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Don't Know Much About History: An Interview with Author Kenneth Davis

Charlotte Williams's picture

Kenneth C. Davis is a New York Times best-selling author who has written about a myriad of significant popular issues—from American History, to geography, to literature, to the Bible, to mythology. His books, for both adults and children, provide an accessible and entertaining guide to these topics. For this interview, we focus on the latest revised edition of his book, Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition—which is now out in hard cover from HarperCollins. He contrasts this book with what he considers boring approaches in most history textbooks, and emphasizes that Americans are highly interested in history when it’s relayed in an engaging, realistic way.

Public School Insights: Why did you decide to write this book?

Kenneth Davis: To make history as interesting and exciting as I always thought it was! The book looks at 500 years of American History, from the voyages of Columbus, right up to the year 2000. I wrote the book in a non-academic, conversational style, attempting to use wit and pop cultural references to reach audiences turned off by textbooks.

The new "Anniversary" edition of the book includes material that was added to cover the extraordinary events of the past decade or so in American History, a period I call an "Era of Broken Trust." These extraordinary events, beginning in the late 1990s, include corporate scandals; the dot-com bust; the deciding of a Presidential election by the Supreme Court; the scandals afflicting churches, particularly the Catholic Church; the terror strikes on 9/11; the two wars begun in the aftermath of the "War on Terror"; Hurricane Katrina; and the "Great Recession."

All of these events combined to fundamentally shake American trust in the country's most basic institutions. The period also saw historic changes in the election of the first African-American President and the national debate over same-sex marriage. In addition, the book was revised to reflect new information about earlier periods and events in American History which have come to my attention since I last revised the book in 2003.

Public School Insights: What response would you give to people who feel math and reading should be the emphases in education and testing/ and that other subjects simply aren't as important?

Kenneth Davis: I have always believed that it is best to teach across all disciplines. The idea that learning "reading" is somehow divorced from reading history is simply a flawed concept to me. As far as testing goes, we have seen the results of a "testing-based' approach and it fails, according to most teachers I have spoken with over the past few years. I have always put faith in what Yeats once said: "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire." Natural curiosity that all children possess needs to be encouraged. Make it real and it will be relevant.

Once I gave a "Geography" lesson to a group of sixth graders. It started with a discussion of the NBA basketball playoffs and names of the different teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz. Why did they have those names? Soon we were talking about places and their history and I had the class rename the NBA with geographically appropriate names. It was fun, simple and they connected history with a place—Geography!

Public School Insights: You stress that the way history is typically taught in schools is "dull" and "dreary." What recommendations do you have for history teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school level for teaching in a more engaging way?

Kenneth Davis: For me, it comes down to a simple word: story. We all love to hear a good story, all the better if the story is true. History is real stories of real people in real places, not just dates and battles and speeches. My chief recommendations are:

1. Find good stories, especially of young people's role in history. ie, the Civil War was a "Boys War" as so many young and underage soldiers fought and died;

2. Field trips—it’s not just buses and brown bags. Field trips inspire a sense of history happening in real places; my own love of history took root on camping trips and family vacations to places like Lake Champlain and Fort Ticonderoga.

3. Pop culture: Ignore or dismiss it at your peril. Watch Disney's Pocahontas and then have a discussion about who Pocahontas really was.

4. Debate. Examine the great questions in history as if the questions were still up in the air: Doing the Civil War, debate a controversial premise such as, "Let the southern states leave the Union." Prep for these debates and let the ideas fly.

5. And that old reliable "current events." The reason we study history is to connect the past to the present—the history to the headlines. Is there a connection between the Great Depression and the Great Recession? Did we learn anything from Vietnam that can be applied to Iraq and Afghanistan? Does the Patriot Act, intended to catch terrorists, threaten our individual freedom? Is there a similarity between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement?

Public School Insights: What would you say are the top 5 American history myths perpetuated in schools? What consequences do you see these myths having?

Kenneth Davis: There are so many myths, but I would put these at the top because they are pervasive.

1. The Civil War was not about slavery.

2. America is a "melting pot" that has welcomed immigrants.

3. America is a "Christian Nation.”

4. The "First Pilgrims" sailed on the Mayflower.

5. The great changes in American society have come from its political leaders.

I have written about a number of these topics in Don't Know Much About History, Anniversary Edition, as well as in America's Hidden History, Don't Know Much About the Civil War, and A Nation Rising, as well as in the New York Times, and other national publications. (These and other articles can be accessed at http://www.dontknowmuch.com/articles/.)

We like to teach a story filled with pride and patriotism, but it is often a sanitized bedtime story. The truth is more significant—and more interesting:

1. The Civil War was all about slavery, not as a moral issue but as an economic and political issue.

2. Immigrants have struggled against discrimination and worse in every period in our past.

3. Religious intolerance is a major theme that runs throughout history with great political implications.

4. The first Pilgrims were actually French in Florida and they were wiped out in a religious bloodbath 50 years before the Mayflower sailed.

5. Most of the great social upheavals in our past have come from the bottom up not the top down.

We can learn these lessons or keep repeating the safe myth and allowing demagogues or those with a very specific political agenda to control our history.

Public School Insights: What are a few key historical events/situations that you think are critical for students to learn that are relevant to issues America is facing today?

Kenneth Davis: Great question! The real reasons behind the American Revolution (not tea and taxes); the long road to the Civil War and its dreadful consequences; the struggle of workers to organize for their rights and safety—now under attack again; the extreme difficulties of the Great Depression and the sacrifices made by average people then; a true understanding of basic Constitutional rights, including the Bill of Rights, and the great losses suffered by many people to win and protect those rights for us.

These are just a few of the key moments and themes in our history that are playing out every day in our headlines and in the election cycle. Labor, taxes, deficits and debts, religion and individual freedom—these are the changes and challenges that today's students will have to face in a few years as adults and they better be prepared meaningfully for them.

Public School Insights: How much do you think the history of other countries and places should be integrated into teaching about American history?

Kenneth Davis: In an increasingly globalized world where technology brings us all closer together, understanding world history and other nations is more important than ever. It's that simple. Any child who doesn't grasp the role of China, as one obvious example, in America's future is not prepared for that future.

Public School Insights: Is there anything else you would like to note?

Kenneth Davis: My experience in going into schools during the past 10 years—and meeting more teachers at conferences and seminars—is that teachers are dedicated professionals and that children are ready and willing to learn. They want it—they demand it—to be more interesting and even fun than it was for most of us. The "traditional" approach may have worked in the 19th century, but it is no longer viable. We are on the cusp of a revolution in teaching methods and we can grab hold of that challenge and opportunity—whether it is via ipads, Tweets, Skype, or something not yet invented—to make the classroom a place of excitement and discovery, not boredom.

I have been reaching out to schools and libraries with free Skype sessions tied into the curriculum. Last April I did a series of classroom visits focused on the causes, history, and impact of the Civil War. Next fall, I plan to "Beam in" to classrooms to talk about elections as the Presidential decision year of 2012 approaches. With Skype, tweets to teachers, conferences (like EdCampSS on March 24, 2012, in Philadelphia), and other new ventures in technology and teaching, I hope to be part of the radically-changing landscape. I invite teachers to contact me through my website www.dontknowmuch.com to arrange for a Skype visit. Or find me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kennethcdavis where I post resources and articles about history, politics and culture nearly every day.

I am always eager to hear from teachers and share my enthusiasm and interests with them!