If one assumes that the primary purpose of history is to get a particular point across, then it may follow that one can browbeat young people of either gender with equal effect. But if one asserts, as we have done, that the most important function of history is to interest young people in the drama of human events, then one must logically face up to the fact that different types of people are interested in different things. And in spite of current wisdom to the contrary, boys and girls are different types of people.
1. Well-told stories are interesting to everyone.
Before focusing on differences, however, it is important to point out that well told stories are interesting to both boys and girls. That is why comprehensive story-based histories, such as Our Island Story or the Story of Rome, are appropriate core reading selections for both girls and boys.
The issue of boy-girl preferences becomes most relevant when choosing supplemental material, or encouraging independent reading. The basics are the same for boys and girls, but the electives can vary considerably.
2. Boys Like Action
While girls tend to enjoy the personal drama of history, most boys prefer action. The two are of course related. Many stories from history have plenty of both, and so are appealing to both boys and girls.
High-action stories, however, are usually intentionally written to appeal to boys, and contain rather extraordinary feats of valor and dire misdeeds. Boys seldom need much encouragement to delve into stories that feature rampaging elephants, blood-thirsty pirates, cannibals, sword fights, exploding cannons, despicable villains, harrowing sea-battles, horrific trench warfare, fantastic escapes, and general danger. Fortunately, many such stories are terrific sources of information as well as entertainment, and are a great way to get boys hooked on history.
There are a wide variety of history related genre's that are specifically geared more for boys than for girls. Some of these are featured in our High Adventure Collection, and include and include Military History, Exploration, Chivalry, Legends and Hero Stories, and Science and Invention.
3. Girl's Like Personal Drama
The features that most reliably attract girls to history, are dramatic stories and interesting character development. Girls are often just as interested in Hero Stories, Mythology, and Legends as boys are, because the stories are invariably dramatic, and there are plenty of romantic heroes and appalling villains.
History stories which focuses on great victories and important accomplishments are most attractive to girls if the character at the center of the story is of unusual interest. Both stunning heroism (, ) and shocking depravity ( , ) are popular choices with both boys and girls.
One of the best ways to get an older girl deeply interested in history is by way of biographies. Full length biographies almost always develop characters in enough depth to be of interest to girls, and there are fascinating subplots involving female characters in the life stories of almost all men, even such macho heroes as Pyrrhus or Nero.
4. Boys Like Non-Fiction; Girls like Fiction
It is a gross over-statement to say that history, because it is more-or-less based on true facts, is a "boy" subject, where as literature, because it deals more profoundly with human drama is a "girl" subject, but there is an important element of truth to the assertion. When left to their own devices, boys are generally more interested in true stories and non-fiction than girls are.
Instead of denying this tendency, or trying to foist "real" history on girls, our recommendation is to go with the flow. Boys enjoy accumulating facts, and true stories from history are naturally appealing to them. Terrific—bring them on.
If girls prefer fiction, there is a great deal that can be learned about history by way of Historical Fiction. Even literature that does not try to pass itself off as historical fiction, can be very informative. For example, reading adapted versions of Classical literature, such as Pilgrim's Progress, Don Quixote, or Dante's Inferno provide excellent historical insights.
Almost all fiction that is set in historical times or was written over a century ago can provide interesting background about times past, especially if the author is true to the period. Modern writers, however, sometimes impose modern sensibilities on pre-modern characters, which detracts terribly from their historical value, but this problem can sometimes be lessened by sticking with older books.
5. Boys enjoy war stories; Girls hate them.
The most dramatic difference between girls and boys, in regards to historical preferences has to do with war. Almost all boys are interested in war, even if they personally oppose most wars. Most girls on the other hand, are repelled by the idea of wars, disinterested in war stories, and generally disapprove of boys' fascination with the subject.
This makes war an uncomfortable subject to try to discuss rationally with ardently pacifist females in the room.
Since the Vietnam war era, an "anti-war" crusade has been launched against juvenile military history books, resulting in their near elimination in most schools and libraries. During the same time period, of course, television, movies, and video games for boys have become ever more violent and dehumanized.
Depriving a generation of boys of historical knowledge about wars appears to have failed to counter aggressive male instincts. And anyone who believes that boys are better off playing violent video games than reading military history doesn't know much about boys.
The notion that men who are informed about Military History, are more war-like is preposterous, but it is inline with the modern* superstition that "anti-social" tendencies among people can be "fixed" by carefully controlling their exposure to undesirable ideas. The idea that all military history glorifies war is also rooted in ignorance. Reading a few chapters of Gallipoli, or Fix Bayonets! will disabuse anyone of this misconception very quickly. Men's interest in war does not indicate approval, but rather respect for the importance and difficulty of the enterprise, and also an inherently male love of excitement.
Men enjoy drama as much as women, but are considerably less sensitive. They are not deeply moved by parlor dramas, but are riveted by abject horror, feats of endurance, reckless courage, terrifying marauders, disastrous command failures, and clever stratagems. These are the permanent attractions of military history, and we say, let the boys have their war books.
The world is a dangerous place. Let young men be informed, rather than ignorant about military matters. If girls don't like military history books they don't have to read them.
* Ok, ok, the idea that humans can be perfected by carefully controlling their environment is actually a pretty old idea. Plato thought so; so did Rousseau. They just never quite got the formula right. Neither have modern educators.
6. Most Interesting, Important Historical Characters are Men.
While it is true that girls are particularly interested in fascinating female characters, it is also true that attractive male heroes are popular with both boys and girls. This is fortunate, since the vast majority of primary historical characters are men.
Overall, girls are more interested in male characters than visa versa, and there are hundreds of secondary female characters to read about, once one studies history in enough depth to encounter them. We therefore believe that it is neither helpful nor necessary to elevate obscure and mundane women in order to "interest" girls in history.
The great flaw in the feminist project to provide more stories of famous women in order to interest girls in history, is that noble and virtuous "role models" are not necessarily as interesting as grasping scoundrels, and licentious schemers. A heroine who, or , or connives and manipulates her way to the throne before getting her , will be far more interesting to both girls and boys, than a heroine who writes pamphlets and attends political conferences.
Classical hagiography (the study of saints), provides the life stories of hundreds of noble and courageous, "ordinary" women, who have been held up as models of feminine virtue for hundreds of years. Plenty of biographies of good women exist; what is lacking in history are more promiscuous, megalomaniacal villainesses. But thanks to women's liberation, all that is changing, and our granddaughters will have a broader selection of malevolent female despots to read about than ever before.
7. Girls' Attention Span can Trump Boys' Interest
So far the evidence that history is inherently more attractive to boys seems pretty compelling, but it fails to consider a vital difference that tends to even the field.
Girls in similar circumstances are often better students than boys, better readers, less impatient, and more pliable in terms of completing assignments. In other words, if you provide a book and tell a girl to read it, she is more likely to just finish the book without complaint, and learn the desired lesson. Boys would frequently rather be building forts or playing video games than reading anything at all, and if they are assigned to read something that doesn't appeal to them, they have a much harder time slogging through it.
When one considers the important criteria of attention span, and love of excitement (which tends to distract boys from doing any work at all), the fact that much of history plays into boys strengths seems more fair. The extra boy-boosts provided by high-testosterone history are actually needed just to help boys keep up with goody-two-shoes girls. It is a fine thing that so much of traditional history is oriented toward boys. They are the ones that most need it.
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