History: The Stories Matter

This weekend is the annual conference for the National Council for the Social Studies. There, more than 3000 educators will gather to discuss everything history, civics, and geography. Because of the proximity to Christmas, I can’t help but think of this event in terms of wishes and hopes. What I hope is that the NCSS can begin to coalesce around the idea that history content matters. 

In recent years, I’ve heard too many colleagues say things like “The content isn’t important; what matters are the skills students develop…” as they cut and cut stories, individuals, and events out of the curriculum. Others, in the meantime, reduce our history to a context for student action on modern social or environmental challenges. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting we stop inspiring students to make changes. And, skills development is central to education. But, there has to be a serious discussion about how to balance these goals with an appreciation for the importance of our past and how we share it.

If someone somewhere is making choices about what stories matter, then stories that really resonate with us could inadvertently be lost. And if history teachers lose them, let’s face it: they are seriously LOST.

For instance, in medieval studies classes we generally look at the Mayas in terms of the end of their civilization due to, possibly, land or water mismanagement. It is a metaphor for what we are doing with the environment today. It is a look at yesterday as a stepping stone to action to save the planet tomorrow. Awesome. But, we’re relegating an entire civilization to the status of a metaphor. A lesson. That’s it. Learning about the Mayas has no other value? What about kids growing up in Guatemala today – shouldn’t the exploits of their ancestors have more meaning? Shouldn’t their own history serve as an inspiration, rather than a warning? Who made this call to reduce the entire history and achievements of the Mayan people to a side note? Who is choosing what matters is history and what doesn’t?

As historians, we don’t want to run into the same conundrum faced by our Language Arts colleagues who are dealing with the death of reading. A March 2019 article in The Guardian reported that “the number of eight to 18-year-olds reading for pleasure has now dropped to 52.5%, from 58.8% in 2016, with only a quarter (25.7%) reading daily, compared with 43% in 2015.” Sure, screen time is a major distraction for kids. But, maybe we could rekindle a love of books by remembering that books are more than vehicles for teaching onomatopoeia or foreshadowing. 

We all need to reconsider reductionism and bring our subjects back to life.

Lest these concerns get dismissed as me getting overly nostalgic, there is some science behind this. The current drive to focus on developing skills and reducing learning to the communication of measurable facts and outcomes runs counter to our neurological wiring.

Humans do not crave facts. We crave stories.

Hearing a story stimulates more areas of the brain than hearing a fact, writes environmental journalist Gaia Vince in her recent book Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time. This results in humans finding information delivered in narrative form more than 20 times more memorable. In fact, Vince reports, a deep synchronicity – known as neural coupling – develops between the storyteller and the listener during the telling of tales. 

History is full of stories. It is nothing BUT stories. History is the story of spectacular successes and stunning failures. History is the story of courage and creativity. It is the story of everyday life. It is the story of us. Our stories can teach and inspire us. But, if we reduce our past to a series of abstract facts and standards, we end up with a shorthand version of us that may be measurable but is certainly not meaningful. 

Ed X!


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