More On Stories and Histories

The need to combine storytelling and historical inquiry that I discussed in my previous post obviously has implications for modern history as well. When we teach kids about Jewish and Israeli history, we can’t teach just the narrative and ignore the facts. But neither can we teach only the facts and ignore the narrative. In practice, it’s hard to find the right balance.

It’s hardly a new issue. Jacob Katz, the historian I wrote about in a previous post, was also the author of the Israel and the Nations, a standard modern history textbook used in Israeli schools during the state’s early years. In a fascinating account of how Katz wrote the book and how it was received, Dan A. Porat, a historian in the Hebrew University’s school of education, notes that Katz’s book was criticized by religious educators for not showing God’s hand in history. Yet when a curriculum reform in the early 1960s put the emphasis in high school instruction on historical inquiry, rather than on telling the story of the Jewish people, Katz had serious reservations. History as it should be taught, Porat quotes him as saying , “is, after all, the oral or written transmission of the past’s narrative from one generation to another. And the communication of tradition means the teller’s active passing [of it] and the listener’s passive acceptance.”

Katz had a point, but so did his opponents. It’s not easy to teach kids both to value the narrative and to be skeptical about it (see Gershom’s recent article , “Writing 1948,” for a great discussion of how we and the Palestinians still haven’t gotten the balance right). We need the story to know who we are, and we need to seek the truth so that we can know where to go.

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