Last week, I was invited to talk to a class of third- and fourth-graders about what it’s like to be a historian. I was pretty sure I and my line of work would be about as exciting to these kids as a lecture on tort reform, or monetary policy, or the line-item veto. But, these kids were into history–my 30-minute guest spot lurched closer to 60 minutes, and many hands were still in the air when I stopped taking questions. (That’s just a random photo of a classroom–it’s not Historiann at the head of the class.)
According to the questions I got that day, and the thank-you notes they all wrote me, here are the things that really impressed them about being a historian:
- The opportunity for glamorous travel! (Seriously.) This was really exciting for them–to think that I had to travel as far away as Boston, Maine, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even across an international border to Quebec to do my research. I told them that I wanted to do research in Paris, and one of the children wrote sweetly, “I hope you get to Paris someday!” Their excitement about travel struck me because for me, being a historian is not about movement, but about being stationary–that is, spending a lot of time sitting indoors in a library, archive, or my own desk, albeit sometimes at libraries in Chicago and Los Angeles, and archives in Boston, Maine, and Quebec.
- There are historians writing books about every place in the world! (Related to opportunities for glamorous travel.) African history really got a few of the children excited. I think this was a revelation for them because the hook for my visit is that they’d been doing a class unit on local history, so the teachers hadn’t connected the dots yet to world history.
- In colonial America, girls and boys were taught to read but only boys were taught to write, and enslaved children were forbidden to achieve any form of literacy. That blew their minds, as people who were still very close to the achievement of literacy, and who were taught literacy in a way that made learning reading and writing inseparable. Most of them mentioned that in their thank-you notes as the most interesting thing I had taught them.
- One kid even worked himself up to an epistemological crisis! Toward the end of the questions, he asked, “But, how do we know that history is, you know, the truth?” His classmates started to ridicule him for complicating something that to them seemed pretty straightforward–historians read the sources and tell us what they say, right? I shushed them and he perservered: “I mean, how do you know that your sources are true?” That blew me away–he got to a place in 45 minutes at the age of nine that many of my undergraduate university students will never go.
Once again, I was humbled by the work that schoolteachers do. This class was incredibly well-prepared for my visit, and it’s amazing to think that teachers do that every day not just in one subject, but in five or six of them, in addition to dealing with learning disabilities and any social or family problems the students might have. The children were all unfailingly polite, although some were clearly more interested than others. One of the things that took a few minutes to get used to was the constant fidgeting in the students–in an adult audience, fidgeting is a major sign that you’re losing them and it’s time to wrap things up. But in an audience of eight- to ten-year olds, they all fidgeted, even the ones who were clearly very interested and asked me lots of questions.
At the end of the class, the teacher said to the children, “Now when you heard we would have a historian come to our class, you probably got a picture in your mind about what a historian might look like. Does Dr. Historiann look like the picture in your mind?” Immediately, all the heads started shaking violently–I was a little taken aback. When I asked them what was so different about me, one little boy half jumped out of his seat and waved his hands consolingly, “You’re different–but in a GOOD way!” I think they knew I was a woman before I visited–I got the impression that they thought I would be older, more serious, and more formally dressed. (I wasn’t slovenly, but I wasn’t wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase.) I’m just wondering where their ideas about historians have come from that already by the ages of 8, 9, or 10, they have a picture in their minds about what we look like. But, some of them may have seen a documentary with the usual, not terribly diverse array of talking heads on PBS or The History Channel.
One boy, whose mother works with a Historiann family member, told his mother that the kids thought that I was prettier than they thought a historian would be. (I was flattered until I remembered that kids that age all think their mothers are pretty, so consider the source.)