Over the years, English teachers have often debated the merits of teaching history and literature together. Should students know the history that inspired the literature, or should students be left to make up their own minds about a piece of literature before knowing the historical context? Many schools now offer classes in literature and history that are to be taken during the same semester, or that are co-taught by an English and History teacher together.
Either way, knowledge of historical context can bring a new perspective to a piece of literature, and important fiction can speak volumes about the way a specific period of time was viewed by its contemporaries. Teaching history with the aid of primary sources (i.e. fictional literature, nonfiction essays from the time period, etc.) can also broaden the perspective of history further than a textbook. Now, few would argue that each subject breathes new life into the other, but there are many ways to go about it.
Teaching History before Literature
Many English teachers, if not paired with a History teacher, like to start a unit by giving some historical context to their students. This can be as simple as explaining the censorship taking place during the Cold War before starting to read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a book about censorship in which books are burnt in order to keep the public from knowing certain things. In this way, the book can be seen as a social commentary within the historical period during which it was written. This also means that events in books, and in the history surrounding those books, can be compared to modern times, giving students a new perspective on events going on around them in the real world.
Teaching Literature before History
Some teachers want students to apply fiction to the real world before teaching them about the reason it was actually written. In the case of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gillman, for example, some teachers want their students to make up their own minds about why the female protagonist seemingly loses her sanity before they tell the students that the story was actually written at a time during which women had almost no rights and were totally controlled by their husbands.
When students have certain assumptions about something, it can be very interesting to open their minds by suggesting something about the reason the book was written. This can also work very well if the teacher has access to an interview about the literature the author has given. After the students decide what the piece is about, have them listen to or read what the author thought the piece was about and see if they match up.
Understanding history can also help students understand why certain books have been banned through time. Huckleberry Finn, for example, is currently being challenged because of offensive words in the text. However, an understanding of history can teach students why those words were chosen in the first place, and open up unique discussions about the meanings of words and why we should or shouldn't use them.
A Combination of Both
No matter what you teach, incorporating other subjects makes the learning experience richer for the student. It helps solidify information and makes them think more about what they're reading aside from simply identifying characters and plot points. Teaching history and literature in any combination can help all students make connections between our time and times past, and help them learn how to not repeat the mistakes of our predecessors.