“Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do learn from history are tearing their hair out in frustration because if anyone’s bothered looking it up, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

I’ve always found that to be true. We’ve seen time and time again the benefit of learning it whether it is individually or globally. However, it is common to hear kids, even adults, say “history is boring!” which makes it a nuisance to learn for a lot of people. It’s like eating your vegetables when you were five: you’ll eat it if you must, but only because your mum tells you that unless you finish your vegetables you can’t have cake.

I wondered about that, and raised these three questions to a few experts who have also spent some time thinking about this in relations to their own lives and works.

Q. What makes you interested in reading historical works (fiction/nonfiction)?

A. David Leonhardt (President, THGM Writers)

History is inherently fascinating.  It is a series of stories of great events and epic battles and accidental discoveries and surviving (or not) great calamities.  Tell the stories.  Show them in film.  I am right now writing a non-fiction novel for a client about a case of corporate espionage and racial profiling.  If I just write a chronology, it would be boring.  But I am writing it like fiction – as a storyteller would – and it will be a fascinating read.  And that is just one of several million stories that are part of history.

A. Ann Smarty (Founder of MyBlogU)

Traveling…. I want to know about the places I visit. Legends. Love stories… The more I travel, the more fascinating it gets. Once I visit a place, I read about it and I want to go back to reinforce my first impression now that I know the beautiful history behind it.

A. amhpodcast (Host – American Military History Podcast)

Ultimately what makes me interested in history is understanding that there’s a personal connection. In the US, everyone remembers what they were doing on September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked. That same group story echoes throughout history. For example, if we lived in 1940s America, everyone would remember what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

When you start diving into history, you realize that it’s ultimately a story of people, and how they lived and reacted to all the situations around them. That connection is what interests me.

A. Julie Syl Kalungi (Mrs)

I like reading non fiction historical works because I get insights on what brings greatness to the world and esp. my world. If the historical works are still impacting the lives of many and going strong.

Its almost impossible to read a real work of historical non fiction that doesn’t talk about humanity and its evolution to where we are today whether in a good or not so god way. Now Historical non-fiction doesn’t really pull on my heartstrings. I like to see lives impacted…and the lessons or successes they expose. And that’s my wee contribution to this discussion!

A. socialwebcafe (Doctoral Candidate, Psychology)

Granted, my background (at least one of them!) is psychology, but I really think that the interest in history has to do with the person.  The other aspect is the environment (i.e. during the “growing up” years).  Ok, don’t get me going or I could get into a “nature versus nurture” discussion.

That said, if someone is not born with a natural curiosity about history, there may be ways to help them to become interested.  For example, through story-telling.

But, keep in mind, we are all different!  I have a history book on the history of psychology.  At first, I rented it from amazon, as a part of the required curriculum for my degree.  I loved it so much that I purchased it.  However, when I suggested it to my daughter, to read, she had little interest.  My daughter does love history, but not psychology history.  So, you see, history has several categories and maybe part of the solution is finding the find sector of history that interests the individual.  Then, there may be a possibility to add other sectors, like pieces of the pie.

A. ElleAgnes

The writing obviously has to be good–that is, it has to be readable. The characters also have to be interesting. You’re not likely to read about Mary Stuart, for example, unless the writing is compelling and if you can’t find something to like or dislike about her (in my case, dislike). Drama is also important. To take the Mary example and run with it–the drama of being kidnapped and forced into marriage makes for a good story, and I think it’s something you can give anyone and they’ll want to learn more.

A. DustanWhitcomb (History Is Coming)

Coming from a film background, it’s important for me that I stay and become literate in historical works to expand my imagination. The best part about reading fictional and nonfictional works of the past is that it’s a full immersion into a world other than the one around us. It’s an exploration of thought, character, time, and conflict, all things that we encounter every day.

Q. What do you think makes the subject of history boring/unrelatable to a lot of people?

A. David Leonhardt (President, THGM Writers)

Timelines.  And countries.  If you don’t know your geography, and especially your historical geography, who cares what Sibervonia did to retaliate against the Bergonista Dynasty.  The story has to be about people and what actually happened to them.  Forget the timelines and the political affiliations; tell the stories and make the students feel like they are there in the stories.

A. Ann Smarty (Founder of MyBlogU)

No connection to the present times. People don’t realize how the past has influenced the present (and hence how today’s action may be impact the future). The history should be learned in connection to present. That’s why I’ve found projects like these really useful and valuable: They help make that connection to get people interested in the history of places they live in or visit.

HistoryPin

A. amhpodcast (Host – American Military History Podcast)

When you grow up in a public school system you aren’t taught “history” your taught, “this is what you need to know for a history test”. Granted, there are teachers out there that take it further and make it engaging, but mostly it’s just “learn these facts and regurgitate them”

People also don’t understand that the people that they are reading about in their history books are just like them, they had hopes, dreams, fears, plans for their life, etc… It’s just they were in the right place at the right time and did things that made them worthy of being recorded in history books.

