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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Don’t Know Nothin’ About History


A nun in high school admonished me to write about what I knew and not about what I thought I knew. Depending upon the critic of the moment, I might have achieved that goal. What do I know? U.S. Social Studies courses tend to emphasize the agenda of the moment – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, black rights, and at one time considered throwing in the Irish Potato Famine – to make sure that not a single ethnic group or social issue escaped notice. To accomplish this, sidebars popped up in the textbooks along with selected readings to emphasize – or overemphasize – the roles that women, blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups played in the creation of this country. The authors and the politicians apparently assumed that they had to coerce the average history teachers to make their courses all-inclusive. Unfortunately, they were probably right. The average history teacher is just that – average.

The idea that anyone can become a good teacher by using the right lessons and the right techniques is ludicrous. Teaching is an art, not a job. Just like a master mechanic is an artist and not someone with a set of tools. Not everyone should end up in front of a class and not everyone should attend a liberal arts college. When it comes to teaching history, as with any subject, not just anyone can fill that role. 

I hated history classes in school because the teachers taught by the text book – that gigantic paperweight which was and is too thick to burn and is filled with “thought provoking” questions written by “professionals.” History is the story of who we are and where we originated. It is recorded in art, song, legend, memoirs, maps, and diaries. It tells us the “why” and the “how” of the individuals whose lives created it. It is a gigantic soap opera filled with drama, pathos, joy, and sorrow. It should be taught as such.

            Since their inception, U.S. history courses in grades 1 through 12 have been designed to produce “good citizens” as opposed to good historians. History classes, most classes, emphasized rote memorization, which the “professional” educators of today, have literally discarded from the curriculum as useless and a waste of time. The early focus was to produce workers who could read, write, and do math. In many ways, that has not changed.

Do you want to know why U.S. students are so historically illiterate? They have not been trained to remember anything unless it is on a state or county mandated test. They cannot remember, because they have not been forced to remember. As one principal told us at a faculty meeting, “You can teach history without teaching facts. Teach the conclusions.” How absurd. How stupid.

The other problem is that teachers are expected to cover a specific amount of material during a specific amount of time, which educators call “scope and sequence” – being on the same page at the same time as everybody else, covering the same objectives. The No Child Left Behind legislation has destroyed the learning process. We called it the Every Child Left Behind Act, because if everyone failed then no one was left behind – they all successfully achieved educational equality by becoming equally ignorant.

Despite all of its rhetoric about “raising the bar” and making courses more rigorous the U.S. educational system has guaranteed its own demise by not building its curriculum on a sound foundation. History has become the problem child of education. Government, forcing students to become good citizens, has become more important. As a result, many high school “history” courses have become current events classes. Only what happens in the present matters. In general is seems people tolerate, but do not respect or deem history as important.

Military history does not conveniently fit into the utopian philosophy, which dominates the imaginary world of “professional” education. It is messy, brutal, primitive, and violent. It does not fit in well in the worldview narrative of goodwill, unification, and tolerance.

Whether we like it or not, wars happen because of our flawed human natures. Greed, avarice, murder, lust, envy, hatred unfortunately, are very basic to human beings. It does not make war right but “crap happens.” History is written in blood. And it keeps repeating itself because human nature has never changed throughout the centuries. Despite its evils – and there are plenty of them- warfare has defined national boundaries, produced heroes (real and imaginary), liberated the oppressed, changed the cultural fabric of societies, generated road systems, and secured the peace.  They have integrated societies, often forcefully and at the expense of the losers. Warfare, whether it is military, political, or social, brings out the best and the worst in individuals. Amidst all of the chaos and bloodshed there arise individuals, who despite their human frailties and weaknesses, rise above the filth and muck like spring flowers in No Man’s Land, and they remind us of who we might become should we desire to do so.    

The following blog will discuss the role of the military in integrating American society, particularly during the American Civil War. I will try to identify some of the flowers, which blossomed in the mire.     

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