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Writing Biographies for Schools: Pleasures and Pitfalls

By Keith Wilson
University of Manitoba

Volume 16 Number 4

I can still vividly remember learning history at an English grammar school in the 1940s. I don't know whether my school deliberately sought out dull and incompetent teachers or whether we got them purely by chance, but dull and incompetent most of them certainly were. History lessons consisted largely of the dictation of notes, which we copied verbatim without any encouragement to discuss issues or differing viewpoints.

We committed to memory the main events of English and European history. We duly learned how quieta non movere (let sleeping dogs lie) aptly described the policies of Walpole and that the principle of Cuius regio eius religio (he who reigns dictates religion) was established by the Treaty of Westphalia, which concluded the Thirty Years War. (We were great on Latin tags!) But in all this we never learned what the men and women of history were like. If we learned that Henry VIII was a fat and boisterous tyrant, we learned it from a Hollywood movie, not from our history teacher. Yet biography, which we so blithely ignored, is the very stuff of history and we should realize that this is as true today for Canada as it was then for England.

Canadian history certainly has its fair share of interesting people who are more than worthy of a good read-politicians, social reformers, missionaries, pioneers, rebels and general scoundrels. But despite some considerable progress in recent years, many of their biographies still remain to be written.

Most teachers, I am sure, would agree that students are interested in people and that the biographical approach to history is a productive and enjoyable path to follow. All of us, student and adult alike, can identify with the personalities of history. If there is one effective and interesting way to learn about the past, it is through biography.

Canada needs its own heroes and heroines; we should not continually turn to American history as portrayed by the entertainment media. Our heroes should represent all aspects of life and we should present them complete with all their blemishes if they are to be believable. Students will of course read biographies only if they are interesting, so the question naturally arises as to how such biographies should be written so that they appeal to the average student.

On this point I can really add little if anything that hasn't been said many times before or isn't just plain common sense. First, of course, the subject of the biography has to be a man or woman (or occasionally a group) who has done something significant or has led an interesting or adventurous life. Once you have completed the background research, the writing can begin. Here the guidelines are again largely dictated by common sense: organize the material clearly; use the active rather than the passive voice; avoid writing in a condescending manner; use a mature but not difficult vocabulary; make full use of dramatic or humorous incidents; use direct quotes, suitably edited, to give the flavour of the Times; and, where possible, augment the text with relevant pictures, using the captions to include interesting details that cannot be worked into the main text. Moreover, keep the completed biography short--about fifty pages--so that readers, whether young or adult, will not be intimidated.

It is from the research and writing that authors get their greatest pleasure, and, quite frankly, when I have completed a biography I tend deliberately to choose as my next subject someone not even remotely connected with my previous subject. Thus, the whole process becomes an interesting and valuable learning experience, and I am continually expanding my knowledge and broadening my horizons. Moreover, it is fascinating to discover the extent to which the subjects, chosen for their differences, nevertheless tend to cross paths unless, of course, they have been selected from different centuries.

Another pleasure for the author as he or she continues the research and writing is the ongoing study of human nature and its unchanging characteristics over the centuries. Idealism, political expedience, cruelty and violence have always been part of the human condition and these are the very characteristics that make men and women interesting. This is perhaps especially true of Canadians of the nineteenth century before we seemingly lost much of their zest for life and their ability to laugh at themselves and at each other. For that reason western Canada, which still had much of the wild frontier mentality, remains one of the richest mines for future biographers.

So much for the pleasures of writing biography. The pitfalls or problems, however, soon become apparent when the text passes into other hands. Many Canadian publishers have very competent and usually overworked editors who readily see eye to eye with the author. But editors necessarily react to the various group pressures brought to bear on publishers and provincial curriculum committees, which ultimately decide whether a particular book is 'acceptable' and may safely be purchased. (We don't like to talk about censorship, but it is nevertheless a very real factor in Canadian educational publishing.)

The historical accuracy and readability of a book, however, are no guarantee of its acceptance by the critics and assessors who, though doubtless well meaning in their endeavors, have seldom themselves ever put pen to paper. The biggest problems tend to occur in two areas: reading level and content. The demand to lower the reading level, if carried too far, can readily destroy the author's style and reduce the vocabulary to a simplistic level insulting to many young readers.

Equally serious to the author is the tendency of critics to misinterpret what has been written. If, for example, the subject of a biography refers in a direct quote to the death of Thomas Scott (who was imprisoned several times by the Metis and court-martialled and executed in 1870 during the North-west Rebellion) as "an act of cold-blooded murder ordered by Riel to win the respect of his followers," it makes no sense to ascribe that opinion to the author of the biography. Yet this type of misinterpretation is all too frequently perpetrated, with the result that such passages are often "edited out." The final text inevitably tends to become bland and devoid of controversial viewpoints, and then, ironically, readers criticize the author for promoting a colourless view of history. If Canadian history books are often bland, the fault lies not Just with the writers but also with the critics.

It is surely about time that government departments and curriculum committees stood their ground against undue outside pressures, forgot their preconceived notions, and encouraged, rather than discouraged, the writing of lively and frequently controversial biography. We authors, teachers and students, would all be the better for it.

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