Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Usable History

I hope you all have seen the interesting thread on McCarthyism that grew around Betsy’s last work in progress post. After I added my thought to that strand, I realized that it — in conjunction with Diane’s it-would-be-funny-if-it-were-not-so-sad story of the teacher who covered her ears when Diane told her the Washington and the Cherry Tree story was a myth — points to two distinct ways of looking at history. One view of history is that our job is to research, in as great detail as possible, the event, person, time, movement, social force we are studying. Whatever we happen to find is the history we recount. But another view is that we look back into history to answer some present need. We are looking for a "usable past."

The danger of the first form of history is antiquarianism — in other worlds, the history makes no claim to any special importance, other than the exhaustive labor of the author to get it right. Think of some local authority spending endless time to find out whether the old Jones farm had three buildings, or two with a connected outbuilding. That kind of history does not assume it has any audience — any role in the present. The danger of the second form of history is that it becomes propaganda. The author selects a sequence of bits from the past to add up to the message or moral he already has in mind. He is not letting the past speak for itself, he is using it to speak for him. 

I think we in kids books are in a blurry place between these two views. We stress "accuracy" and "research" yet we keep looking for books about the past to have some meaning, some moral, today. So lets talk about that — how do you see the balance of the "pastness of the past" and the "usable past" — how do we make the past meaningful without turning it into a sermon? How do we model letting the past correct us, prove us wrong, not matching our present view in books for young readers?


  1. Betsy Partridge says:

    I don’t believe there is any such thing as a history that is completely accurate. Yes, we always strive when we write books to be as accurate as possible (Lord knows I spend an insane amount of time of this). But then, we have to arrange the material, and chose a point of view.

    Here’s an example: a war, with just the statistics of the battles, where fought, how many died, etc. Pure fact? Nope. What happened to the nearby civilians? Whose version are you going to believe for what lead up to it?

    Monica, I’d like to hear what you think. I think you have more faith that there is an unbiased kind of history than I do.

    Anyone else?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Betsy: Of course every fact is a fact because we decide it is so. I agree. And yet it really matters whether your basic credo is a willingness to let the past correct you (I thought X was so, but I learned it was Y), or if you credo is to find a past that passes on a particular message or theme (kids need role models, Gandhi, or MLK, or MOther Theresa, or Roberto Clemente… were modern saints, so that is how I will tell their stories.

  3. Monica Edinger says:


    I’m not quite sure what you mean so hope this is the sort of response from me you had in mind. I certainly don’t believe that there is such a thing as unbiased history. That would be impossible. But I am looking at this from a different point of view — from my observation of children as I know them as a teacher. And so what I do believe is that there is a developmental trajectory in understanding history (moreso historiography) just as there is about many things. That is, my 4th graders can perhaps say that whatever history they read is from a particular point of view, but that doesn’t mean that they read it that way. To me the most perfect illustration of this is the Dear America books. They “know” that they are fiction, but they still want to use them as source material when they research something. It is a question of development and of experience. As they get older and have more experience with the complications around historical writing and information, the idea of truth (or perhaps truthiness) will become more solid and something they will more instinctively use when doing their own independent reading about the past.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I have to disagree with both Besty and Monica on a phrase I often hear. They both say unbaised history is impossible. Yes we are all human, make choices, are influenced by our time, outlook, etc. But, in fact, history can be more or less accurate. It is “falsifiable” — that is, if I say GW chopped down the cherry tree, we can see if he did or did not. Why I choose to check that is a reflection on me, but the fact of what he did remains the same. I think we are too quick to say all history is biased, and not pay enough attention to the very clear differences in degree that truly matter. We must be willing to be wrong, but that does not mean there is no such thing as right.

  5. Monica Edinger says:

    Maybe it would be better to talk of the telling of history. Seems to me there is no way to avoid a particular point of view as you tell it. Decisions as to what to put in and what to leave out in the telling leads to a particular history and no doubt a different one from someone with a different point of view.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Yes, but not all tellings, or points of view, are equal. In other words to recognize that there is a voice behind all histories does not exempt us from judging the voices. Otherwise, for example, Holocaust denial would be as valid as the Holocaust Museum. There is no way around comparing and contrasting views, and judging them — even in, some cases — we cannot yet choose among them.

  7. Monica Edinger says:

    Marc, I’m with you there. I love having my kids consider the bias within Mort’s Relation (one of the two documents about the Pilgrims) particularly in terms of the Native Americans.

  8. Monica Edinger says:

    Oops — I meant the two main primary sources, the other being Bradford’s memoir.