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.