Stop making history boring!

When I told the woman whom I would later bamboozle into becoming my wife that I had studied history in university, she replied, “Oh, man, history is so boring.” I couldn’t believe my ears.

“What!” I exclaimed, astonished.

“Well, our history is, at least.”

“Whawhawhawhat?” (This explanation, as you can see, did not satisfy me)

You see, she is South African, and South Africa has among the most fascinating histories in the world. In South African history, you will find extraordinary heroes and villains, romance and violence, drama and suspense, and peculiarities that have created a modern reality that would make little sense if we didn’t already take it for granted.

For example: Why, on my way to school, do I pass by kilometre after kilometre of empty fields, before coming to a community of 300,000 people living in tiny houses crammed next to each other, most of whom travel over an hour to get to work every day? Why didn’t they build those houses closer to the city? And why are 100% of those people black?

“You know,” she replied. “History: ‘South African history began when Jan van Riebeck arrived in 16-whatever.’ I’m not interested.”

Oh! Now it all made sense to me. Of course she wasn’t interested. First of all, you can’t teach kids lies during their history class and expect them not to call you out on it. Second, you can’t teach history in a way that makes students believe it’s all about memorizing names and dates. That would be as crazy as teaching mathematics in a way that makes people believe it is all about numbers and calculations. And no one would ever do that!

No, history should start with inherently interesting questions. Why do I live in a country called “South Africa,” and why does it end at this particular spot on the map? Why are Ndebele people on one side of that line called “South African” and on the other side called “Zimbabwean”? How did these “Ndebele” people come to exist in the first place?

Also: why do white people have so much more money than black people?

(By the way: we prefer that these questions relate directly to a student’s life, but they don’t have to. “Did you know there was a crazy drunken mystical sex-addict living about 100 years ago who somehow convinced the tsarina (queen) of Russia to trust him unquestioningly, contributing to the Russian revolution and the First World War? How the hell did that happen?”)

History is the record of everything human beings have ever done. If you can’t find anything interesting in all of that, you’re just not trying very hard.

My father is a historian. His job is not to memorize facts and figures. He uses the past to figure out why the world is the way it is today. Why did democracy take hold so much more easily in the US than it did in France, and what relevance might that have for young democracies in Africa? How can we explain the insanity of Donald Trump in the Whitehouse? Why do we have a “first amendment,” and why does it matter?

There is no reason why our students cannot do the same thing. Rather than study about history, let’s have them become scholars of history. They just might teach us something. And they certainly won’t be bored.

Here’s an example: In a Grade 9 History class at ASE Tsakane, scholars were handed a judgment issued in a court case lodged by the apartheid government against the Council of South African Students (COSAS) operating in Tsakane in 1985. Included in the document is the following excerpt:

On 4 October 1984 Vusi Diale, chairman of COSAS, was shot. The circumstances were not mentioned in court.

From the funeral oration, one gathers that he met his death in a violent way in mass student action. He is depicted as a hero and a leading activist. Against the background of the boycott and the riots, the speech is inciting. It supports violent resistance against the security forces and liberation by the masses. The seeds of war have begun to germinate in the fertile soil of the students’ grieving hearts, it ominously records.

After the funeral there were riots. The houses of policemen were burnt, the mayor’s house was set alight, buses were attacked with stones and could not enter the township and all the beerhalls were set alight.

So, who was Vusi Diale, anyway? Why was there a riot at his funeral? Why were “the seeds of war germinating?” Who was in the buses, who was attacking them, and why? Why were the beerhalls set alight?

Some of these questions can be answered through desk research, others cannot. They naturally drive us to an inquiry into apartheid laws, and the justification and impact of those laws. As part of this project, two of the Grade 9 scholars also found out where Vusi Diale’s sister lived, and knocked on her door.

“Who is there asking about Vusi?” she said, “No one has asked about Vusi in 30 years!”

The scholars told her about their project, and what they had read.

“You know what? That’s all lies,” she said. “They said he was a leader of COSAS. Vusi wasn’t even in COSAS. Our mother was sick, and he was walking to the pharmacy to get her medicine. He passed by the march and was shot by the police. They made the rest of it up!”

Well, well, well…now we are getting somewhere.

This is what it means to study history.


-Jay Kloppenberg, African School for Excellence Co-Founder