Why is a biography more effective than a history textbook? One word: STORY. In a biography, you really get to know a person. You sympathize, rejoice with, cry with and laugh with the characters, which conveniently happened to be real people. You get a feel for that person's character, philosophy of life, and how he or she made decisions.
In reading about John Adams, second President of the United States, I didn't just read about John Adams. That would have been incredibly boring. I also got to know his wife Abigail, children John Quincy, Charles, Thomas and Nabby... his best friends and political enemies. I got to see the old, lazy side of "early to bed, early to rise" Ben Franklin in France. I became more acquainted with the spendthrift side of Thomas Jefferson, who, at the end of the book, died $100,000 in debt. In addition to these "characters" I also got to know Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Samuel Adams, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Marquis Lafayette and his wife, John Paul Jones, and even bad guy King George III to a point where they were no longer just names to me, but real people.
Those things, places and events that had previously been floating around in my mind somewhere under the file "1700s" (John Paul Jones, the French Revolution, the Federalist party) have now been more nicely arranged to where I can understand and better appreciate that which took place. And I can also better appreciate our second President, who I doubt many of us can even name.
A Better Homeschool Curriculum
I have no authority to say what works or what doesn't work as a homeschool mom, but I do have years and years of experience as a student, which I will be happy to share.
I don't remember having any history "curriculum" at all after 7th grade. None, nilch, nada. Instead, I had a ton of great historical fiction, biographies and autobiographies at my disposal (read: library!) and the occasional tourist stop at some place of historical significance. My teacher-mom didn't really appreciate history as much as my dad, but gave us plenty of opportunities to not only read about history see and touch it. For example, as I read about Monticello this month, I could remember the hilltop where it stood, the gardens, slave quarters, and family cemetery out back. I remembered Jefferson's octagon-shaped "cabinet" room with curious scientific instruments and an adjustable desk that he bought on his trip to France (a.k.a international shopping spree). Was I alive in 1800? No, but I did get the opportunity to visit Monticello as a teenager. (No time or money for an in-person visit? Many of these places offer online virtual tours for free.)
And don't think you have to start your third-grader on a mammoth 650-page book about a man that most kids have never heard of. Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books are a great way to introduce biographies. I was only in elementary school when my mom read these to my sister and I, and we were able to see most, if not all of the historical sites after reading the books. Obviously I had little knowledge of history at nine or ten years old and don't remember as much about it as later trips, but it was a fun introduction.
I think it's sad that our schools- public, private, and home schools- cause history to be a boring, unimportant but necessary school subject instead of the fascinating, meaningful story that it is. History is not about memorizing names, dates and places. History is about learning from the past, and if nothing else, it can sure be entertaining!
Maybe this is the inner better-than-thou homeschooler coming out of me, but I can't stand it when people get their centuries mixed up. Or they get World War II mixed up with World War I. We're not talking about presidents here, laws, shoe styles or small minutia like that. We're talking about grown adults, who have sat through many a history class, not knowing the 1820 from 1920. I think there is something messed up about the way we are teaching history.
So there's my rant, and here's my challenge: if you want to cultivate an appreciation of history in yourself or someone else, throw all your textbooks in the nearest dumpster. There are plenty of good biographies out there to enjoy, and if you're not a reader, there's this great thing called the History Channel, which has many documentary offerings on Netflix. And it doesn't stop there. You can buy historically-dressed dolls and paper dolls, history-themed games like Axis and Allies, go to presidential mansions... it's a slippery slope that gets more fun as you go down.
Do you enjoy reading biographies? Why or why not?