Use Fiction to Teach Fact
America is a divided country. On that much, at least, there’s broad consensus. But the divide isn’t just about partisan politics, about Red vs. Blue. With regard to America itself, for example — the characters, ideas, events, and conflicts that make up our country’s origin story — we are divided between the well-read and the haven’t-a-clue.
According to a recent survey, only one in three Americans could pass our citizenship test. Just 40% know which countries the U.S. fought in World War II. Fewer than a quarter know why Americans declared their independence from the British empire. A different survey found that half of us lack a basic understanding of historical chronology, believing that either the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the War of 1812 happened before the American Revolution.
History matters. The past ought to shape our views of the present and hopes for the future. Of course, even those with a firm grasp of history can and do disagree vehemently about its interpretation. Still, while debates about historical causes and effects can be contentious, they make no sense at all to those lacking at least a vague sense of what happened when, and to whom.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. While republican self-government hardly requires that all Americans be “Jeopardy!” champions, some shared knowledge of our collective history is essential. Without strong connecting threads, the sprawling, multicolored, richly textured tapestry of America can’t survive stress. It will fray. It will rip. We see tears in that fabric right now, don’t we?
When others make this argument, they typically follow with proposals to publish better textbooks, recruit better teachers, or enact more sweeping reforms in elementary, secondary, and higher education. I favor all those things. But I’m firmly convinced we should do something else, too. We should make greater use of fiction to teach fact.
Weaving historical content into works of fiction with strong characters and compelling plots makes it easier for readers to recall and interpret facts. One 2015 study found that when sixth-graders read historical novels about Ancient Greece, their interest in the subject went up — as did their test scores. In another study, researchers set up an experiment. Some students were assigned to classrooms where they read novels about the Salem witch trials, slavery, and the American Revolution. Another, otherwise-similar group of students got assigned to classrooms where they studied the same content from a textbook. The novel readers recalled twice as much content as the textbook readers.
These empirical findings only confirm what we should already have known. For good or ill, generations of Americans learned much of what they knew about Ancient Rome from “Ben-Hur”, about the Civil War from “Gone with the Wind”, and more recently about the Founding Era from Hamilton.
I’ve put my sweat equity where my mouth is. After writing books of political and economic history and teaching history-themed courses at Duke University, I’ve turned to fiction. My new novel Mountain Folk mixes together elements of history, folklore, and epic fantasy to depict the Revolutionary War in a way that I hope young and not-so-young readers alike will find engaging.
The story of America is an amazing one. A heart-pounding one. A heart-rending one. A story of tragedies and triumphs, of false starts and dogged marathons, of inspiring ideas and clashing interests. A story more Americans should know much more about. Let’s teach them, yes, but also show them.
John Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation, a North Carolina-based grantmaker, and author of “Mountain Folk” (Defiance Press, 2021).