Why I Was a Poor Student

Yesterday I mentioned that I didn’t learn the history I was taught in school and promised an explanation. This seems as good a time as any to explain what I meant. I’ve already told the story of how I learned to read. Once I had learned to read I jumped from illiteracy to reading mostly books intended for adults over the period of just two or three years.

One of the peculiar features of my self-directed reading was that I “binge read”. A bit the way some people binge view a television series on NetFlix or Hulu these days, I’d read everything I could get my hands on that had been written by an author. When I fell in love with H. G. Wells’s science fiction very early on, I read everything I could find that he wrote. I’d read The Outline of History by the time I was ten. Just about the same time I read the volumes of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization that had been written up to that point and some other popular and even scholarly history. I found Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire hard sledding.

I was also an archaeology nut and read an enormous amount of both popular and scholarly material on archaeology, especially early archaeology and the archaeology of the Neolithic in the Near East, something that has remained an interest ever since. I read some of Schliemann’s books on Troy in translation. On some very narrow subjects in the field of the Neolithic of the Near East I think I own a copy of every word ever printed.

I read a lot of American historical biography and American history. And, my family being what it was, we discussed history as normal dinner table conversation. Consequently, I had the benefit of my mom’s and dad’s education, reading, and travels.

All of this was before I had taken a single history course in school. By the time I actually took history I knew enough to question the standard narrative.

And that’s why I was a poor history student. I had already been inoculated against it.

23 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    No one likes a really smart kid in class. A hard-working, striving, bright kid, sure. But highly intelligent? A one percenter? No. Teachers like people like themselves, as most people do.

  • Ben Wolf Link

    That is very true, Michael. Schools love bright overachiever because they make aggregate test scores look good. What they do not like is gifted kids who often don’t perform well from sheer boredom and tend to be anti-authoritarian (I say this because the gifted kids are usually the ones to question why the hell they should be doing whatever it is the teacher wants, and they often ask in a way that makes the teacher look like an ass).

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m not convinced that my school or my kid’s school have a good handle on teaching history. Too much on memorizing dates, rote memorization of facts / trivia. It would be better if learning the basic “language” of history could be used to open up more opportunity for kids to extensively study whatever area of history interests them. Also, to find better ways to introduce “uncertainty” into the historical discussions, which I think teachers are afraid to do, but “uncertainty” in some eras is actually the interesting part.

  • michael reynolds Link


    I absolutely agree. In fact the trilogy I’m working on right now (or would be if I wasn’t procrastinating) is an attempt to do something like that. I’m rewriting WW2 with a couple of changes. First, I’m using a transparent parallel universe approach to remove the sepia-tone quality that history inevitably has, especially to young readers. Second, I’m positing a supreme court decision requiring women to be drafted alongside men, so that I can make it accessible to girls. And I’m writing it all present-tense to make it immediate.

    From those starting points I’m following history closely enough that a bright reader will be able to go, “Oh, that’s Kasserine,” or whatever.

    It’s a real gamble in market terms. No such genre exists in young adult. So, no idea if it’ll work. And it is a ball-buster to write. I’ve never done present-third, I’ve never worked within this tight of a factual framework, I’ve never written anything that required this much reading and Googling. Three books, 500 pages each, and the killer is I’ll know if it’s flopped before I write the sequels. It’s grim work writing sequels to books that ain’t selling.

    But, if it works, I’ll have turned history into something new and interesting to the 14-16 year-old reader. And hopefully created a genre that can be used to do more of the same for other histories.

  • One of the problems in teaching history is that Whig history is completely triumphant. That’s not unexpected since it underpins the dominant political thought in the United States.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Whig history is fine looking backwards. It is unlikely to ever go out of fashion as long as it stays away from predictions. Isn’t a lot of the criticism in Dave’s Scarcity Drives Technological Progress, that he is engaged in whigism?

  • PD Shaw Link

    @michael, good luck. My impression from authors of graphic novels is that they do not get a lot of support for the history stuff from publishers since publishers have decided kids don’t like it.

    One of the first important strangers I corresponded with on the internets 20 yrs ago was James Loewen, who wrote “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” in which he points out that adults love history, it is one of the most successful genres, but the kids seem to hate it. He blames the textbooks, and as a liberal makes some common cause with Lynn Cheney about making history more interesting.

  • michael reynolds Link


    Fortunately I get paid whether it succeeds or not since I sold it on concept. I was surprised there was as much support from as many publishers. There were a couple of offers. Harper got it, now I just have to not fuck it up.

  • michael reynolds Link


    By the way, I’ve been on this topic for a long time because I agree history is horribly taught. It’s one of the most politically contentious of school subjects, with a lot of political b.s. surrounding it.

    We could be using transmedia capabilities to teach history, we could shift from timeline approaches or geographical approaches to more narrative approaches. Basically, make it a story, weave threads together. They could stop bowdlerizing history, they could stop gutting it of everything they think is too intense or too controversial. They need to stop letting committees write history and let writers and film makers and musicians do the job. You can’t use fiction techniques to teach physics, maybe, but all those narrative skills are tailor-made for history. But of course when everything has to be reduced to a, b, c, d or e all of the above on a test, it’s impossible. Frustrating as hell.

