Fiction, Nonfiction, and Historical Thinking
As she comes in the door, Jennifer announces that there was team practice in answering social studies questions today. Each child made up a series of questions about the American Revolution, and these were used as part of a five-team contest. Jennifer's team tied for first place. "But this unit wasn't so good. All we did was learn about a few battles and fill in charts. I want to know a whole lot more!" She is particularly annoyed because so much of what she is learning in class either contradicts what she has read on her own or gives only part of the story.
"The text was talking about George Washington and how good he was to his soldiers. There was a part about Martha Washington knitting warm socks for the men, but in one of the books I read it said Washington had deserters at Valley Forge shot. Why wasn't that in the textbook? They just want you to think he was perfect."
This is not Jennifer's first encounter with the disjuncture between historical narratives and history texts. Earlier in the year she announced during a small-group discussion that she thought Puritans were "cruel and stupid." Shocked, her classmate, William, called the teacher over and asked, "Do you know what Jennifer thinks!!"
"No," Mrs. Bainbridge answered.
"She thinks the Puritans were stupid!" William sputtered.
"Oh?" Mrs. Bainbridge smiled. "That's interesting. What made you decide that, Jennifer?"
Jennifer, having read two novels dealing with witchcraft in the early settlement and colonial periods, explained that Puritans had to be evil if they used religion as an excuse to torture and kill people. "They made their religion as bad as what they were trying to escape. It's wrong because you aren't the person to decide that . . . just because someone doesn't agree with you doesn't mean you have to kill them. And even if you were a person who didn't believe you would have to just act like you did, or you'd be in big trouble. They accused innocent people, and even if they were witches, they shouldn't have killed them. These people are supposed to believe in God, you know. Real religious. And God doesn't go around killing people."
Jennifer went on to argue that the textbook told "nothing interesting about the Puritans. They just said that the Puritans were very religious people who wanted to make religion more pure, and they didn't say anything about them, what they did bad . . . just that they were very organized people."
As we said earlier, historical stories are powerful cultural forces. They present historical interpretations in a memorable format; they also have a significant impact on children's historical thinking. It is commonplace to hear advocates of history education claim that story, with its emphasis on human response to historical events, is the beginning of historical understanding. Moreover, a number of people argue that teaching history is largely a matter of presenting "a story well told." Clearly, narrative is a more powerful influence on Jennifer's historical thinking than her textbook. In fact, she judges the historical interpretation in her text and in her class work against the narrative history she reads independently. That she, or anyone else, should do this is not surprising. Stories are, after all, generally more compelling reading than textbooks. For centuries, historians have used narrative, and narrative devices, to order and assign cause and effect to events in the past. Yet Jennifer's experience indicates that the relationship among narrative, history, and historical understanding is more complex than appreciation of a story well told.
Egan ( 1983, 1986), Egan & Nadaner ( 1988)
Barber ( 1992), Blos ( 1993), Eblers ( 1999), Levstik ( 1993), Olwell ( 1999)
History is more than a story well told.
Barton ( 1996a), Levstik ( 1995), VanSledright ( 1992)
Tunnell ( 1993)