If You Make the Analogy to English, This Gets Easier
In schools throughout this country, kids read novels and then discuss them. The teacher, who has, one assumes, taken literature in college, is thus able to guide a discussion of plot, character, point of view, setting, detail, themes — all of those standbyes. When she asks for comments, she is able to guide a student to help the child discriminate between feeling — I liked it, I was bored — insight — the character is not telling the truth, the character is fooling himself — and observation — how come the boys are always the heroes? No one expects that every reaction a child has is "right" — but the teacher also has some flexibility to entertain new ideas and insights she had not previously considered. An immigrant whose family lived on a small farm in the Dominican Republic, for example, might read Charlotte’s Web differently from a city kid who has only seen dead animals in supermarket packages.
Why is history any different? We train kids to be attentive and read carefully. But we encourage them to develop their own interpretations. And we authors take the lead by showing how it is done – we assemble information, develop ideas and theories, check them against experts to see if they make sense, then propose them for the world to discuss and debate. The difference, as this thought experiment should make clear, is that teachers comfortable with viewing fiction through many lenses, seeing the same passage or character in new ways, feel ill at ease with history. Where in one case they are eager to explore, in the other they fear getting it wrong. And they pass that fearful rigidity on to students. And that is where we have to be brave and model what it is like to think with history.
For most of the books we write, we are not experts at the start. We have to learn, catch up, get grounded in the period, the literature, the sources. But as we read we begin to see a picture, a pattern, a pathway we believe is important and true. Out of those insights come our books. Make sense?