History. That word is dreaded not just by those slouching in the back rows of classrooms but by huge masses of humanity. The word has the incredible power to make grown men and women flinch and, with buckling knees, their eyeballs roll back into their heads as they slip into a history-induced coma.
History does not need to be this way. One does not need to burden history with memorization of precise dates, names and analytical arguments. Many history-teaching professionals have failed millions of people by turning them off to history for life.
History can be interesting as well as entertaining and enlightening. The reader need not be assailed with endless pages of drudgery. Instead, history can be told as a series of stories or tales that feature real people, not abstract concepts. These historical figures can demonstrate that the men and women of our past are not just dim figures on a far-off stage. They are very much like us with their own preconceived ideas, their struggles with decisions, big and small, and their living with the consequences of those decisions. Properly written history the reader finds himself, without fanfare, reading about the passions that cause crime or war; the lives, events, and successes or failures of entire peoples and individuals. Teaching through stories is as old or older than the Bible and one learns from the Bible that there is more in the telling of tales than mere tales. It is of interest that this principle of storytelling was brought up strongly by William Cronon, outgoing President of the American Historical Association at the 2013 Annual Meeting.
Good writing requires that the language be simple yet complete enough that the vast majority of readers will understand the ideas being discussed. Yet, how often have we attempted to read unreadable history articles crammed with language that is so obscure that one must re-read sentences, or even consult a dictionary.
“No man is truly great until he is willing to use a small word when he knows a big one that means the same thing.” This premise applies to the writing of history as well as everything else. Princeton’s Lawrence Stone, in 1979, suggested that historians must “make their findings accessible once more to an intelligent but not expert reading public, which is eager to learn…but cannot stomach indigestible statistical tables, dry analytical argument and jargon-ridden prose.”
Some may consider that writers of history must choose between being a “popular historian” or a “historian’s historian.” As James McPherson wrote, “Why couldn’t I be both? Surely it is possible to say something of value to fellow professionals while at the same time engaging a wider audience.”
In the February 4, 1939 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature historian Allan Nevins wrote a scathing attack on entrenched scholarly (and boring) university historians whom he satirized a “Professor Dryasdust.” He remarked, “Nothing would do so much in this country for the right kind of historical writing as a general monthly magazine devoted to it; a magazine offering a wide variety of accurate historical material, written with enough grace, color, and verve to be interesting to the lawyer, the doctor, the college student, the high school teacher the intelligent layman everywhere.” Nevins continued, “It would do much to educate Americans in the dignity and fascination of their own past, and in the historical backgrounds of many a world problem of today.”
With the advent of the Journal of the American Revolution perhaps Nevins’ would now retract his 1939 lament: “In a nation so huge as ours, it is deplorable that practically no market now exists for even the best-written of historical articles.” And, perhaps History Coma can be eradicated as well.