I was the second of five kids, and we all shared textbooks when we could. My younger siblings especially appreciated inheriting my U.S. History textbook—and it wasn’t because I’d taken exceptional care of it.
They appreciated the comic relief.
Throughout the margins of this impossibly dull text, I’d written obnoxious, rude, and (I thought) hilarious comments, adding better facts. You know, things like the death of president Polk by chronic diarrhea. (Naturally, I drew a picture.)
We all know, as grownups, that history is important. We also know why: There really isn’t a better way to understand human nature than to study how we’ve behaved over the millennia. But still. The study of history often does a terrific job of removing humanity from the equation. There are dates. People (white men, usually). Events that, while momentous, feel bloodless.
How do you make history interesting? Story is one way, and here, images help. For example, the revolutionary battle at Germantown becomes specific and memorable when you see the note Alexander Hamilton wrote on behalf of George Washington afterward.
It’s a bit hard to read, but it indicates that a dog with a tag with General Howe’s name on it had crossed from the British side to the American side. On behalf of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton was returning the dog. The Americans had lost that battle, in part because of fog. This is also why the dog got lost—the poor thing was disoriented, no doubt because of the fog and the noise.
The note reveals a lot about the men involved. Washington had lost the battle and naturally feared he’d lose the war. But he cared about the fate of his enemy’s dog. (Or at least that’s what I think. Other people may have different ideas–and the discussion of possibilities is the vehicle to understanding and empathy.)
How’d I come across this note? It was part of the research I’m conducting on a biography of Alexander Hamilton. The note is one of many, many pieces of correspondence Hamilton wrote on behalf of Washington, and it’s a small window into humanity—which is, of course, the point of history.
Understanding history is never about memorizing all of the dates and people and places. It’s about understanding why some people have courage and some do not. What different principles are, and how those play out. It’s as much in the small gestures as it is in the big battles–and those big battles tend to be the culmination of small gestures and the larger patterns those gestures create.
To make this livelier for your students, find stories that illustrate larger points. Find images that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Encourage them to do the same. It’s not about regurgitating facts; it’s about incorporating those into your understand of the world and its ways, so you can make decisions based on history—which really does repeat itself.
The biography of Alexander Hamilton will be out in the fall of 2017. I’m looking forward to talking about it with your students!