Teaching History: The Importance of Story


ferris-bueller-teacher1-490x200There’s a famous scene in the 80’s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where a history teacher is talking about the Great Depression. It’s an iconic piece of comedy because we can all relate to the poor students trapped in the classroom. The teacher in the scene is trying to give a “complete” lecture, covering major political events in perfect order without personal bias. In spite of his commitment to factual neutrality, he only serves to put his students to sleep with his monotone voice and “Anyone…anyone,” rhythm. Why is this? The answer is patently obvious: Ferris’s teacher is giving a chronology to the students—his academically-perfect rhetoric communicates nothing but irrelevancy to his listeners. How can they get excited about history when it is served to them like stale coffee?

To avoid teaching “chronology history,” an excellent teacher will pare down the amount of dates, places, and names to memorize and spend more time studying the stories connected to those dates, places, and names. Stories give significance and resonance to disinterested students. By nature, story attracts attention because it drags the imagination into play. Although it is true that sometimes uninteresting events must be studied and memorized (for example, tariffs passed by congress), they should be the exception rather than the norm.

In addition, requiring students to grapple with the ethical issues involving the historical figures they are studying will help them to step into the past, if only for a brief time. Debating whether certain acts were right or wrong can help students begin to understand what people were thinking and feeling during key historical events. Young historians will be surprised at how quickly their emotions come into play as they argue over events like the atomic bomb or Japanese internment camps of World War II.30536_world_war_2_world_war_ii_soldiers

History should help us become more human. As we read these true stories and wrestle with their moral questions, we should find pieces of wisdom to keep. They don’t have to be earth-shattering revelations. For instance, when we teach our students about the ill-founded optimism of Neville Chamberlain, we should remind ourselves to be cautious, wary, and realistic—not too secure in our own understanding. The more history we study, the more perceptive, honest, and humble we should become.

“Chronology history” is to a multivitamin tablet as “real history” is to a delicious meal. The pill and the dinner are both nutritious, but the meal is a pleasure to enjoy and also necessary for survival. Children who only get multivitamins of history will swallow it distastefully and become intellectually malnourished, while children who eat hearty meals of real history will grow into strong, brave adults.

In the end, history is essentially a giant collection of true stories about God’s grace. When we teach our children about D-Day, the American Revolution, Martin Luther, the Emperor Constantine, or anything else, we have no option but to give God the glory for His provision. Our time spent in history class should ultimately point us toward God’s sovereignty over time and man. If we do anything less, we are failing our children.

Haley Maycock is an online history teacher with Polymath Classical Tutorials.