Humanizing History

HI have encountered far too many people who dislike history because they understood is as an endless line of names, dates, and distant events.  Information memorized in class, regurgitated on exams, and then forgotten. When understood that way, history can be very dull.

I think history is nothing more or less than the preservation of the tales of those who have come before us.  A series of stories intertwined and connected from which we can draw understand (and entertainment… such entertainment).

Humans are human.  With all the insecurities, egos, loves, rivalries, mistakes, and questions that go with that.  Our understandings of the world around us has changed through the centuries but there is still an innate humaness about us.

When I approach history it is with the eye of a storyteller.  I look for things that can connect me to the past, that can help me to better understand the people who lived in times so different than my own.  These are people who lived, loved, laughed, and cried.  Their trappings may have been different, but they are still people living out the stories of their lives.

I try to think about historical figure as the real people they were.  Taking them outside of their moments of being HISTORICAL FIGURES and letting them be people, with friends, family, jobs and dreams.  Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to encounter them in a moment when they are just them.

I love to place myself into history; when I was little I would try to think about what it was like to be traveling the Oregon Trail.  Often when I visit historic sites and homes I imagine myself into the past of that location.  So many times I’ve been on a tour of a historic home when the guide would make a passing mention of “the children of the house,” and whatever follows is lost because I am trying to think about those children — how did they live in this home?  What games did they play?  What stories did they tell?

We each carry with us our own stories, and the experiences of those who came before us are, truly, no different than that.  They are not simply names and actions tied to dates, but people with opinions, dreams, and thoughts that lived and acted in the world.  They had their own stories to tell (and their own stories they probably didn’t want told), and allowing ourselves to remember that makes history so much richer — and so much more powerful.

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26 thoughts on “Humanizing History”

  1. I went back to school in my 40s and studied history, and that’s when I really fell in love with it. Now I’m working on genealogy, which includes learning the history of the various countries at the times I am investigating. It has changed my view of life and the world in immeasurable ways.

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    1. My love of history certainly helped inform my interest in genealogy — one of the great treasures I’ve gotten was the historic papers from some of my ancestors — talk about putting a real PERSON to history!

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  2. Really enjoyed the post, my books historical fiction for children, hoping to live long enough to publish books centred upon William of Normandy, finding out the details is fascinating, isn’t it.

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  3. One of my favorite genres is historical fiction and for the very reason you cite. Placing yourself at a period in the past is always an exciting notion, and one way to do that is through a character.

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    1. Historical Fiction… I am so lost when I start reading it (in a good way) just want to bury myself into them, and then read more and more from that time. It ends up being a very dangerous little cycle 🙂

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  4. I had an incredible history teacher in my high school. Unfortunately she also was an alcoholic, but nonetheless her classes were always amazing, she had all sorts of little facts and anecdotes, that made her lectures really interesting!

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    1. Incredible teachers can make such a huge difference! I had a love of history before I was really in school (oh, the road-side stops I forced my family to stop at through the years…) but I know that the way history was approached throughout my education really helped to make it enjoyable.

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  5. I never understood why so many people hate history and think it’s boring and stupid. History was always my favoritest subject in school, and historical fiction is pretty much the only genre I read, besides classic world literature and non-fiction related to history. It’s particularly frustrating when someone prefaces a book review with the caveat “I don’t normally like historical fiction, but…” Why justify your love of a book by pointing out you don’t usually read that genre?

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    1. I had a professor in grad school who was teaching in a strange mix of interesting stories and dry lectures… which prompted a lot of conversation with my classmates, many of whom were older than me (by a decade or more). I really think the way it is taught can have a huge impact, for many of them it took years and years before they saw it as more than just the tale of dead white guys, wars, and political wrangling.
      Historical fiction really is awesome — as is a lot of the non-fiction related to history. I REALLY love getting my hands on primary sources, old letters, journals, and even publications from the time you’re interested in, can help to give so much more of a picture.

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    1. Genealogy can be such an excellent way to get people into understanding the “just human” piece of history. I’ve really loved getting to know the different genealogists that I have through the years.

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  6. As a historian, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, we need more people like you in this world! Obviously, I love history. I think one of the issues too is that we learn political history in school, and there are so many different sub genres of the subject. I’m a social historian, and it sounds like you are too. I find it fascinating to look at how the lives of everyday people were affected by the major events going on at the time. Sidenote: found out recently that the oldest person in the world was born in the late 1890s. Just think off all he’s seen! He went from horse drawn csrriges to cars and planes, from corsets to female presidential candidates, two worlds wars, Civil Rights. What I would give to pick that man’s brain.

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    1. With you 100% I love when I find other people who understand history the way I do, or when I can help open someone’s eyes to how much more there is to be found in history. I’ve taken every chance I get to teach people the stories of history, no matter what age those people might be! Such fun to see the same spark of excitement at learning in the eyes of children as in the eyes of a 70 year old!

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  7. I used to think history was boring (all that memorizing of facts) until I had my Grade 10 history teacher, who taught us that history was about cause and effect, and how things were entwined together. What an eye-opener! I love history. So many fascinating stories!

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