History is Boring!

No, History is not boring, but it certainly is usually taught in a boring fashion.  The main culprits:

1. Badly Written TextbooksUsually drafted by committees of fairly untalented hacks, they frequently make the reading of technical manuals seem exciting by comparison.

2.  Politicized Drek-Textbooks often have a strong ideological slant.  These days that slant is usually, although not always, driven from the Left.  Therefore students are likely to read quite a bit on the treatment of women in colonial America, with the military history of the American Revolution left to a scant two pages.  This distorts History and usually drains the life out of it, as the study of the past becomes yet another opportunity to deliver a twenty-first century political diatribe.

3.  Ignorant Teachers-Too often History is taught by teachers who have little knowledge of it and no passion for it.  When I was in high school back in the early Seventies, coaches often were  assigned to teach History, under the assumption that anyone could teach it.  There were exceptions, and I still have fond memories of Mr. Geisler who taught American history and Mr. Vanlandingham who taught European history, but the usual level of the teaching of History was quite low.

4.  Laundry Lists-States often mandate inclusion of certain subjects in History.  This results in a laundry list approach of teaching History in which so many topics must be covered that short shrift is given to understanding a period as a whole.

5.  Too Much-When I was in school we were lucky in an American history course to reach the end of World War II before the course ended.  Stuff too much of a time period into a course, and the instruction will amount to a race against time.

6.  The Students- The bone ignorance of most American students when it comes to History cannot be exaggerated.  When I was attending the University of Illinois I recall a conversation with a Junior at the University.  I made a passing allusion to Grant taking  Richmond, and she confessed to me that she had heard of General Grant and of General Lee but that she wasn’t sure if they had fought for the North or the South.  We can call this the John Blutarsky problem:

Instruction will be boring in History if the teachers have to assume that the students have absorbed almost no basic knowledge on the subject prior to entering their class and spend all their time teaching the most elementary of facts.

7.  Lifeless History- Too often it seems that History is taught with an eye to draining all passion from it.  Wars are given short shrift, the lives of great men are ignored, and the religious and political passions of the past are treated with a lack of understanding that render them incomprehensible to the students.

All in all, a rather dispiriting litany of gloom.  In a future post we will examine what can be done to improve instruction.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Great analysis. I find the second item particularly obnoxious. As an anectdote- I was reading Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter, and the author’s treatment of Aristotle comprised less than a page and a half, whereas Plato’s Symposium received nearly an entire chapter (ironically entitled ‘How To Think’.) The reason? Aristotle’s metaphysics led to the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics, which modern people are way too smart to find reasonable. (paraphrase)

    So let’s ignore the massive influence Aristotle had on western civilization (that is, why the Greeks matter!) and focus on eroticism, since that is the bequest of the classical Greeks. (*removes tongue from cheek)

    On the other hand, Victor Davis Hanson’s books on Greek internecine warfare focus on only one particular aspect of the classical Greeks yet manage to actually give a reason why the Greeks matter, which Cahill never really gets around to, at least from what I remember. Once he waved off Aristotle I realized I could safely tune out.

  2. The English actor James Purefoy, in promoting “Ironclad,” his medieval warfare film, said “It should be a crime to be a boring history teacher!”

    And yet, we’ve managed to do precisely that–make history a dull slog.

    Which leads to the present, a sad generation of people cut off from their pasts, living entirely in a present, at once ignorant, ungrateful and frivolous.

  3. My history experience was a little different. We moved a lot when I was young. I must have had “US: Founding to Radial Reconstruction” four times, never anything past that for the US except as part of WWII. I knew the Greeks but never met the Romans. My only exposure to Europe between the Hellenic period and WWII was from a well-meaning sister who railed against the Philosophes – and yes, they deserved it, but a little context would have been nice. I don’t think I ever had history outside Europe and the US except for a smattering in Spanish class, but I suspect that’s pretty common in the US.

    As to this article: Point #7 cannot be overstated. I remember reading a quote to the effect that the US wasn’t settled by those we call the settlers, but by merchants, soldiers, and missionaries. That’s always stuck with me because we’ve eliminated the motives of the real historical people from history: profit, conquest, and faith. Money sometimes makes its way into history classes, at least in my era (HS Class of 1982), through Marx-influenced analysis. Nationalism and religion, though, were forbidden topics. I’d bet that these days you could present nationalism, but it’d be as distorted through political correctness as the profit motive was distorted in the textbooks I was exposed to.

  4. Jason’s remarks about Aristotle raises a very interesting point.

    For us, of course, Aristotle was one of the giants of philosophy, but his work was unknown in the West until the 11th century, mediated through Arab translators. The only dialogue of Plato known in the West was the Symposium. It was the Stoics and the Epicurians that dominated late Antiquity, until the rise of Neo-Platonism with Plotinus in the third century.

    Again, that he was one of the best observational biologists of Antiquity was not recognized until the 16th century at least.

    The same paradox applies to Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. To us, they are the great figures of their age, but, outside a tiny circle of savants, they were unknown to their contemporaries. Newton was the first scientist who was a major public figure in his own day. Likewise, In the middle of the 19th century, the work of Bolyai and Lobachevsky was largely unknown, even to well-educated people. Non-Euclidean geometry entered the public consciousness with Einstein.

