Give History a Chance

by Michael G. Gaunt,
Hewitt High School Coordinator

Well, it’s that time of year again and most of you will be starting your classes soon, if you haven’t done it already. And most of you will be starting some sort of history class. It may be a cliché that history is one of the most feared and disliked courses in a student’s roster, but most clichés are born of some kernel of truth. It is an attitude which I have never understood. I was a history major in college and history has always been fascinating to me. If you are one of those people who fear, or even loathe, history, I want to urge you to give it another chance.

I think many people don’t like history because they see it as a difficult and boring exercise in memorization. All history is to those people is a list of dates, and to be fair it is often taught like that, perhaps by people who have no more love for history than their students. To me, history is something different. History is about people, as are all good stories. But these are real people (for the most part). They have dealt with real events and circumstances and have had a greater or lesser effect on our world and our lives. When I read history, I can’t help but put myself into their situation. What were their goals? How have they acted and reacted? Would I have done the same?

The power of the stories of individual historical figures became clear to me in high school. I was studying the Early Middle Ages (between the Fall of Rome in the year 410 and about the year 1100). The material I was presented was limited to the years of various kings, saints, and battles. Then I found a book by Bede, an English monk who died in 735. He was writing about the first century or so of the Christian Church in England. Before that, it was a country of pagan warriors and peasants. I became fascinated with the story of how these people were convinced to convert to Christianity. Bede included a story about one Anglo-­Saxon king named Edwin. He was convinced by a missionary named Paulinus who visited him, but he felt he had to talk to his main companions before he converted from the old ways. One of his nobles thought that conversion was the right decision and explained it like this (my paraphrase): “Our life is like the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall. It enters from the cold and stormy night by one window and all too quickly it leaves by another window back into the darkness. While in the building it enjoys the warmth and light, but what does it face outside? This new religion offers an explanation of these mysteries and deserves our devotion.” These people struggled to understand the world, as we still do, and used imagery from their own lives to try to make sense of it. The important part of this story isn’t the date of this event. These are real people dealing with issues we can understand. This is real history.

If you are lucky enough to study history this year, I hope you will read it for the people and their stories, not just the dates. Give history a chance. You’ll learn about people. You’ll learn about yourself. And you will probably find stories better than any novel.

Michael Gaunt is Hewitt’s Highschool Coordinator and teacher. He hails from North Carolina and loves grits and strong coffee, as well as Robert E. Lee. He has a Bachelors from Reed College in Portland, and a Masters from the University of New York in Binghamton, New York. He and his wife, Alex, met while studying at York University in England, and they share a love for all things British, as well as history in general. Their twins, Robert and Virginia, share the same love of history, while growing up in a hundred-year-old house in northern California surrounded by stories of Beowulf, the Count of Monte Cristo, and ?

 

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