“If history were taught as a story, it would never be forgotten.” ~ Rudyard Kipling
Updated: Jun 9
For millennia, humans have gathered around the fire to pass down the stories of their ancestors. These tales, which were both educational and entertaining, offered critical lessons on social harmony and conflict resolution and shaped beliefs and values. Historical storytelling and teaching have differentiated humans from other species and played a critical role in our evolution.
Today, despite the popularity of historical films, surveys consistently show that most people have limited knowledge of their grandparents or great grandparents, and little recollection of their school history lessons.
This deficiency is often attributed to the relatively minor place of History in our education system – where it is viewed as an arcane subject that offers little value in today’s global economy. Additionally, history has become increasingly politically nuanced, leaving educators uncertain about how to teach it effectively.
Until the 1960s, history was taught as a "grand narrative," providing students with a global understanding of events and their significance. Unfortunately, this approach often focused on memorization of dry facts and dates, which made it unpopular. It was also criticized for being biased. Despite this, studies show that those over 65 who were taught the grand narrative of world history perform better than those younger than 45 when tested on the most fundamental modern historical events.
The traditional 'narrative approach' changed when History and Geography were replaced with non-controversial Social Studies – taught in disjointed units that jump from one time period and civilization to another, and abstract concepts such as ‘people, places and environment’, 'civic ideals and practices’, ‘cultural identity and major religions' and so-forth.
Unfortunately, without a well-told story to connect them, these smatterings of knowledge are difficult to remember, almost impossible to internalize, and are not well retained into adulthood.
As for efforts to make students 'think like historians' by examining and corroborating evidence, citing authorities, and producing the written historical arguments - these too have failed because the reality is that very few students have the necessary global historical context and literary skills.
Films and novels teach history as a story
Notwithstanding our myopia of the past, historical films, fiction and video games are a hugely popular genre, which clearly demonstrates that history, when it is presented as stories can be so engaging. That’s because the human brain is hardwired to understand and remember stories more easily than abstract ideas and disjointed facts. History may be difficult to teach, but story-telling is an innate ability. History, filled with larger-than-life characters, adventurers and dreamers, machinations, manoevers, plots and rich human drama, are what makes it worth studying.
As Rudyard Kipling once said, “If history were taught as stories, it would never be forgotten.”