Posted December 13, 2022
Did George Washington never tell a lie? Did women really burn their bras in the 60s? Are these history myths or real facts? Sometimes it can be hard to tell truth from the legend that has found its way into everyday conversation. Even our textbooks fall victim to history myths that shape the way we understand history! Whether it comes from a student or from your textbook, there are a few truths to keep in mind when it comes history myths.
- Some history myths come from a place of truth.The myth may be false, but it may have started as a misremembered piece of truth. Think of President Taft getting stuck in a bathtub. While this never happened, it may have come from the fact that Taft had a special bathtub installed on the USS North Carolina, and later in the White House, that was big enough for four men. Over time the fact was misremembered and morphed into the myth we hear today.
- Some history myths are completely false but show an author’s perspective and point of view. Rather than telling us a true fact, some history myths act as mirrors that reflect the author’s views about a topic. The myth that Napoleon was short was partially started by British cartoonist James Gillray. Napoleon was of average height, but in “Maniac-raving’s-or-Little Boney in a strong fit” (1803) Gillray portrayed him as a small man dwarfed by the furniture around him, making Napoleon out to be a child throwing a tantrum. Similar cartoons mimicked that motif becoming the myth we’ve become so familiar with today. Gillray saw Napoleon as a child, and that view is what the remembered “truth” of the story became. Myths like George Washington and the cherry tree fall into the same historical trap. 
- History is complex! We know that history is never as simple as we see it in textbooks. Take the story of Rosa Parks. Textbooks tell our students that she was tired after a long day and didn’t give up her seat leading to her arrest and the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We know the story is more complex that that! In a short narrative we neglect the fact that Parks was an active member in the NAACP which was looking for a test case to challenge Alabama’s state bus segregation laws or that the bus boycott had been planned by the Women’s Political Council for over a year.
So how do we help students to see history as a complex story rather than just a statement? Simply put, encourage critical thinking skills!
- Dispel history myths by reading multiple texts.Use primary and secondary sources to engage your students in actively building a narrative, rather than just accepting the story they are given.
- Encourage thoughtful reading and active classroom discussion.
- Encourage inquiry mindsets in the classroom. Help students change their mindset from “reading to find a correct answer” to questioning how a reading can help them develop a more complete picture of a topic. For more on inquiry in the classroom, visit https://c3teachers.org/inquiries/.
 https://www.history.com/news/napoleon-complex-short https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/explore/james-gillray/napoleon
Blog Image Citation: Smith, Carlton. “Washington, D.C. A day nursery for pre-school children of mothers engaged in war work, operated under the supervision of the District of Columbia Health Department by Mrs. Leroy Bonbrest, at her home at 1144 Branch Avenue, S.E. The children listening to a story.” Photograph. 1943. LC-USW3- 026177-D [P&P] LOT 74. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/fsa.8d18077/. (Accessed December 2, 2022).