Sunday 3 June 2012

Historical Fiction vs Historical Fact - Part 1: Education

I'm starting a series here, discussing some of the questions raised by the Historical Fiction phenomenon, and making some observation about the tension between historical fiction and historical fact.

What do I mean by a "tension" between them? OK, I'll explain:

Why has historical fiction in any media (hard copy, ebooks, video production and not-so-recently, as computer games) become such a raging success, without any apparent end to its popularity?
Among the greatest Blockbusters of All Time and box office hits, there have been quite a few in historical settings?
There's Ben Hur (Bigger-than-Elvis?), Pride & Prejudice, numerous Arthurian legends, Gladiator, endless war movies, western after western and the list goes on.

Compare the success of these with historical documentaries, even docu-dramas and... well... it doesn't compare!
Mega-mega-bucks have been spent and have been made on the big historical movies.
Limited budget when you do a doco, and if it's really professionally done, it might possibly make it to SBS prime time.
Obviously the romantic aspect of fiction has an infinitely greater appeal, but it has been said more than once:
"Whoever does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it."
History -- REAL history -- is vitally important. It's where we've come from. It will help to determine where we are going.

As a teacher, I'll start with how this tension affects education, at least from my point of view.
Serious-minded and conservative educationalist might shrug their shoulders at this comparison and say:
"OK. Historical movies, historical novels = Weekend entertainment. But we have to learn REAL history at school/college/uni! Documentaries? Of course! We use them all the time!"

Hmmm. Maybe. But I'd like to challenge that paradigm somewhat.

My response is: Why shouldn't education be entertaining?
True, there are certain aspects of learning that are just plain hard work. But must it be like that all the time? More and more forward-thinking educationalists are recognizing the power of computer games as a highly motivational medium for things like mathematics, sentence construction. Why not other media? Why not other disciplines?

My first real appreciation of history began with stories my mother read to me as a little child, and from historical novels as I grew older. Allowances are made for romanticising of course (e.g. Was Robin Hood always the good guy? Was he even real?)
I call it the Power of the Narrative.
So many times at school, kids in my generation have groaned at the very thought of walking into a history class. I couldn't wait to get home and pick up one of my historical novels. Then I started to see the connection, and history became one of my favorite subjects.
A well-written and engaging historical novel can win hands-down over dry biographies and chronicles every time in my experience. Give students a good, appealing relevant historical novel to read (or maybe a movie based on it first, if there is one) and I'll bet my bottom dollar they'll be motivated to examine some of the important facts later, giving them better grades.

History is not the only discipline either. How about regional geography, SOSE, psychology, theology (Jesus Christ was the greatest story-teller of them all) and many aspects of Science that have human interest? Obviously there are certain hands-on tasks, for instance, where the narrative is inappropriate, but even then I have followed many manuals that contain case-studies written in a narrative style.

People can relate to subject matter much better that way. Facts can be viewed in their proper perspective, fitting into the general scheme of things.

Do we throw out all the tried-and-true methods of teaching and get our students to read novels, watch blockbusters and play computer games? Ridiculous of course! Horses for courses. But give them other options if the tried-and-true don't work for them. Don't necessarily write these learners off as "backward" or "slow learners."
Everyone has their different learning style in different disciplines at different stages. We've all heard stories (histories!) of people who have made it BIG, intellectual giants, but were far from model students at school.

Waddya think?

Next week I'd like to broaden my scope a bit....

1 comment:

  1. There is a huge move these days towards using the narrative approach, in just about every area. It's a cornerstone of the post-modern dynamic (or epistemology). So I agree that this is one of the best ways to help people learn.. whether it's about history or about ourselves today - nothing as compelling as a good story!

    A great book about The Story to end all stories is: The Sacred Romance by Brent Curtis and John Eldredge.. it describes where we all fit in the overarching narrative of creation-redemption-new creation. It's a beautiful read.

    Also some (shorter blog-style) stuff I've been reading recently about the historical-narrative approach to New Testament theology..