The Mystery of History

I know there are some of you who are prolific in your knowledge of history, and others who believe every single American citizen should have  a set of facts and figures regarding our country, our world, and our government imbedded in our brain, but at the risk of insulting many and infuriating a few, I can honestly admit that for most of my life, I just was not interested in learning history. I did not care who our founding fathers were or how many of them signed the constitution, or when. Now, this might be a sad commentary on our nation’s public school system, or on the wisdom of the youth in our society. Or, perhaps, it may be as simple as the fact that my natural interests and talents lie more in the direction of writing and reading. Whatever it was, my lack of knowledge did not affect either my ability to get jobs (no one asked me in an interview to name the presidents) or to function in society.  Until I started homeschooling.  Then I had to consider that my lack of knowledge in these areas could hinder my own children’s education.  To compensate, I have invested in many books that are strategically placed throughout our house in the attempt to make history both easily accessible and interesting.  I had one son who read dozens of Childhood of Famous Americans and Landmark books (both vintage children’s historical fiction series) and a daughter who avidly devoured fictional diaries of children long ago. This solved the big dilemma of making history interesting without delving into any boring textbooks.  When I felt the need to introduce history in a more structured way, we invested in Joy Hakim’s History of the US set, along with books about presidents, world events and timelines, and even a vintage  Rainbow Book of American History. There is no dearth of educational history books in our house, and we have not hesitated to unearth more at the public library as children’s interests have dictated.

After all, a good deal of our learning is done by osmosis. Avid readers learn much about history and science just from reading about subjects they are passionate about. Two of my children who never touched a history or science textbook tested high in those subjects just from following their interests through what some call “real books,” that make history and science come alive. 

Still, I searched for a  book that would teach history in a more structured way. The Hakim books did that in an interesting format, but my 13-year-old Emily didn’t care for them, and while my 16-year-old has learned a lot of history and science just from watching Discovery Channel, I have been searching for a history book that would interest them both.

If you can see it in the picture, there are not one, but two pieces of paper sticking out from the top of this book. Those sheets of paper serve as bookmarks for the two people in this house currently reading this book, The Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History by Adam Selzer.  This is a book intended for young people, in a style and a substance that will make history relatable.

The two people currently reading it are my husband and I.

I took all the required history, government and geography courses in elementary and high school, and I not only passed them, but graduated from high school with a 3.8 grade point average. The “F” in my first year of Algebra likely diminished that score. (I got a B+ the second time around) I remember actually squirming in my seat during the dull, tired and dry history lessons. I loved reading and would read the backs of cereal boxes if there wasn’t anything else to read, but history textbooks had to be the worst books in the world, followed closely by Geography.  I just had no interest in history at all. I also remember memorizing every single capital of every state and being able to fill in maps for tests. I aced those tests.  Then as promptly as I would leave that classroom, everything I had just memorized disappeared from my brain. Because I simply did not care about those things. Even back then I would rather have taken 10 essay tests than one Geography quiz.

This is an awkward admission from a homeschooling mother since no one among our fray wants our children to be as ignorant as we are in whatever subject is not our forte. Luckily, we do not have to depend upon our own vast store of knowledge in order for our children to learn. There is the Internet, after all, and educational programming, as well as online courses or tutors. And there are books that will teach what we don’t ourselves know. But whenever my children have asked me why they need to know history, I’ve had a difficult time explaining exactly why they should know the capital of Texas or who Captain John Smith was, especially when my own retained knowledge is so limited and I function perfectly fine without much of a base of historical knowledge. 

“There are a lot of things out there that you don’t really need to know. For instance, unless you live in Vermont and plan to run for state government, we can’t think of a single good reason why you’d need to know that the capital of Vermont is Montpelier.

Here’s the thing though: just because you won’t be able to use this stuff to get a job doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know it. Knowing history will, quite simply, make you a smarter and more well-rounded person.”

