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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Points and Lines

Sasha, at 10, has fallen in love with Civilization — the computer game. We bought to while away the long car trip up to Montreal, but it really took hold since we’ve been home. The other night we ran into two old friends — twins who grew up in a UN family in New York, then went to Yale together. One is now getting a masters, the other is reporter for a national magazine. I’ve known then since they were, well, Sasha’s age. When I told them he is playing Civilization they both said they had grown up with it, loved it, and that it really led them on to their knowledge of the world, and history. Then in the car yesterday, Sasha began quizing us on the impact of World War I and World War II on the break up of the British Empire. We were of course thrilled — and there is a point here — he knows enough from Civilization, from Jim Murphy’s Truce and other books we have around the house to begin to construct an inner timeline, an sequence of dots, of events, that he now can (perhaps even needs to) connect, piece together, make sense of in terms of sequence, cause and effect, flow over time.

Seeing that made wonder: so often we “sell” nonfiction by saying it is, after all, story, it is narrative, it is people and their lives, it is not just facts and dates. Sure. But in emphasizing that human narrative side are we denying kids something else — the fact that history (and in related but different ways, science, math) is a process of knowing and making sense of chunks of facts and dates and places. History is the linking, the making sense of, the discrete islands of information. But you can’t begin to make those connections if you don’t know about the islands. If you turn history into individual lives — how Sally learned to cook and Joe went to plow, and what they learned in school — you miss the grand themes, the big picture, you replace knowledge with story.

I’m starting to wonder if we aren’t depriving kids by not saying: Day One, here is a timeline, this is the backbone, the skeletal outline, of what we will cover this year. One kid will glance at it and never look back, another will start memorizing the dates right away, a third will know it is there, consult it, and begin to see how one lesson links to another. To put it a different way, in building up a knowledge of history, a consciousness of history, facts are your friends. They are there to help you, as guideposts, as directional signals, as aides to making sense. Sure we need to give kids lives they can understand, identify with, even see as interestingly different. But those lives need to be placed on the linked daisy chain of time — that is the whole point of studying history.


  1. But who decides on what is in that time line? Which dates? Which facts? Can’t have ’em all after all. The million-dollar-curriculum-war-causing question.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    That is less of a problem than it seems. There really are main highways and smaller state routes. There is a chronology of, say, major civilizations — really there is a difference between tracing, say, the main beats in the history Pharonic Egypt and tracing the various Akkadian kings. The Akkadians are in fact important, but for middle grade and high school kids, in a subordinant way; similarly, knowing how Europe formed — the Rome/Byzantium split; the kingdoms after the fall of Rome; the crusades; late high medieval; early Renaissance is simply more important than knowing the sequence of rulers of Wessex in the Anglo-Saxon period (again, that is a subject of interest, and worth investigating for the motivated student, but it is a subordinant timeline, a state route that feeds the main highway). While of course assigning importance reflects the beliefs and value systems of the assigner, that does not mean we should shy away from doing so, or that all systems have equal claims. We need to have the courage of our convictions — of defining what is more or less important, and then of defending that view — or adjusting it — as counter claims are made.

    As a parallel, the current view is that there are 13 planets in our Solar System. That is just like a timeline — we’ve decided that those 13 qualify, and others of similar shape and orbit don’t. The number 13 is an adjustment from the previous 11, and the more familiar 9. So yes this is contested — but still we have a structure that we can teach. It is exactly the same with chronology — we adults, we experts, we teachers make a case for importance and then tackle objections as they arise. We need not hesitate to define one set of dates and facts as more crucial for kids to know than others — we just need to be ready to explain why and consider other viewes.

  3. Great post ! One of my children had a teacher who was taken to task by the very sophisticated parent body because the homework she assigned the first day was to
    study the table of contents in the math book. I thought this was a fabulous assginment !
    I thought it also would have been a great idea to have the kids write an essay on the table of contents on Day One and then, re-do the same exercise at the end of the semester and/or year. That did not happen because the PTA parents were so offended that the teacher gave such ” superficial ” assignments and “cheated ” our children.
    To be honest, my own child loved this assignment and said ” all I had to do was take a look at the table of contents. ” It could have been a outstanding project.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    i am a big fan of the TOC — after the index discussion awhile back I considered following up with the TOC — perhaps I will later this week.

  5. I will look forward to hearing idea on the uses of the TOC. Right now, I am thinking of comparing TOCs and indexes using Venn diagrams. You and other readers will have many other ideas. Thanks