Also, history isn’t just stories from dusty tomes on a shelf, history is a living, breathing story of how we got where we are today.

A. Julie Syl Kalungi (Mrs)

Most people like to live in the now and think about tomorrow. The subject of history is also filled with gory wars, murders, killing, pain and failures. That’s whats predominantly promoted. The good, the day to day successes are not so much shared because they aren’t newsworthy maybe. Gory, death, pain sells and Who wants to be focusing on that if its been and gone?

So in my view bring on the Successes.  That’s what I seek out in my historical subjects, now that I have a choice. The successes I like to focus on are also tainted with of course bloodshed, but they are truly mind blowing and that’s what I like to focus my attention on because Positivity is my life focus.

A. socialwebcafe (Doctoral Candidate, Psychology)

The word “unrelatable” is a good word to use in this question.  I think that is key!  Just like I just relayed, the history of psychology and the origins of the schools of thought in psychology is very interesting to me.  However, I am a doctoral student in… yes… psychology.  My daughter, who is exceptional in the cosmetology world, would be more interested in history related to cosmetology.

I think we need to think less about history as one-word, as one general concept, and more so as pieces in a pie, especially if we are trying to gain interest in history and sectors of history.  That is where we may be able to find success in the word, “relatable.”

A. ElleAgnes

Lack of relevance. The history of baseball bores me, because I just don’t care that much about baseball or sports history too much. But I’ve been known to watch a movie or read a book on a topic that bores me because something about the story was personal enough to pique my interest. “The Blind Side” is interesting to large swathes of people because there’s cultural contexts–poverty, literacy, racial politics–that apply to a good amount of the population.

A. DustanWhitcomb (History Is Coming)

I think that people look at history as boring or obsolete because the future is so exciting – and it is! It may not live up to The Jetsons, but the future is entrancing because we never know what could happen as technology evolves. But I would counter with this: The future absolutely has parallels to the past and that is of concern because the most important events of our past are also the biggest problems that we’ve ever faced. In order to prevent those things from happening again, we need to further our knowledge about what led to those events while proactively do something about the problems of today and tomorrow.

Q. If you’re given full reign (financial support, good resources etc) what would you do to “sell” the subject of history to the public?

A. David Leonhardt (President, THGM Writers)

I would hire the world’s best fiction writers to relate the stories most important for people to learn.  I would capture those stories in film shorts.  Then, most importantly, every student would put on a short play based on a historical story, one per week.  Between the plays they put on and those of their classmates that they watch, one year of history would be worth their entire school career as it is taught today.

A. Ann Smarty (Founder of MyBlogU)

I’d enroll schools into building a resource like Historypin. Think how much opportunity there is:

  • Kids can help by contributing family photo archives
  • You can set up a contest to select the best photo of a month / year and then set up a school / class tour to the winning place where students can compare what it looked like with what it is now, tasked to write essays to tell more about the history of the place, etc etc

I think projects like that coupled with the enthusiasm of students would benefit everyone: Kids would share their excitement at home and with friends spreading the knowledge and awareness!

A. amhpodcast (Host – American Military History Podcast)

I suppose in a way with my podcast, I’m already doing this, although I don’t have full financial support. If finances weren’t an option, I’d start up several podcasts, maybe some video series as well, and just get people engaged in learning about the past.

A. socialwebcafe (Doctoral Candidate, Psychology)

Again, my answer is going to be influenced by where I am at in life.  Where I am at is that of a researcher, in finishing my doctorate in psychology.  Therefore, unlimited resources, finances, access to people, etc. would mean that I would design a research project.  In essence, I would take what you have done here (good job!) in the research area, and expand it.  I would do what is called a “qualitative” interview (what we think of as a normal one-on-one interview) to identify ideas to help people to fall in love with history, or I would use what is called a “quantitative” research approach which is like a survey, helping to identify what it is that helps people to fall in love with the study of history.

And, that said, those steps are available to use as “common people” in the use of tools like MyBlogU.com (thanks, Ann!) and surveymonkey.com.  Hmmm… There might even be a case study or infographic in the works…

A. ElleAgnes

Movies, television, and art are incredibly effective in interesting people in topics of history. Consumers buy movies and TV shows today without any knowledge of the history behind–see the success of ‘The Tudors” or “Boardwalk Empire”–because they’re well marketed. The use of beautiful art–whether modern or contemporary to the topic–is also helpful, because it gives a face to the name. When students see the famous portrait mural of Henry VIII, they want to know about this man, because the face is interesting and memorable. Portraits of Mary Stuart make her appear beautiful, and frankly, the imagination is captivated by beauty. If you can use visual or dramatic aid in any way, you’ll pull people in.

Martini

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3 thoughts on “How to Make History Interesting to Learn

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