't want to hear that.

Mama Ava said...

Thank you, Auntie Lee!

athena said...

The answer is probably a number of things and not one simple answer and people don't want to hear that.

i wouldn't mind hearing them.

i think in general teachers do a good job with what they have to work with. the schools too. testing is a problem because it uses tax payers' money. testing is a means of accounting for where tax payers' money has gone and the more a school receives the more testing is required from them to account to the public for where their money went. that's why some schools districts are more test happy than others.

Anonymous said...

In my kids schools teachers and parents alike would like more structure and discipline in school as a whole. No one can say 'no' anymore. What's with that?

Calandria said...

No one can say 'no' anymore. What's with that?

I often wonder the same. Isn't it time for the pendulum to swing away from permissiveness?

Vanessa Rogers said...

I think it is because they have a hard enough time getting kids to read books in English class, so getting them to read books in History class might feel like a difficult feat. But I agree, I need to see through a characters eyes to get a feel for the time period.