Reading E. H. Gombrich

Last June, I had to decide on a book for my incoming students to read over the summer, in about 30 minutes. Maybe it was less, maybe it was more — it was certainly less than a day of time.

I’d been reading E.H. Gombrich’s Little History of the World, originally written in German in 1935 and published in 1936. It’s an enjoyable read, if a bit Eurocentric, and pedantic in a way that only early/mid-20th century literature can be. So I chose it, on something of a whim. I admit that sometimes we teachers decide on a course of action without thinking it through all the way first.

But as comments came in from parents, I realized I’d created for myself a golden opportunity. Some parents and teachers loved the book. Some parents worried that it was too Eurocentric. Some worried about the portrayal of Islam; others worried about the portrayal of Judaism. Some colleagues enjoyed its friendliness and accessibility. And gradually, a ruthless plan began to take shape in my mind. By the beginning of August, I had a clear sense of what I would do, and how I would do it.

Which is why, in class today, my sixth graders read through the copyright page for the information about Gombrich’s life, his work, and his times. Then we started the process of reading his last chapter, written near the end of his life. And then I dropped the bombshell.

“So let’s think about this,” I said. “We have here a historian writing in the 1930s, when his nation is already subject to Nazi law. He’s writing for children, in German, for kids who are already being indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and being trained to accept the dictates of Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

And then I said, “Your fifth grade teachers told you not to trust Wikipedia… that it could have been written by anybody. That it could be misleading, or it could contain wrong information. Or that it could be deliberately faked, or biased.”

They all nodded.

“What about Books? Should we trust Gombrich? Or should we be suspicious of almost anything he writes?”

One of the girls said, after a moment, “We should be suspicious?”

There was gradual nodding, and agreement.

“Information literacy,” I said, “will be at the core of your work for the rest of your lives. How to read, what to read, what to believe, what information to trust, and what information to almost-trust. To do that we need to read critically…”

“… so let’s begin with a book that we ought to find suspicious and potentially dangerous.”

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  1. I actually just also shared a small chapter from Gombrich (though I hate to be a stickler, it’s E.H.) with my 10th graders. Although I haven’t gotten too in depth into the historical circumstances of its creation, I do think that the book — and in particular Gombrich’s interesting narrative constructions — create a nice foil for typical textbook writing. It’s nice to see that this work can also serve as a good entree into the issue of critical literacy/crap detection for sixth graders. Thanks for sharing this usage of the text.

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