Hippening Up History

History is a big topic for me: I’ve taught it, lived it, written about it, and pondered its future. I’ve also jetted around the country presenting workshops for teachers, “Connecting History: Their Lives, Our Lives.”

No one is objective; it’s a farce to insist that historians are. Here’s my favorite passage about teaching history, direct from my mentor/friend, the late historian Howard Zinn‘s “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times.”

“I never believed that I was imposing my views on blank slates, on innocent minds. My students had had a long period of political indoctrination before they arrived in my class — in the family, in school, in the mass media. Into a marketplace so long dominated by orthodoxy I wanted only to wheel my little pushcart, offering my wares along with the others, leaving students to make their own choices.”

What is the truth that history is supposed to impart? Only the facts, ma’am…as I heard on the cop show Dragnet growing up?

Our own histories/or herstories meld with fleeting memories, emotional importance, and whim. Realistically, so does the chronicling of society.

I’m not denying that there are historical facts — John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960. The Arizona legislature did pass SB 1070. My father owned Cherry Hill Gardens in Waterbury, Conn.

But the facts come alive with stories of real people. I remember an argument I had years ago, giving a workshop on using literature to teach the Holocaust. It was at Murfreesboro State in Tennessee. My co-presenter became a well-known Holocaust educator.

He insisted that teachers shouldn’t use books like “Number The Stars” by Lois Lowry to teach about the Holocaust because they were only stories.

Tell me, ever heard a kid say, “I love that U.S. history textbook.”

Fiction and nonfiction can live together happily to provide a better understanding of historical events.

Take the 2011 Tucson Festival of Books; I’m chair of the history/memoir/biography committee. T.J. Stiles, author of “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, will be a presenter. So will Mark Rudd, who wrote — and lived — “Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen.” But don’t stop there, pick up Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” or another novel that takes you back to the ’60s.

Franzen’s latest novel is massive, and spans decades of my adult life.  I’ve been thinking about what freedom means in tumultuous America.

“Ill Fares The Land” by Tony Judt is my next read. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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2 Responses to Hippening Up History

  1. Julie Ray says:

    Great points! I don’t remember any of my textbooks but I have tons of books I hold dear that were equally good teachers. Little House on the Prairie for example; that’s how I learned how butter and cheese were made!

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