“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
— Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works
I have a Masters degree in History. People have a lot of different responses when they find this out. Some people ask more question – such as what area of history I studied. A large number of people respond with some variation of “I didn’t like history because there are too many dates.” (Now I ask you is that any reason to dislike history? You wouldn’t dislike a relationship because it had too many dates would you?)
This sentence, and all of it’s variations, hurt my history loving heart. I know that many students have been subjected to the “memorize all of these dates” method of teaching history. No part of me agrees with this method. Yes, you are going to come across dates throughout your study of history. Certain dates are important. Eventually you’re going to need to know things such as, The First World War (1914-1918) occurred after Canada began to join up and officially became the Dominion of Canada (1867), but before Canada became a mostly independent nation with the Statute of Westminster (1931). But you do not need to know these things right away. And forcing students to remember these dates above all else stifles the sense of historical curiosity.
This focus on dates and memorization and teaching only the “important” parts of history, contribute to the response I often get to the revelation that I study Canadian History. You would not believe the number of times I have heard a variation of “Canadian History. Why in the world would you want to study that. Canadian history is the most boring history out there.” <Excuse me while I go whimper in the corner>
If you knew the stories I know, you wouldn’t think Canadian history was boring. (Well, I guess you might, but at least it would have a fighting chance). The problem is that so much of the history taught in school focuses on “the boring bits” (though I have found that sometimes a boring event is actually really interesting once you start to discover the stories around it). The curriculum is often designed to force feed students key events, which are then regurgitated and forgotten. It would be so much more effective if history was taught through stories. Sure, this method of teaching history might not produce a nation of people who know all of the important dates in their history. But guess what? Neither does the current method.
Okay, so Canadians aren’t great with dates, but where is my evidence that stories would work better? I have to admit, I don’t have anything concrete, but let me ask you a question. Do you remember those “Heritage Moments” that were on television for awhile? They were kind of cheesy. But I bet there are a few bits and pieces of history that you remember from watching them (Kanata means village, anyone? “Doctor, I smell burnt toast”?). And you remember them because they were told as stories (though granted not always the best storytelling).
It is my experience that learning the stories leads to curiosity about the details. And as you read more and more about that story, and the stories that connect to it, a funny thing starts to happen. You start to remember the dates, or if not the exact dates, then a rough chronology. And then maybe you look up other events that happen around the same time and you start to place the initial story into the bigger story. Keep doing that and before you know it, you’ve learned a pretty significant amount of history. After all, history is really only one big story made up of millions and millions of smaller stories.