Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is History Boring? If So (And Many People Think It Is), Why?

My participation in LinkedIn Groups continues to provide fodder for some very interesting blog topics. Another discussion that I joined recently is the "History Enthusiasts Group." One of their threads starts: "History 'is boring', says bestselling historical novelist."
Boring Lecture - Note the newspaper reader in the back.
Duke University Archives

Of course, the fact that "History Enthusiasts" are exploring such a topic is somewhat ironic. We're all essentially "preaching to the choir." But many people do consider history boring. Often, this is because they were required to take one or more history courses, and the instructor never managed to catch their interest. (And, unfortunately, some history teachers manage to actively turn off interest.)

To me, the basic ingredient that makes history, or any topic, not boring is the enthusiasm of the presenter. In fact, in my experience, that ingredient "trumps" about anything (except inadequate preparation).

As those of you who follow this blog know, my degrees are in chemistry, which I also love. (I wasn't so sure I could make a living with history as a major.) I had a full-time research job, but was also fortunate enough to teach college chemistry part time, from freshman through graduate level. I was certainly not the smartest professor my students ever had, or the slickest presenter, but I was not afraid to show my enthusiasm for the subject. I have quite a few kind notes from former students thanking me for what they learned. (I was even credited with a few promotions for my working adult students, which is surely "a stretch." Knowledge must be applied.)

Still, one Group participant commented that the teacher or presenter should also show some degree of "relevance" for the historical information. I agree. Enthusiasm "buys you time," but you must use that time to connect with your students, or your audience if it's some sort of public lecture. Fortunately, except for the most calcified intellects (which can happen at a sadly early age), people do generally like to learn new things. So you don't necessarily have to teach them something that will advance their career, improve their sex life, or whatever. (Although those would certainly help.)

They just need to be able to relate to the information. I once gave a talk on the history of technology to a group of scientist and engineers. I called it "Inflation, Gunpowder, and Freeze-Dried Potatoes." [Aside: Since I live in the state of Idaho, any reference to potatoes earns "bonus points."] Everyone in the room knew about dried potatoes ... but no one knew that the Incas of South America were freeze drying them as far back as 1,500 years ago. Instant connection, and an attentive audience.

I never taught pre-college classes, but I did give "guest lectures" and demonstrations to most of those grade levels. The break in routine and my introduction as a "real" scientist gave me an natural advantage ... to start with. But I had watched other guests lose a room, by (1) not connecting with the kids, whatever their age level, and (2) droning on like they'd rather be anywhere but talking to a bunch of children.

I always asked the teacher(s) what they were covering in class, and then tried to tailor my presentation to that. (Not always easy when other teachers heard I was in the building and asked me to add their class to my agenda.) Not claiming any special insight; it just seemed to make sense.

A pet peeve of mine is teaching science/technology as a disembodied collection of facts and "laws." (I understand the constraints on class time, but that does not change the frustration.) Anyway, I always tried to work in at least one or two quick scientific biographies, i.e. history. (Madame Curie was always a star, but surprisingly -- and sadly -- few had heard of Aldo Leopold, a star in the American environmental movement.)

The extra effort was worth it: No one is more eager to learn than youngsters who are treated with respect and a degree of affection. To see their faces light up when they "get it" is definitely a thrill for the presenter. (BTW: Not going to say I never lost a class, or an audience, but enthusiasm and relevance almost always "saved the day.")

This topic also cross-connects with the other Group I am in: "Historical Fiction." Well-written and properly researched historical fiction can be a very useful tool in "making history come alive" to students. However, the author must do his/her "homework" (research). Obviously, the writer must adhere to the known facts about historical events and people. Equally importantly (but much more difficult unless there is a personal memoir), the political and social forces driving the characters should be true to the period.
Basis for Hit Movie Gettysburg

"Technical" anachronisms -- artifacts used in a story before they were known to be invented -- are generally easy to spot. Earlier, I posted a blog about language anachronisms, which can be much harder to detect. I won't repeat that material here.

But what I'll call -- for want of a more precise term -- "societal" anachronisms are actually more pernicious.

An easy example: "Pensions," in the sense of financial support for older people from a governing body or a large corporation, are a relatively recent innovation ... although we now consider them almost a right. To say even a highly skilled craftsman in Medieval times was living on a retirement pension would probably be considered an anachronism. Without a good explanation of why this commoner had received such special treatment, the author is presenting a totally inaccurate picture of what life was like at that time. (I have other, more upsetting examples, but this should make my point.)

Of course, minor anachronisms can actually provide worthwhile "teaching moments," if they're properly used. For example, the presence of a Medieval pensioner in a novel could easily provide a springboard for a class discussion of how those who could no longer work were really treated.

Bottom line: History can indeed be boring ... but it need not be if the historian, or history teacher, makes the effort. (And carefully chosen readings of historical fiction can help.)


  1. Evan--I used to buy Chuños, those Peruvian dried potatoes at a Peruvian market in Miami, while I was there attending grad school.I like your take on historical fiction. Currently, I am attempting to write a historical novel of my own. It's going slowly, because I am still researching and visiting particular sites and language used at the time. I decided historical fiction would be the best route, because there simply is not enough archival material to do otherwise.

    Language as you pointed out, is critical. In the archive, I came across many Spanish words that are not in use today. Most of my Mexican friends have never even heard of some of the words. Also, the context of some words change over time, so it is a little tricky when dealing with language, because you want to be accurate but not so much as to go over the heads of your audience.

    As a side note; take heart in knowing that Aldo Leopold is a star among environmental historians. Welcome to the History Enthusiasts Group, too.

  2. Thank you for your comments. You're ahead of me on the dried potatoes -- I read about them but have never actually seen any.
    You exactly right about using enough "period" language, but not so much that you lose your readers. As to out-dated words and concepts, even Shakespeare's writings, which are familiar to most native English speakers/readers, contains words and phrases whose meanings are obscure to most modern readers. In fact, Isaac Asimov wrote a whole, huge book -- "Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare" -- about them. It makes for fascinating reading.
    Thanks also for the welcome -- the History Enthusiasts Group has been great and I look forward many more good discussions.