Gateways to History: Getting Started

What makes a person like history?

Is it just a quirk of personality that leads them to be insatiably curious about the past?

Is it a family member who shared his or her own love of history?

Is it just a coincidence of factors: good books, great teachers, a need to know?

All of these things can contribute to the creation of an avid historian, but what if you didn’t have the benefit of such circumstances – are you doomed to dislike history?

Not at all! There are other gateways to history and finding yours is the challenge!

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

More than one way to… study history

History is stereotypically fed to students via the textbook and a class lecture. A good textbook can spur an interest in students, but more importantly a good teacher can spur a lifelong love of the subject.

I had two particularly memorable high school history teachers. They each had a different approach to teaching, but were equally successful.

One teacher taught by lecture. The good thing was that he was one of the best lecturers I have ever heard. He gave us clear instructions from the start, if you want to get a good score on the Advanced Placement U.S. history test at the end of the year, then read the textbook twice. His expectation that we would do our reading and come to class with a clue about the day’s subject freed him up to add extra material from his vast store of historic knowledge during the lecture. He could tell a great story.

The other teacher had a different approach, but was also a gifted storyteller. She was a multi-media historian. We watched videos, read textbooks, read primary source excerpts, viewed art history slides and maps, did re-enactments, had class discussions, and completed writing assignments. She illustrated to me the importance of a variety of sources and approaches that make the subject vibrant and alive!

I had other great teachers, but I think this makes clear that the best gateway to a love of history is a fantastic teacher.

Find your gate, take the path

If you don’t like history because you had bad teachers, all is not lost. Try this: go watch a movie that has an historic setting or read an historical novel. How many people who went to see 300 or Braveheart consciously thought they were going to study history – surely not many.

Movies and historical fiction aren’t perfect, but they are a kind of gateway. Ideally they should spur a curiosity into an area of history that draws you to your local library and a good book on the subject. They are highly interpretive, so by all means, if something sounds far-fetched in a book or movie – go prove the author or directors wrong by researching the subject yourself.

Let a productive curiosity be your gateway into history. Maybe you want to know more about family genealogy – research the era in which your relatives immigrated! Maybe the history of a national or religious holiday has always made you wonder about its origins – go find out! Perhaps you read a short article that was so well written it made you want to know more.

Best of all, if you are planning a trip, don’t leave until you have at least one book under your belt about the area you are going to visit. When you get there, go see some of the places you read about, make the story come alive.

Once you cross the threshold, keep your curiosity alive. Make it a challenge to find the thread that connects each historical era or subject you study or come across. Or my personal favorite, when you’re at the store and you get the total cost of your purchases, take four of the digits and try to remember what happened in that year in history. If you can’t think of anything, go home and use a search engine to find out!

Take the plunge, it’s more exciting that you ever imagined!