Thank you for the tip, GWTW!
Maj. Mel, What did George S. Patton say? This must be that "How does that sound like Napoleon's experience at the Battle of Austerlitz?" trick you were speaking of.
Give the least amount of information possible, and you've got their attention for as long as it takes to tell them the whole story!
In my new History of English Literature book (English Literature: Its History and its Significance for the Life of the English-Speaking World, A Text-Book for Schools by William J. Long, Ph.D.), I found the preface, of all things, striking in that the author seems to know the reasons for the problems of children not liking literature or history.
(…) Indicates portions I have not included due to length.
… Throughout this book we have remembered Roger Ascham's suggestion, made over three centuries ago and still pertinent, that "'tis a poor way to make a child love study by beginning with the things which he naturally dislikes." We have laid emphasis upon the delights of literature; we have treated books not as mere instruments of research--which is the danger in most of our studies--but rather as instruments of enjoyment and of inspiration…
…many authors who are and ought to be included in this history need not be studied in the class room. A text-book is not a catechism but a storehouse, in which one finds what he wants, and some good things beside. Few classes will find time to study Blake or Newman, for instance; but in nearly every class there will be found one or two students who are attracted by the mysticism of Blake or by the profound spirituality of Newman. Such students should be encouraged to follow their own spirits, and to share with their classmates the joy of their discoveries. And they should find in their text-book the material for their own study and reading.
A third suggestion relates to the method of teaching literature; and here it might be well to consider the word of a great poet,--that if you would know where the ripest cherries are, ask the boys and the blackbirds. It is surprising how much a young person will get out of the Merchant of Venice, and somehow arrive at Shakespeare's opinion of Shylock and Portia, if we do not bother him too much with notes and critical directions as to what he ought to seek and find. Turn a child and a donkey loose in the same field, and the child heads straight for the beautiful spots where brooks are running and birds singing, while the donkey turns as naturally to weeds and thistles. In our study of literature we have perhaps too much sympathy with the latter, and we even insist that the child come back from his own quest of the ideal to join us in our critical companionship. In reading many text-books of late, and in visiting many class rooms, the writer has received the impression that we lay too much stress on second-hand criticism, passed down from book to book; and we set our pupils to searching for figures of speech and elements of style, as if the great books of the world were subject to chemical analysis. This seems to be a mistake, for two reasons: first, the average young person has no natural interest in such matters; and second, he is unable to appreciate them. He feels unconsciously with Chaucer:
And as for me, though that my wit be lytë,
On bookës for to rede I me delytë.
Indeed, many mature persons (including the writer of this history) are often unable to explain at first the charm or the style of an author who pleases them; and the more profound the impression made by a book, the more difficult it is to give expression to our thought and feeling. To read and enjoy good books is with us, as with Chaucer, the main thing; to analyze the author's style or explain our own enjoyment seems of secondary and small importance. However that may be, we state frankly our own conviction that the detailed study and analysis of a few standard works--which is the only literary pabulum given to many young people in our schools--bears the same relation to true literature that theology bears to religion, or psychology to friendship. One is a more or less unwelcome mental discipline; the other is the joy of life.
The writer ventures to suggest, therefore, that, since literature is our subject, we begin and end with good books; and that we stand aside while the great writers speak their own message to our pupils. In studying each successive period, let the student begin by reading the best that the age produced; let him feel in his own way the power and mystery of Beowulf, the broad charity of Shakespeare, the sublimity of Milton, the romantic enthusiasm of Scott; and then, when his own taste is pleased and satisfied, a new one will arise,--to know something about the author, the times in which he lived…
All of this is pertaining to literature, but really, most of it corresponds directly to history. Personally, I think that the best way to learn history is to read books and biographies, etc. written during the time they relate to; it is very easy for a modern author to criticise what people thought and did during the time he/she is writing about, but if you read something written by someone who actually lived
the history, you get an insight to how they thought and how they regarded things.
I am afraid I might have repeated myself there... sorry!