So, I have these three lovely daughters. Two are in elementary school (and the other boasts that it’s her last year of preschool). The older two are both studying various aspects of Virginia history this year in their respective classes and I’ve been keeping tabs on what they having been learning and keeping my fingers crossed that they find it interesting and absorb as much as possible.
History as a school subject was soooo boring to me. I mean, start talking about the names and dates of white men and their battles and my mind turns off in an instant. Sure, I could memorize the dates and names and retain them long enough to spit them back out on a high school history test. Have no doubt, though, that I would just as quickly erase that material from my brain and make that real estate available to something more important, like who asked whom to the prom or where my friends and I were meeting to “hang out” that weekend. They were never going to light my fire for history using the same old approach.
Year after year, we learned about U.S. and world history in a cyclical nature. Every couple of years, we’d rehash old topics, supposedly building upon what we’d already covered. You would think this constant cramming (I think they called it reinforcement) of data would have worked. I can tell you that in my 13 years of grade school (and we might as well add college here, too, since I managed to take as few history classes as possible and insisted on not retaining anything from them as well) I learned very, very little. Like, embarrassingly little.
Fast forward several years and history has far surpassed my love for learning about science, business, and psychology. How’d that happen, you might ask (all 2 of you thanks to my sweet hubby and my dad following me here 🙂 ). Well, genealogy happened.
It wasn’t the genealogy per se that sparked the interest. It was my desire to put my ancestor’s lives into historical perspective that made the difference. If I want to understand why my great great grandfather, William McKenney, migrated from the Virginia countryside, not west, but into the city of Richmond, it might help to know a little about re-industrialization after the Civil War. When I find an old publication with the editor’s recommendation of my Italian immigrant great great grandfather, Raffaello Funai, as a potential employee, it would be extremely handy to understand why the city of Lynchburg “went dry” causing him to lose his job in 1910. And it might give me a better understanding about why he moved his family to Richmond several years later to make a better life.
I’ve found several ways to make learning history interesting and engaging. Podcasts are great. There are a couple that stand out in my mind. One is Backstory with The American History Guys. Produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this podcast features three guys, each an expert in a particular century’s worth of historical information. They put together one-hour long shows that put today’s topics of interest into historical perspective. Another is the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. Lots of podcasts here covering topics like the long winter of 1880-1881, also known as “The Long Winter” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book of the same name. How could knowing about that long winter that our ancestors lived through help us to better understand their lives?
Historical fiction has been another great way for me to pick up an understanding of historical events. Properly done, many novels based in the past reveal a great amount of detail about the events of history using compelling stories of fictional characters. Filtering out the specific characters, we can glean tons of information about the details of daily living, key historical figures and places, etc. and do so while being entertained.
One historical fiction novel that fell serendipitously into my path right before I picked up researching genealogy was “Dark Enough to See the Stars in a Jamestown Sky.” It’s a novel written by a Richmond, Virginia woman, Connie Lapallo. Ms. Lapallo went to great lengths to research, as thoroughly as possible, the lives of those early settlers of Jamestown in order to tell the story of one of her ancestors. The main character of the novel turned out to be a mutual ancestor of ours, which I did not know until I pulled the unread book off of my bookshelf after I had already begun researching that family line. More distant cousin genealogy magic!
There are no doubt many interesting documentaries, movies, non-fiction books, blogs, etc. out there that are accurate and compelling. Now, with a little more context and taste for history under my belt, I hope to seek those out while I am also studying genealogy and researching my particular family lines.
Back to my children — I have seen their teachers be more effective than mine were at making those valuable connections. At home, we discuss topics in a historical context (as much we can, them knowing sometimes more than I do!), and we incorporate books and movies with a historical background. I hope to instill a sense in them that where we come from, as a family and as citizens of this state and country are all impacted by the events and people that came before us.
If learning about history didn’t come naturally to you, what approaches have you found to make it interesting in your pursuit of genealogy?