    I’ll give you a good example. I’m listening to Dan Carlin’s podcast history of WW1, and it’s terrific. He quotes a soldier giving a wonderfully-evocative explanation of what it’s like to be under an artillery barrage. (So good I have to figure out how to plagiarize it.) That’s the kind of emotional connection, the kind of intensity that makes the story work. When you know that it’s like being tied to a wooden stake while a man swings a sledgehammer at your head, and you can feel that, you’ve got that hook that gives meaning to dry dates and names of political leaders. 1915 means nothing. The fact that the floor of trenches were often springy underfoot because of the dead comrades buried down there – that connects. Taking a German’s helmet and using the spike to drive it into the ground so you could take a dump without getting shot – that connects. The school books cut all the moral ambiguity and hypocrisy and screw-ups without ever considering that teenagers love adult hypocrisy like a drunk loves rum.

    I could teach history. Kids would be lining up for class. It’s not hard, it’s just not being done.

  • jan Link

    ” What they do not like is gifted kids who often don’t perform well from sheer boredom and tend to be anti-authoritarian (I say this because the gifted kids are usually the ones to question why the hell they should be doing whatever it is the teacher wants, and they often ask in a way that makes the teacher look like an ass).”

    Ben, that is spot on!

    You must either be gifted yourself, or teach or be around gifted youth.

  • PD:

    The underlying assumption of Whig history is that we are always at the pinnacle of moral development. I see little reason to believe that’s true. It might well be that one of the peoples trampled by the Romans was morally superior to them. We’ll never know.

    I think there’s a better argument that technological development is always advance and that the rate of moral development is little connected to the rate of technological development.

  • jan Link

    “I could teach history. Kids would be lining up for class. It’s not hard, it’s just not being done.”

    Bringing a subject alive and interesting is what engages students. There are too few teachers who do this.

  • michael reynolds Link


    And there are too few systems that let them.

  • jan Link

    …..I agree, Michael. Education today is in a straight jacket, IMO, making it difficult for a teacher to etch in much “joy of learning” curriculum.

  • Cstanley Link

    Looking forward to that book, Michael…I just googled and found reference to it, titled Soldier Girl. While I get the marketing idea of selling it to girls, I fear that title may turn off my son even though he’d be a prime candidate to love this kind of book. Has that been considered, and is the title definite at this point?

  • michael reynolds Link


    It’s a delicate balance. Publishers believe that the YA market is probably 60-70 female. And part of what I’m doing is a calculated effort to find a way out of the now-tedious dystopia thing. The readership has come around fully to strong female action leads, so I’m trying to find a way we can keep doing that without endlessly recycling Hunger Games.

    The marketing people at Harper will have a say, as will Barnes and Noble. (People probably don’t know this but BN gets a look at every project early on. They often weigh in on titles and covers.) So Soldier Girl may not be the final title.

    Right now I like the title, but if B&N says “We’ll buy in 2,000 copies as SG but 10,000 copies as some other title,” well. . . I can be persuaded.

  • Cstanley Link

    I figured that publishers and others were likely to have a great deal of input though I am not familiar with the process. For what it’s worth, as the mother of a boy in the target age group, a female protagonist is totally cool* but the word girl in the title might not be. There’s just too much sensitivity to the possible assumptions that it’s a chick book. That peers may misconstrue it that way shouldn’t matter but it does.

    Anyway, I love what you are doing as I’ve been trying to find history and historical fiction books that might interest him. Hopefully if it is to be Soldier Girl he’ll still give it a chance.

    *I’m sure the image of Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t hurt in that regard

  • michael reynolds Link

    If we get a movie I would cut off my left pinky to be able to cast J-Law in some role. Any role. She’s a bit old for the lead, but that girl is the real deal.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Dave, part of Whig history is technology-optimism, which is not unrelated to the view that an open, liberal society, willing to assimilate the technological developments of “the other” is superior. I won’t accuse you of moral Whigism, but who is most likely to figure out(*) how to address things like global warming? The odds are that he speaks English. I cannot speak to his morality.

    (*) Of course, an Australian aborigine has probably already offered a solution: close all electric plants. The man trampled by the Roman legionnaire may have been a Saint, but the good or bad done by the Roman Empire is far more important in the scope of History.

  • Cstanley Link

    I agree, she’s terrific. Talent, beauty and poise. It’s nice when success comes to someone who deserves it.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @michael, my impression from my tween daughter is that a strong female character is a necessity.

    She and I both watched Gone with the Wind for the first time recently. My wife hates the Scarlet character, and I found the movie overlong and boring, but the d. found Scarlet’s character interesting, even if she didn’t approve or identify with her. She’s interesting in the way Rhett Butler would never be if the movie were about him.

  • michael reynolds Link


    It’s karma, you know. Katherine and I basically invented (well, introduced to young readers) the aggressive, super-tough warrior chick type in Animorphs. We actually based “Rachel” on Ripley from Alien and the Steve McQueen character in The War Lover – the dude who realizes he loves battle and will be lost without it. Now of course we’re neck deep in similar types. And most depressing of all, there are some young authors – some selling a lot more books than I do – who acknowledge Animorphs as their inspiration. Nothing reminds you how old you are like a 25 year-old millionaire writer who “grew up” reading your books.

  • Andy Link


    Sounds like an interesting concept. My daughter is 10 now and something different would be good for her voracious reading appetite.

    For your next project, consider Roman history. There is lot of material there, and a lot of strong women despite the patriarchy.

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