History is boring – a myth we can blow up and how you and your business can help

History Smiths

Just last week, I was speaking with a neighbor of mine – an avid lover of history and the owner of an important historic house – about how often we hear the words “history is boring” from young people. History is NOT boring. How it’s TAUGHT is what’s usually boring! It pains me every time I hear those words. It also pains me when I hear the words, “I really wish I had had a good history teacher” from adult friends of mine (or from people who come to my history talks or take my walking tours). “I might have been interested in history a lot sooner,” they say. No kidding! And this is so infuriating. What a waste. Now I am not here to beat up on history teachers. There are gifted ones out there, some of whom I know personally, and many of them have their hands tied “teaching to the test.” Still, something must be done because the state of history education in America today is appalling.

History inside of the classroom

In his speech before the National Book Foundation upon receiving the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough – a personal hero of mine – stated: “We, in our time, are raising a new generation of Americans who, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate. The situation is serious and sad. And it is quite real, let there be no mistake. It has been coming on for a long time, like a creeping disease, eating away at the national memory. While the clamorous popular culture races on, the American past is slipping away, out of site and out of mind. We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.” He went on to say: “Too many teachers have little if any real understanding of what they’re teaching, let alone that vitality and passion for the subject that makes a great teacher so effective. If you think back to your own time in school, the courses you liked best and did best in were almost certainly the courses taught by the teachers you liked best. And the teachers you liked best were almost certainly those who were excited about the material and conveyed that excitement to you.” And so, what are we to do?

History outside of the classroom

David McCullough is 100% right that better teacher training is essential, but I also want to look OUTSIDE of the classroom because so often THAT’S where people connect. Today, we call this “public history,” and here are just five examples of things you can do to SUPPLEMENT your child’s classroom education — and your own.

• Visit historic sites that “do history” well

Think about the Minuteman National Historical Park in Concord, MA at the North Bridge. Every day, there are reenactors, tours, story tellers, musket demonstrations – you name it! Boring? Hardly!

• Find historical theatrical performances

In Salem, MA, the Department of Theatre at Gordon College presents a theatrical performance at Salem in 1630: Pioneer Village, a replica colonial village along the lines of the more famous Plimoth Plantation. Visitors are entranced by these beautifully costumed actors acting out domestic scenes, playing children’s games, and putting a villager in “the stocks.”

• Seek out the story tellers

As the historian Barbara Tuchman says, if you want to get kids interested in history, “tell stories.” You can often find these people at public libraries or historical societies. Perhaps an elder in your community is giving a talk on growing up in your town.

• Go on walking tours

Find a passionate walking tour guide and let the fun begin! History is “real” when you’re on the ground and out of the books.

• Visit historical museums that know how
to engage visitors

Dragging your child through a “boring” museum will not help matters. Instead, find the places that do this well. The Salem Witch Museum, for example, is the most visited museum in Salem and constantly ranks at the top in the state and the region. Why? Because they tell the story in an engaging – yet responsible – way.

• Attend demonstrations and reenactments
Historic houses and museums will often present demonstrations of early trades and skills, weaponry, or hearth cooking. Military encampments are also great fun, and with the anniversary of the Civil War in full swing they shouldn’t be hard to find.

Opportunities for business

And for you business owners out there, “out of the classroom” experiences like these provide you with the opportunity to be a local hero and attract customers. Seek out the talented public history teachers and projects and find ways to support them, work with them, or promote them. You will be promoting yourself at the same time — in a non-sales environment and through good works. Why is it important to engage your kids – and yourself – in history? To quote David McCullough again: “Indifference to history isn’t just ignorant, it’s rude. It’s a form of ingratitude. I’m convinced that history encourages, as nothing else does, a sense of proportion about life, gives us a sense of the relative scale of our own brief time on earth and how valuable that is. What history teaches it teaches mainly by example. It inspires courage and tolerance. It encourages a sense of humor. It is an aid to navigation in perilous times. We are living now in an era of momentous change, of huge transitions in all aspects of life-here, nationwide, worldwide-and this creates great pressures and tensions. But history shows that times of change are the times when we are most likely to learn. This nation was founded on change. We should embrace the possibilities in these exciting times and hold to a steady course, because we have a sense of navigation, a sense of what we’ve been through in times past and who we are.” Amen, David McCullough!

What about you?

And so, what are your plans for this weekend? What history projects can your business support? They are out there!