The Value of Studying History and Literature Together: One Teacher's Story

When Ashbrook announced a new program combining the study of historical and literary texts, Eric Stoner, a graduate of the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program, eagerly signed up. During his MAHG work, Stoner had taken a “Great Texts” course that featured both the journalism and fiction of Ernest Hemingway. The course, taught by historian Dan Monroe, had changed the way Stoner teaches the changes in American social life following World War I. His students now read Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River” to understand the lasting trauma inflicted on veterans of the first truly modern war.

Stoner, chair of the social studies department at Loudonville High School in Ohio, now wanted to learn how literature illuminated the complex story of “Race and Equality” in American life. He brought along younger colleagues in the English department at his school to learn how this history illuminated literature. Years before, Stoner helped these colleagues organize a team-taught course, “Fact and Fiction,” in which history teacher guides students through primary historical documents while an English teacher teaches complementary fiction and poetry. The course has been a success at Loudonville High. Standardized testing shows it raises students’ reading skills.

Reading fiction along with history, Stoner found, also deepens students’ understanding of the past. “So much of what we teach in social studies seems to students merely theoretical,” he said. “It does not touch on their own direct experience, so they don’t engage the ideas, and the concepts don’t stay with them. But if you give them a story that vividly depicts one person’s experience, students grapple with those ideas. They remember them.”

Students may grasp, theoretically, the injustice of slavery—yet miss its brutal reality. In the “Race and Equality” course, taught by Lucas Morel and Kathleen Pfeiffer, teachers read excerpts of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. Both an historical primary document and a literary work, Douglass designed it to show the inhumanity of slavery and affirm the equality of black and white men. For example, Douglass describes being sent by his master to work for a poor farmer known for cruelty and who, the master hoped, would break Douglass’s rebellious spirit. The farmer beats Douglass repeatedly—until Douglass fights back, thrashing the farmer so badly that he desists.

Teachers also read Charles Chesnutt’s “Po’ Sandy,” on the surface a folk tale about a “conjure woman,” a slave with a gift for magic, who could sometimes alleviate other slaves’ sufferings. The conjure woman’s limitations appear in the story of Sandy, a slave whose owner sends him to work on his children’s farms. Sandy secretly returns by night to visit his wife, but the journeys exhaust him. So the wife uses her conjuring powers to transform her husband by day into a tree, restoring him to his human form by night. The master is mystified at Sandy’s disappearance. But then, after hiring away Sandy’s wife, the master saws the tree down.

Although the folktale context softens the delivery, Chestnut’s story shows, just as effectively as Douglass’s first-person account, how slaves suffered through their masters’ changing demands, or through harsh reprisals if they resisted. Stoner surprised his seminar colleagues with a sudden insight: “Really, Sandy was lynched.” “I’ll use both the autobiography and the short story in class,” Stoner said. “Pairing the fictional and nonfictional accounts of slavery multiplies the impact.” Stoner’s colleague at Loudonville High, English teacher Marissa Burd, elaborated: “The shock factor of a short story reinforces the lesson from history; and the history shows students that the story recounted in fiction was not an isolated instance.”

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