The above is from the introduction to Adam Selzer’s book, and what hooked me into delving into it myself. For despite the fact that for most of my life I have not cared about history, I have lamented my own lack of knowledge.  I have taken steps to resolve that by reading Landmark books that interested me. (I knew my father fought in the Battle of the Bulge so I read the children’s Landmark book that delved into that battle and learned more than I’d ever learned from a textbook)  I also skimmed through some of the Joy Hakim books and actually read the volumes on the Depression and recent history. Hers came very close to what I would have liked to have learned from in high school.  I have done more map puzzles and eaten off more map placemats than any adult should ever have to do. I have pored over world maps with my children and spun a world globe to the places my children have read about. Many times it is their Dad they have turned to in these endeavors. They are well aware who is the more knowledgeable in both history and geography subjects, just as it is me they bring their English or grammar questions to. (or is that “I”? But I digress.)

But this book, this children’s book, has me enraptured. It is this irreverent style of writing that I have searched high and low for that has me picking up the book over and over the past few days. And I am learning!  I am learning about historical facts and figures (figures being people, in this case) that I never knew, or if I did, I had long forgotten about. And I care! That I actually care is amazing to me. Could it be that for all these years I was just reading the wrong books?  I had an inkling that I might find history just a little bit interesting when I discovered Muse magazine.  If you have children of any age, you might want to check out Muse magazine, because it is written in the same irreverent and humorous vein that the Smart Aleck’s Guide is written.  (I’m considering subscribing to it for myself) I like Mental Floss magazine for the same reason.  History and Science can not only be interesting, but humorous.  People are funny. And I really, really like to be amused.   So do my kids, which is why we have all learned from books such as Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest, Wackiest Moments and Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty by Joy Masoff.

One of the main tenets of homeschooling is that you never stop learning. It is a part of life. Learning doesn’t begin with Kindergarten and end with 12th grade, nor does it start at 8:00 a.m. and end at 3:00 p.m.  It is true that we can learn what we need to know when we need it. 

When my son Dan started a business designing and making t-shirts that he sold online he learned most of what he needed from the web and from reading, and then he built some of the required machines on his own. When he began remodeling the duplex he bought, he did the same thing. 

This past Spring, when Dan downloaded Microsoft Word on my computer for me, I learned a whole lot more about editing and revising my writing because Microsoft Word highlights things that Microsoft Works did not.  When I thought I had a book to promote, I learned about book promotion through websites and books on the subject. I learned how to build a platform and design a press kit.  I’ve learned a lot about writing and publishing this last year.

I learned something else, just this week.  If I really want to learn more about history, it’s not too late.   I’m learning each day, as I read this book written to entice young people. And this time, it might actually stick with me because of the way it is written, and because this time I care. I’ve discovered the format (funny, irreverent) that fits my personality, that interests me in history. This is something else I’ve always believed about teaching children; each individual has a natural way of learning. Some are visual learners, others have to touch everything.  Some learn from watching, others have to do.  Being instrumental in teaching six different personalities to learn to read taught me that. What worked for one, didn’t always work for the other. Each of us has to find what works for us.

It’s about time I started following my own advice.  I’m excited to find a book that really makes history interesting.  I can’t wait to share it with my kids.  Just as soon as their Dad and I finish it.

About Mary Potter Kenyon

Author of over 300 articles and essays published in magazines, newspapers, and books. Speaker for women's groups, writer's groups and community colleges on the subjects of avid couponing or writing. Her book "Coupon Crazy" will be released by Familius Publishing in August of 2013. Weekly couponing columnist for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald newspaper, touted as the "Tri-State Area's Coupon Queen.". Lives in Manchester Iowa with three of her eight children. Widowed in March 2012.
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3 Responses to The Mystery of History

  1. Jane says:

    I have never heard of Smart Aleck’s guide…but I am so glad you are enjoying it!

  2. Helen Hegener says:

    That a fun review to read, Mary – makes me want to get the book and read it! I’ve posted a link to your post at HEM, should be available sometime later today!

  3. Pingback: The Mystery of History – Article – Home Education Magazine – HEM

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