For younger kids, though, I am in favor of teaching the simple, mythologized version of history first, and then refining it later (as long as you don’t get your myths from a dumbbell like Dan Brown). Kids should understand the basic truth of what happened, and then discover the details when their minds become more subtle.
Thus, we teach the little ones that Columbus was a hero, Lincoln strode into battle to free the slaves, and God made the world in seven days. All of this is true. The details are more subtle, but the basic myth tells you something important that the details can’t convey.
Modern history books for children will have none of this fairytale foolishness. They want to paint a truer, fuller picture of history by debunking myths — but they do this by oversimplifying in the other direction, and they end up telling an equally false story. By insisting on the deary, mitigating details, they teach children that no one ever fights to the death for justice, and that no one is really courageous, that nothing is noble. What a terrible lesson — what a lie!
I don’t lie to my kids. Soon enough, children learn that there are details, there are complications. But I know they haven’t lived long enough to understand that sin and weakness go along with courage and nobility — that they can exist in the same man. This subtle understanding is something they will need to have eventually. But trying to teach it prematurely doesn’t give you educated students, it gives you ignorant cynics.
[via The Anchoress]
Please read the whole thing. It is a heady, bracing dose against “ignorant cynicism”.
My comment there:
Yes…I’ve been thinking about this as I read James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.
To me, both the cartoonish narrative that was taught for so long, and the black and white newsreel of oppression that so many now advocate, cover up three things:
The history of ideas, that is, learning that what we take for granted these days was hard-won by scrabbling in the very rocky field of ignorance. (I came to history via the history of science, which is explicitly a history of ideas.) Perhaps the biggest obstacle Columbus overcame was his own misperception about the size of the world. Or say it another way: one of history’s greatest jokes is that his ignorance gave him the courage to achieve one of the great discoveries of the ages.
This is related to overcoming our past. The heroic thing about Jefferson is that despite being so blinded by the social conventions of his time that he could keep slaves, he could also write the Declaration of Independence, and espouse a way of thinking about liberty that would eventually do away with slavery.
And this in turn leads to the idea of heroes. I keep trying to convince myself that Lincoln was a horrible man, one of the worst tyrants in American history. However, I keep finding that he, too, misguided as he was, had a profound vision of what America, and Americans, could be, and that the biggest impediments to that vision were slavery, and the idea that keeping slavery was really the only “states’ right” worth sundering the nation for. He took a terrible gamble, but the nation was, evidently, ready for that fight, and I believe that he led us, all of us, even — especially! — the South, into a great victory over our coarser natures.
We shouldn’t teach that our heroes had no flaws, that they are superheroes. That blinds us to the very struggle that makes them heroes. By the same token, though, we shouldn’t teach that there were no heroes, because that hobbles us with our failings, rather than giving us the wings we need to become heroes ourselves.