Why Teach History Through Literature?
by Rea Berg
When we consider the question of how history ought to be taught and why we would consider teaching history through literature, there are some interesting points to bear in mind. Let’s take a look below and find out why we love teaching history through literature.
Why use literature to teach history?
Students in ancient times, sitting by candlelight or lamplight, actually read history through literature. There simply was no other way of studying history and the subject has effectively been taught this way ever since. Only just the last century or so has this vibrant subject been robbed of its human connection by the ubiquitous textbook. As Neil Postman urges in his book, The End of Education, those who desire to improve teaching ought to get rid of all textbooks which, in his opinion are “the enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning” (116). By teaching history through literature-- biographies, classical works, and even historical fiction you reinvigorate history with its inherent passion, human interest, and wonder. A middle-grade child reading a living book like Johnny Tremain for her studies of the American Revolution will learn far more about the essence of that struggle than even the most colorful textbook could ever impart.
Why is the use of literature the most effective way to teach history?
Literature, as defined by the Oxford reference is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” Now, I’m not sure about you, but I have yet to hear of a single history textbook to win a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize for Literature. Written works achieve the status of literary merit by their ability to speak to the human condition and the experiences, trials, and aspirations of the human heart. In this way, the best works draw the reader into the drama of the story and through the emotions open the mind. David McCullough, Pulitzer prize-winner for his work John Adams, affirms that the most effective way to teach history is to “tell stories.”
That’s what history is: a story. And what’s a story? E. M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and . . . the listener to the story. (“Knowing History”)
Charlotte Mason, the 19th century educational reform, promoted the idea of emotion and empathy as critical components of history’s ability to speak to the human heart. She advocated the use of “living books”–literature, history, biography—”to open limitless avenues of discovery in a child’s mind”. She taught that “education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake).
It’s the connection between the heart, mind, and will, that makes the study of history so enjoyable and memorable to those who learn it through the best books. As a wonderful by-product, students brought up on an educational curriculum rich in the best literature often become compassionate, engaged, and thoughtful adults–the best possible educational outcome.