When discussing history with my older kids, I always hammer home the following point: anyone who tells you that this or that issue is perfectly simple is either stupid or lying.
Here’s a satisfying case in point: this Salon article reminds us that, despite what renowned scholar Dan “I know how to type” Brown tells us, it wasn’t the mean old misogynistic Church who led those infamous European witch hunts. Weren’t you taught that innocent women had to die because repressive religious fanatics couldn’t tolerate independent thinkers? That’s what we learned in the early 80’s, when school history books started to get seriously stupid. But more reliable scholarship shows that all that burning at the stake was rooted in “squabbles among neighbors, resentments within families, disagreeable local characters, the machinations of small-time politicians and the creepy psychosexual fixations of magistrates and clerics.”
There’s a good lesson there: when something really big and awful goes on for 300 years, you can’t sum up its cause or significance in a single sentence, unless that sentence is “It’s a fallen world”. Nothing is that simple.
So that’s for adults. For younger kids, though, I am in favor of teaching the simple, mythologized version of history first, and then refining it later. 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, that Lincoln strode into battle to free the slaves, and that 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. A noble goal; but in every case, they oversimplify in the other direction, and end up telling an equally false story by giving nothing but context, without any meat.
So now school kids believe that Thomas Jefferson was, above all, a famous racist; that Columbus’ main goal was to find some peaceful natives to slaughter; and that the liberated Israelites merely trudged after Moses through a swampy area during low tide. By insisting on the dreariest 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. That they always do. This subtle understanding is something they will need to have eventually, when they’re old enough to live their own lives. But trying to teach it prematurely doesn’t give you educated students, it gives you ignorant cynics.
When you’re building a fire, you have to start with a little blaze. Sure, the fire is more useful and productive once the flames have died down. You can get some even and steady heat then, and glowing coals are easier to control and maintain than the leaping, unpredictable tongues of flame when kindling catches fire.
But you can’t just skip to the steady heat stage. That’s what these myths about history are—they’re a little blaze to get things going. You have to start with the blaze.