Teaching My Children History

I have been studying and researching and writing about history for half of my life. For the seven years I have been a father, I’ve been thinking about what is appropriate to teach my children about history; what seminal events might constitute a beginning canon of historical knowledge.

In our household, there are three topics that come up again and again from school, popular culture and the news.

1. The Revolutionary War: the Founding Fathers beat back the British and formed a “more perfect union”;

2. The American Civil War: Abraham Lincoln and his team of abolitionists ended slavery; coda: Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks helped end racism;

3. World War II: Adolph Hitler and his Nazis killed Jews and other minorities and tried to take over the world with his Japanese allies.

It’s amazing how many times these moments come up in conversation. Indiana Jones was a recent fad in our house and that required bringing up the Nazis again. The Lincoln Memorial on a Spring trip meant reminding them about slavery.

Like any kids story, even historical narratives get requests for repeat tellings. “Daddy, remember when that guy was yelling, ‘the British are coming’?”

Of course, there are problems. For one thing, my kids are too young to fully understand chronology. My five year old daughter wanted to know if it was okay to be friends with Luke in her class because his mother is British and aren’t we at war with the British?

Thinking about history in our house made me consider these events that I keep coming back to and what they have in common. Here it is: there are good guys and there are bad guys, and the good guys win.

The truth of the matter is, there are plenty of other historical events that come up all the time that I simply avoid talking about.

September 11th, for example, has daily repercussions on the news we hear on the radio. There is an obvious bad guy in this narrative, but it makes a terrible story because the bad guy is still on the loose – there’s no ending to the tale yet.

While I was reading The Day We Lost the H-Bomb, my son constantly asked me what it was about, what an H-bomb was and more. I explained how powerful nuclear weapons are and he wanted to know if they had ever been used. Well, I said, not H-bombs, but the United States used A-bombs on Japan. And then I stopped answering questions because I really don’t know if that was a good thing or not (particularly the second bomb on Nagasaki).

And the Great War? Most days, I can’t even explain that one to myself.

Of course my top three histories are not nearly as simple as I tell them. Most obviously, racism still exists despite Dr. King’s and Ms. Parks’ best efforts. The American Revolution and the Civil War sometimes feel like political counterpoints to one another: is it better to disagree as part of larger unit or is secession a better course? (Wow, that’s really simplistic, but there are days when I wonder if paying extra taxes and not feeling represented in government is worth spilling blood over, and days when I wonder what the United States would be like with a Confederate neighbor to the South.)

History, like the present, is full of paradoxes, seemingly inconsistent characteristics. After seeing an exhibit about Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, my son was impressed with the emperor’s many achievements: building a proto-Great Wall, systematizing weights and measures and the Chinese language over vast territory, establishing currency, and building a great terracotta army to follow him into the afterlife. My mother mentioned that the emperor’s palace was so large that it was said to have taken weeks to burn during a peasant uprising.

This threw my son for a loop. If the emperor was great, why did the peasants rebel? As adults, it’s clear that strong leaders can achieve monumental accomplishments while leaving a long trail of resentment but that sort of trade-off has not yet taken hold in my son’s brain.

The truth is, I don’t want it to yet.

I hope he and his sister will have many decades of life to ponder the moral failings of great leaders, the concept of hubris, and debate whether ends justify means. For now, I want to extend the few years they have left where bad guys are clearly differentiated from good guys and the good guys always win.

To put it another way, my instincts as a parent conflict with my instincts as a historian and I’m not sure when or how to make the transition to a more nuanced view of history, and of humanity. Suggestions welcome.

Author: Jack Cheng

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