  5. Thanks, Donald. I think much needs to be said about both the importance of history and the need to teach it well so that it appeals to people as enlightening and useful. But I see another problem. I think many people would like to keep history at a distance–people who are radically progressive–since history tends to reign us in a bit. History would guide us more rationally into the future, whereas ideologues would have us answer their call to leap into the dark. The places they wish to go would lack any real continuity with the past, and I think that’s why radical politicians tend to reject authentic history.

  6. Don

    In the Seventy’s our world history survey professor read some of the better answers from the mid-term

    Q Who was Jesus Christ?
    A He lived about 0 AD and became a Christian because he liked the religion.

    And this was a Catholic university.


    A few years ago I was helping friend with her grandson’s reading. So i used the social studies book, they were doing the middle ages..

    It had high quality paper and ink, beautiful illustrations, arts and craft projects, and an age appropriate text that leaves the reader completely uninformed about the middle ages.

    So what if they can’t read there is nothing worth reading in that book.

    History is fun! Middle Ages Histroy is fun, You have to work to mess it up.

    (I got out “Just so Stories” and had him rap “How the Camel got his Hump” In fifteen minutes he was doing a lot better.)

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

  7. “History is fun! Middle Ages Histroy is fun, You have to work to mess it up.”

    Quite right Hank. I have always enjoyed this scene from the movie Ruggles of Red Cap because it shows how a British butler who has become intrigued by Abraham Lincoln by reading a book about him, reminds Americans of their history:

  8. “Which leads to the present, a sad generation of people cut off from their pasts, living entirely in a present, at once ignorant, ungrateful and frivolous.”

    Which makes it incumbent upon us who know the history Dale to teach it in any way we can. One of the reasons why I stress history so much in my posts.

  9. “As an anectdote- I was reading Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter, and the author’s treatment of Aristotle comprised less than a page and a half, whereas Plato’s Symposium received nearly an entire chapter (ironically entitled ‘How To Think’.) The reason? Aristotle’s metaphysics led to the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics, which modern people are way too smart to find reasonable. (paraphrase)”

    Cahill is a rotten historian and an uber liberal former Catholic, current Catholic basher:

    “John Paul II has been almost the polar opposite of John XXIII, who dragged Catholicism to confront 20th-century realities after the regressive policies of Pius IX, who imposed the peculiar doctrine of papal infallibility on the First Vatican Council in 1870, and after the reign of terror inflicted by Pius X on Catholic theologians in the opening decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, this pope was much closer to the traditions of Pius IX and Pius X than to his namesakes. Instead of mitigating the absurdities of Vatican I’s novel declaration of papal infallibility, a declaration that stemmed almost wholly from Pius IX’s paranoia about the evils ranged against him in the modern world, John Paul II tried to further it. In seeking to impose conformity of thought, he summoned prominent theologians like Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx and Leonardo Boff to star chamber inquiries and had his grand inquisitor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issue condemnations of their work.

    But John Paul II’s most lasting legacy to Catholicism will come from the episcopal appointments he made. In order to have been named a bishop, a priest must have been seen to be absolutely opposed to masturbation, premarital sex, birth control (including condoms used to prevent the spread of AIDS), abortion, divorce, homosexual relations, married priests, female priests and any hint of Marxism. It is nearly impossible to find men who subscribe wholeheartedly to this entire catalogue of certitudes; as a result the ranks of the episcopate are filled with mindless sycophants and intellectual incompetents. The good priests have been passed over; and not a few, in their growing frustration as the pontificate of John Paul II stretched on, left the priesthood to seek fulfillment elsewhere.”

    Victor Davis Hanson is my favorite living historian and I treasure each of his books.

  10. Every nation, government, and civilization on the scrap heaps of history made the same fatal rejection of God. Our Founders had a better idea by accepting and trusting the God of Abraham, and while our nation trusted, ir prospered with liberty and religious freedom. To preserve this should be the history now taught in every classroom in America. Our repressive government has rejected the Declaration of Independence and declared war on children and the family. God’s moral laws are being officially flaunted, and history is about to relegate our nation to the scrap heaps as well. American patriots had better hone their revolutionary instincts to again defend our intended republic. The future of America may soon rest be in their hands. Especially now if only the criminals have assault weapons and over 10 round magazines.

  11. Here is a little anecdote of how history is taught in our schools.

    One morning, I was working in the stables with two schoolgirls, (aged 16/17) who come to ride my horses and help out. They were studying the “Age of Revolutions,” for their History special subject and somehow we got onto the topic of Napoléon III.

    Yes, they knew all about Bonapartism & Napoléon III: “Stalemate in the class struggle” – “Bourgeoisie surrenders political power, in return for protection of its economic power” – “Bourgeois ‘freedom’ is the freedom to exploit the labour of others for profit” – “The independent Executive – Its instruments the déclassé Bohemians of all classes” – “Professional army made up of the Lumpen proletariat” &c, &c

    It was like listening to children saying their catechism.

    “And who were their opponents?” I asked

    “The proletariat, in alliance with the revolutionary intelligentsia,” they replied, in chorus.

    “And the peasants?”

    “They had no community, no national bond and no political organization,” they intoned, as one.

    For their teachers, there is nothing to the right of the Socialist parties, except greed and eccentricity.

    This is Scotland, after all.

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