History 2 Life

  • 2023
  • High School
Dion Newsome, High School Humanities Teacher

As the latest television adaptation of James Clavell's epic, Shōgun, draws to a close, anticipation rises for its potential unprecedented success in the upcoming television award season. The show has garnered praise from audiences both in and outside of Japan for its ambitious storytelling, high-quality production, and authentic representation of Japanese culture during the Sengoku (Warring States) period. It skillfully intertwines the nation's power struggles and the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu, depicted as Yoshi Toranaga in the novel and TV series, through the eyes of the shipwrecked English privateer John Blackthorne, based on the historical figure William Adams. The pinnacle of the story is Tokugawa's ascension to the esteemed title of Shōgun—the ultimate authority in Japan. As I sat, casually scrolling through my phone desperately trying to dream up something to write for this blog, my mind wrapped back around to my prior reading about Shōgun's success, and I couldn't help but reflect about what historical dramas and historical fiction get right, and what history class gets wrong.

“History class was never this fun,” “Why didn’t school teach history this way?” Sound familiar? It's a conversation a lot of us have had. Whenever some new piece of historical fiction, drama, reimagining, or ‘based on’, makes a cultural impact it’s common to hear the above. We become fascinated with history and revel in the stories and tales that came before us. Consider the spike in interest of the ‘War of the Roses’ during Game of Thrones’ run, or interest in T. E. Lawrence and his 1926 book ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ after another Eastern epic, “Lawrence of Arabia” hit cinemas. 

While a clear differentiation must be made between what is historically accurate and what is not, as well as how historians arrive at historical truths and authors arrive at narrative devices, we must admit the latter's ability to draw out overarching narratives, and present complex themes within historical contexts.

History classes can learn several valuable lessons from historical fiction and dramas:

Emphasizing Personal Stories: Historical fiction often focuses on individual characters and their personal experiences within the broader historical context. Incorporating personal stories into history classes can make the subject matter more relatable and engaging for students. By highlighting the experiences of ordinary people, history classes can provide a more nuanced understanding of the past and its impact on individuals.

Exploring Multiple Perspectives: Historical fiction and dramas often present events from various perspectives, including those of marginalized groups or overlooked individuals. History classes can learn from this approach by incorporating diverse viewpoints into their curriculum. By presenting multiple perspectives, history classes can help students develop a more comprehensive understanding of historical events and their significance.

Engaging the Imagination: Historical fiction and dramas often use creative storytelling techniques to bring the past to life. History classes can learn from this approach by incorporating imaginative elements into their teaching methods. For example, teachers can use role-playing exercises, simulations, or creative writing assignments to help students empathize with historical figures and better understand the complexities of the past.

Highlighting Emotional Impact: Historical fiction and dramas often explore the emotional aspects of historical events, allowing audiences to empathize with the struggles and triumphs of the characters. History classes can learn from this approach by acknowledging the emotional impact of history on individuals and societies. By discussing the human emotions associated with historical events, history classes can help students develop a deeper appreciation for the complexities of the past.

Encouraging Critical Thinking: Historical fiction and dramas sometimes take creative liberties with historical facts in service of storytelling. While this approach may not always be historically accurate, it can encourage students to think critically about the past and consider alternative interpretations of historical events. History classes can learn from this by encouraging students to question historical narratives, analyze primary sources, and consider the perspectives of different historians.

In closing, the allure of historical fiction and dramas lies not only in their ability to entertain but also in their capacity to educate, inspire, and provoke thought. As we bid farewell to the latest adaptation of Shōgun and reflect on its impact, let us remember the lessons it, and other historical narratives, can teach us about the past. History classes have much to gain from embracing the storytelling techniques and thematic explorations of historical fiction, enriching the learning experience for students and fostering a deeper understanding of the complexities of our shared human history. So, as we continue to delve into the stories of the past, let us do so with open minds, critical thinking, and an appreciation for the power of narrative to illuminate the past and shape our understanding of the world.

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