3 historical lessons from the mind (and books) of Sarah Vowell
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Television and film are littered with teachers who, in misguided attempts to make history come alive for their jaded students, dress up like George Washington or Ben Franklin, talking in period parlance and marveling at modern technology. It’s a trope that usually ends in embarrassment for all involved. Despite the best of intentions, it usually delivers the same dull, broad strokes of history that are in textbooks, just with some poorly executed theatrics.
Real-world educators looking to get kids interested in history should take a page (or an entire chapter) from Sarah Vowell. Through her frequent contributions to The Daily Show and This American Life, and in her books (the latest of which, Unfamiliar Fishes, examines Hawaii’s strange and thorny journey to statehood), Vowell has carved out a niche presenting American history in a way that is not only educational, but also wryly humorous and surprisingly accessible. Before her appearance March 9 at Boswell Book Company, and in an effort to save educators everywhere a lot of trouble and humiliation (and a fortune in pantaloon rentals), The A.V. Club looks at precisely why Vowell is so effective.
1. Historical figures were just people, and people are kind of messed up.
The great, looming figures of American history get more boring the more iconic they get. As Vowell often observes, those who end up setting momentous events in motion are as prejudiced, flawed, and as human as the rest of us. Her writings are populated by a motley assortment of weirdos, great and small, that made this country great. There’s influential cartographer Charles Preuss, whose maps of the Kit Carson and John Charles Fremont expeditions were instrumental in drawing settlers west, but who spent his time on the frontier whining about the food and complaining about ruining his clothes. Then there’s Julia Howe, the early American abolitionist and feminist who first established Mother’s Day, but still described marriage and child rearing “like blindness, like death, like exile from all things beautiful and good.”
2. Pop culture can draw people in, but only if you know what the hell you’re talking about.
Vowell is also a music critic and cultural commentator, and mass media is never far from her historical accounts. For those of us who were loath to crack a book open in 7th grade social studies, movies and TV played a big part in shaping our views of the past. Of course, entertainment, in trying to make us laugh and cry and forget our troubles, often throws historical veracity out the window, and Vowell is there to point this out, with a quick wit to support the facts and figures. Comparing and contrasting the classic TV-rewriting of the first Thanksgiving (Native Americans help struggling Pilgrims, everyone has a nice dinner together) with the harsh realities, Vowell illuminates not only “the grim brutality of life in colonial New England,” but also smartly dissects the sitcom format through keenly observed readings of Bewitched and Happy Days, among others.
3. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and America has amnesia.
Part of what makes Vowell’s historical work so fascinating is her ability to make the past seem like it has never really left us. In the days following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Vowell looked back on America’s first foray into unsolicited regime change—the Spanish-American War over the future of Cuba—drawing astonishing parallels between the questionable motivations for each conflict and the troubled relationship with those whose freedom we were ostensibly fighting for. She related how, then and now, “the war itself is a snap, it’s when the guns get put away and the ink pens come out that the real headaches begin.” The connection between the wars is not just academic however—it becomes material and immediate as Vowell explains how one of the results of the Spanish-American War was an agreement to lease Cuban land to the United States, including, you guessed it, Guantánamo Bay.