I’ve never been big on studying history. It’s not that I don’t find it interesting now, I do, definitely more so than when I was a kid. But the way I learned history in public school was very disjointed (i.e., one year of explorers, one year of state history, one year broken up between Asia, Africa and Europe, one year of painfully dry American history taught by the basketball coach who stood at a podium reading notes he’d written at least 15 years prior. Reading. Page after page. Word for word. Every. Single. Day.). Ouch.
Now, in his defense I fully recognize that not much had changed in the birth story of our nation in the past 15 years, fair enough. But since when was standing up front and reading lecture notes considered a great way to teach 15-year olds, let alone intellectually engage them?
Since never. But that’s what passed for history education back in the day (god that makes me sound so old).
And truthfully, that’s probably why I’ve grasped only the very basics of history coming out of school.
See, I’m a big picture kind of gal. Individual events and battles and dates and facts really don’t mean much to me unless I understand the greater context that they occurred in. I do much better absorbing and understanding all the details when I learn how people were actually affected during the course of history.
I need that to make it real.
Novel concept, huh?
So in teaching history to the kids, I’ve tried to take the same approach. Over the years we’ve used a variety of resources, starting with Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World books and CDs (which the kids literally wore out, listening to them so many times) to various books and online resources to a world history class the kids attended this year, taught by a friend.
We’ve pieced enough together so far to suffice, but I’d love to give them a more thorough understanding of some key historical events, ones that I think will make them better citizens of this country as well as the world.
Studying world religions has also been a key component for us over the years. In my opinion, understanding the social, historical and theological underpinnings of various religions gives the kids a more complete framework to view the history of the word and understand the human motivations that have shaped history.
(Honestly I don’t recall ever learning anything about world religions in school or home for that matter. I was sure that Jews celebrated Christmas, so sure that I got into a heated debate defending that fact during my freshman year in college. True story and a very embarrassing one at that.)
So in addition to providing my kids with a basic education in history (none of them are what I’d call history buffs), I’ve often looked to give them interesting bits of coursework that spark their interest and give them a different view into the usual historical proceedings.
A few months ago a friend mentioned how much she loved the movie 1776, based on the Broadway musical. She said it was very funny (and I did not see how that could be possible. History? Funny? No.). History not being my favorite subject, I filed that suggestion away as an interesting tidbit.
As part of our focus on field trips in May and June, we took a guided tour of the Capitol last week. It was fine. It wasn’t what I expected, since you can’t visit the actual House and Senate chambers unless you have special passes obtained from your congressperson (and we didn’t). Bummer. If you can’t see where the action is, it’s kind of a letdown, right?
Instead we got a tour that was limited to the Rotunda (part of which was covered in tarps for construction, disappointing), Statuary Hall, and the Crypt. It was cool, don’t get me wrong. And our tour guide was mind-blowingly awesome. She was a 20-something young woman that answered every single question with a depth and breadth of knowledge you rarely see and my kids and I are still astounded at how much she knew. Ms. Monica St. Dennis, if you (or even better, your boss) are reading this, YOU ROCK. I wish you were for homeschool hire. You made that whole tour worth it.
Anyway, back to the 1776 musical. We rented it as a follow up to our Capitol tour.
It was fantastic and I never saw that coming.
Of course I could have looked up the reviews ahead of time and seen for myself that it’s based on a Tony-award winning musical performed in 1969 and revived again in 1997 (and they wouldn’t have done that if it stunk, right?).
That would have been too easy.
I went into it expecting to be bored (not a big history fan, remember?) because the movie is 2 hours and 45 minutes long, and I can barely sit through an interesting movie of average length. But a boring movie pushing 3 hours? Save me.
I tried to keep the length a secret from the kids because I knew they’d balk and honestly I was balking inside so how could I blame them?
(Keeping the length a secret didn’t work, in case you’re curious.)
All I could do was commiserate with them and lamely offer “well, it’s supposed to be very good…” but really I was kind of dreading it too.
So when the movie, which was made in 1972 (adding to the dread factor) opened with a campy song-and-dance number called “Sit Down, John!” with the members of Congress singing to John Adams of Massachusetts, all I could do was laugh and roll my eyes.
And as the musical numbers went on, it got more ridiculous. 1972 in all its movie-making glory posing as 1776. We were practically rolling with laughter.
But a funny thing happened too, which took us all by surprise. We all became shockingly engrossed. And we stayed that way for the full 2 hours and 45 minutes (minus a quick bathroom break halfway through).
I say it took us by surprise because the movie, despite how corny it starts out, does an amazingly good job of showing this piece of American history on a personal level. It explores the intricacies between John and Abigail Adams and her requests for pins competing with his requests for gunpowder. It illuminates the love Thomas Jefferson had for his wife Martha. It offers a glimpse into what Benjamin Franklin really thought of his sons (and that's pretty funny, in fact everything about Ben Franklin in this movie is hysterical).
In other words, it really does bring history to life.
Or more accurately, it brings life to history.
Which if you’re asking me, is the only way to go.
We rented 1776 through Netflix though you may find it through other channels as well. If you’re interested in exploring the historical accuracy of the movie (which is always a great thing to do), here are some links to get you started: