Historical Literacy and Public History, Part 2

My first experience doing public history was in third grade, when I dressed up as Miles Standish to do a book report of a biography I’d read about him (yes, I was the only girl in my class to read about and dress up as a male). Looking back, I know that what I was wearing was not even close to correct as far as what Standish would have actually worn. But the experience–and even some facts about Standish–have remained with me despite the inaccuracy of my costume.

My other vivid memory of history was becoming a junior ranger at Jamestown and Yorktown National Park Service sites. I remember having to card wool, identify tools, and other somewhat mundane (to an adult) things. I’m sure that the rangers there made the junior ranger program as historically accurate as possible, and I benefited from their work. Less successful were junior ranger programs elsewhere that only asked me to write things down or solve word jumbles and such.

Based on my childhood experiences, it seems to me that the way to get kids to have a sense of history is to get them to experience it in some way. (I do recognize that, as a person who has ended up in graduate school for history, my experience may be abnormal.) And the experience does not necessarily need to be 100% historically accurate in order to be effective.

Before people can have an interest in history, they must be aware of history–not just that it happened in books, like a sort of true fairy-tale, but that it actually happened. The earlier this realization occurs, the more likely (I would guess) history will matter later.

In other words, children have to understand a narrative before the facts mean anything. Many people never get past the narrative and into the actual facts of history. But again, I wonder–is that so bad?


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