My 12-year-old, home-schooled son recently expressed an interest in studying World War I. This was encouraging, but also nerve-wracking, given the disdain that led me to spend most of World History passing notes and doodling (not in the Lynda Barry college course / this will help you absorb the information better way). I retained nothing of what I’d been formally taught. My most solid knowledge of the period was gleaned from the second season of Downton Abbey and an Audrey Tautou movie that was rated R for sex and violence. (There’s also a family photograph of us posing on the Sarajevo street corner where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, but the significance of the spot had to be explained to me first.)
Some online scrabbling led me to the BBC’s Horrible Histories‘ brief overview of the “causes of World War I” (above). Wow. If only this series—and, ahem, the Internet—had existed when I was the boy’s age! I think it’s safe to say my attention would have been captured. It’s silly, yes, but that’s the whole point. The players’ over-the-top comedic style ensures that even the driest of historical facts will stick, as anyone who’s watched Michael Cera bring Alexander Hamilton to life in Drunk History can attest. It’s the perfect gateway for further study.
Horrible Histories’ take on World War I proved such a hit, the boy immediately delved into other periods, often when he was supposed to be doing other things, like playing Minecraft or watching YouTube (technically, I guess this sort of counts). Still it’s gratifying to hear him studding his conversation with casual references to the Borgias, the Tudors, and Martin Luther. It makes me want to learn more, or at least bring myself up-to-speed on the videos. In the words of Schoolhouse Rock, knowledge is power.
A WWI centennial’s looming, folks. Don’t get caught with your drawers down.
Ayun Halliday graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in theater and has been making up for it ever since. Follow her @AyunHalliday