I was captivated by history from a young age, and I think a lot of that is due to the influence of my grandmother. A lot of times I would just sit around her apartment and ask her questions about what Cuba was like, and what it was like for her to leave her home country after the 1959 Cuban Revolution and come to a completely different country, the United States. I learned about my great grandmother who smuggled guns to the Cuban revolutionaries holed up in the eastern mountains during the 1890s and heard about my family’s connections with Jose Marti (who my great grandmother smuggled guns for) and Fidel Castro (my grandfather and great uncles went to Jesuit school with him), two of the most important people to the development of modern Cuba. These discussions made me realize that learning history through a personal narrative is one of the best ways to become passionate about the subject.
We, as people, we are designed to care about other people. We care about personal histories. We care about our family histories. We care about history, at the appropriate scale. I think reading biography is the best way to read history, in large part because it introduces the subject in a small-scale form. I began reading biography as a child because I loved learning about the lives of interesting people. As I read biographies of Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln or whoever I happened to be interested in, I became inspired to dig deeper into the historical context they inhabited. Biography serves as a foothold for you to get into literally any subject.
Let’s say you don’t necessarily know much about French military history. But of course, everybody has heard of Napoleon Bonaparte, whatever your opinion of him may be. So if you read a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte you learn about the key diplomatic, military, and economic events that shaped 19th century Europe. It gives you the opportunity to jump into any number of historical subjects, because everything, literally everything, is connected. So if you read his biography, and you learn about the corps system of army organization, or how he went about instituting the Napoleonic Code, that’s a jumping off point for you to investigate the military organization in general, different legal systems or any number of things. It makes these subjects more tangible, as you see how they intersect in the life of one person.
But in high school, we learn by reading through outdated history textbooks, possibly the driest writing there is out there, and taking multiple choice tests that focus on the particulars of history. It’s not like reading through statistics or reading through as series of dates listing off important events has ever attracted the interest of anybody. Ok maybe there are some freaks out there who love that stuff (as I was at one point), but for most learners that method is useless if not actively harmful. It turns people off history who should really be engrossed by it, as it is the most interesting subject open to laypeople. What isn’t exciting about the story of humanity?
If we really want people to get an appreciation for history, we have to teach it in a way that is inspiring. It is a failure of our system to teach history in the most boring way possible and then complain that people have no sense of history. You can give people all the facts you want, you can try to lay out this linear narrative of the events that lead to the present, but most people don’t care about that. It isn’t on the appropriate scale. Individual histories are more interesting and are more effective in sparking the imagination.
In order for us to teach history in a way that is intuitive, and that gives people inspiration to learn on their own, we have to let them read biography. We should shape our history classes around the lives of the people who experience the history we are supposed to be learning about. Some might argue that focusing on the individual, instead of broader structural trends would lead the learner to some form of the Great Man Theory of History, where the shape of history is dominated by the actions of a select, outstanding few. But I don’t think this is the case. If anything, biography shows you how important chance is in shaping human affairs and leads to a better appreciation of the contingency of all history.
Biography opens you up to just how grand and information packed history is. It makes you skeptical of grand historical narratives because it just shows how much filtering has to occur for the historical record to even be a considered a record. If you see how much luck impacts the lives of individuals, imagine how much it impacts history in general. Even for the most well recorded events in history, there’s just so much that is hidden from us by. Biography helps you really understand that the historical narratives that we are given are severely flawed, and that they are obviously missing out on so much of the human experience.