There was an interesting article published in The Wall Street Journal on September 21, 2011, entitled “The Education Our Economy Needs” by Norm Augustine. Mr. Augustine makes the argument that today’s high school students’ lack of knowledge in the subject of history directly correlates to “performance at nearly every level” in the work world. “A failing grade in history,” he wrote, “suggests that students are not only failing to comprehend our nation’s story and that of our world, but also failing to develop skills that are crucial to employment across sectors.”
According to the article, the federal government’s National Assessment of Education Progress found that among science, economics, history, or math, students are lacking most in history. No surprise to me. I love history but admit that my love was not nurtured in school. Instead it was nurtured by voluntarily reading both non-fiction history books as well as historical fiction.
In today’s “entertain me” society, I think historical fiction has an excellent opportunity to teach our students history. Instead of dry words in a textbook concerning, say, George Washington, a student might be encouraged to read Jeff Shaara’s two-novel treatment of the American Revolution and learn about Washington through Washington’s own point of view. More interactive, you might say. Novels make characters seem real where textbooks almost always fall short of humanizing our ancestors.
One of the reasons I wrote The Edge of Hell and hope to see it published is to humanize the average Civil War citizen soldier from small-town America. Unlike today, America’s rural setting at the start of the war was much more prevalent than the large cities that dominate our country today. Men from those small towns filled the ranks of both armies, men whose innocent country eyes ultimately witnessed scenes of violence that their peaceful upbringing could never have prepared them for.
The movie “Gettysburg” has been used in some schools as a teaching tool for the Civil War. The reason for this is because of the very real characters who populate the story, characters whose dialogue closely reflected that written in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels (the book from which the movie was born). No doubt some of the students who watched the movie were inspired to or encouraged to read The Killer Angels. And if they did they would have learned more about the reasons why men on both sides fought than if they had read three textbooks on the subject.
In Mr. Augustine’s article, he wrote: “…students who participate in National History Day–actually a year-long program that gets students in grades 6-12 doing historical research–consistently outperform their peers on state standardized tests, not only in social studies but in science and math as well.” The best research is driven by curiosity, and obviously today’s teachers need to know how to arouse that curiosity. Humanizing history is the key, something for which historical fiction writers strive.
Critics of historical fiction as a teaching tool will point out not all historical fiction is written accurately. Sometimes this is due to the fault of the writer; other times writers will tweek history in order to achieve an entertaining story. In the latter instance, most writers worth their salt will include an author’s note explaining what was altered and why. Historical fiction should never be used to replace factual history but instead to enhance it and encourage further studies by its readers (and writers).
So if you are a teacher of history, you might explore the historical fiction shelves of your bookstore or library to assist in getting your message across to students. It just might help those test scores and better prepare your students in the areas of critical thinking and communication.