Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Single Stories in History

In a wonderful TED talk, author Chimamanda Adichie makes a poignant case for avoiding the dangers of what she calls the "single story." It's an excellent talk, only 19 minutes in length, and well worth watching.

In her talk, Chimamanda speaks about the limits we place on reality in believing "single stories." These single stories are often media driven and perpetuate stereotypes. Examples cited by Adichie include the portrayal of Africa as a country instead of a continent of individual countries. Africans as poor, starving, tribal people, instead of a diverse people made up of different nationalities, cultures, languages, and beliefs. She also argues that the immigration debate in the US tends to portray immigrants most often as abject Mexicans who come to America to steal jobs. These examples of single stories paint reality in one color and fail to provide the details and nuances that create truer pictures of real life situations and people. In our culture it has become far too easy to rely on single stories for our information. The 24-hour news cycle spares no time for complex stories. The division between media outlets along partisan lines further limits the chances that we are getting all the information we need to make informed decisions. On Facebook I have a diverse group of friends ranging from liberal atheists to fundamentalist Christians and I see the danger of unquestioning belief in single stories from both ends of the spectrum. Single stories are convenient and easily manipulated into providing "evidence" for our preconceived notions of reality. As Adichie puts it: "Show a people as one thing over and over again and that is what they become."

This got me thinking about how history is often taught. When you look at your average textbook it's hard to argue that it is little more than a collection of single stories. These stories often take complex events and boil them down to the bare essentials in the name of "factuality." But is a presentation of basic facts actually honest? Or is it the sort of single story that Adichie says "robs people of their dignity"? I would argue that history told in such a way does exactly that and it not only robs the people and events portrayed of their meaning and value, it cheats the reader, allowing him to become complacent. Instead of having to tackle history in all its complexity and confusion, single story history allows readers to be spoon fed conclusions instead of working out their own opinions based on a detailed understanding of past events. It fosters laziness in students and plants the seeds of boredom.

By using literature and living books to teach history one is able to combat single story history. Yes, it takes more effort, but it is well-worth it! One question we often encounter at homeschool conventions and in our discussions with educators goes something like this: "Why are your answer keys so limited? It would make it a lot easier if you provided more detailed answers to the comprehension questions." Over the years we've wrestled with this, sometimes finding ourselves willing to oblige and expanding the answer keys in our study guides, other times we have not. When I am writing a study guide I always go over this question in my head and struggle with how to find a balance. The reason behind this is that a part of our mission at BFB is to challenge the students to learn how to think for themselves. By presenting the best historical information available in the form of great literature we are combatting single story history. Students are introduced to complex characters, inspiring ideas, and monumental events. While writing comprehension and discussion questions to help students suss out the meaning behind these things, I want to get encourage them to think about the events in a more engaged way that most history textbooks require. There will be a few questions in my study guides that have clear, black and white answers. Of course it's important to know that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 but I'm more interested in prodding the students to think about why this document was so important in the history of freedom loving people. Single story history lends itself to detailed answer keys. True history does not. And so, BFB customers know that our study guides are full of questions aimed at creating discussions not perfect quiz scores. And we hope that students will be trained to engage with material in a way that goes beyond stereotype and single story and will continue to do so as they become adults and engage with the world. Not only will they find that history is anything but boring, they will also find that life is a lot more exciting and colorful and meaningful when we push aside single stories to see how complex life and humanity really are.

I would love to hear what you think! Chime in below in the comments section and share your thoughts. Don't forget to check out our Facebook and Pinterest pages. 
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