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Teaching History to Kids

Posted by Joseph Moore on October 17, 2013

File:D-day Normandy Nara 26-G-2343.jpg

The Norman Conquest. Well, sort of.

Turns out modern college kids don’t know any history. Imagine.  In the words of Elisabeth Scalia:

This is depressing on so many levels. If they are not obliged to by law, our public schools do not teach about the Holocaust, or World War II? I’d love to know if they are aware of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift? Pearl Harbor? This is pretty recent history!

Even more than the dazzling ignorance of the college kids in the video, I’m appalled by the concept that people think it’s appropriate to pass laws to specify what gets taught in history class. History should be taught both to pass on a cultural  - what has happened that makes us who we are and tells us where we are going – and as scholarship – how do we know what we know. Once you get to the point where the only way to make sure some history gets taught is to use the full coercive force of government via the law, you’ve lost the war even if you win the battle.

The more subtle thing going on here: history, like math and science, is a gateway to real thought – fairly early on in studying history, you have to engage the critical and logical faculties of your mind. But thinking is not what the public schools are for – as Woodrow Wilson, a great champion of pubic education, said: public education is intended to fit the great mass of people for specific manual work, not to trouble their little heads with the Important Stuff like running the country – guys like Wilson take care of that for us poor little dears.

Thus, the three subjects in which the typical high school or college student is almost completely ignorant are math, science and history. Schools fail to teach these things because they never intended to. To take each in turn:

Math: Can you balance your checkbook? If so, you are overqualified for a high school diploma.  It is informative to look at Euclid’s Elements, a book written to actually teach math. It starts, not with formulas and times tables, but with logic – Euclid lays out his assumptions, and starts right in showing how one reaches true mathematical conclusions via clear, logical steps.  Note that this book is the culmination of the wisdom of many brilliant people with centuries of experience teaching math.

Contrast with the current method used in our schools: we start in with memorization and formulas, cut into tiny pieces preferably unrelated to anything in the real world, delivered over and over again as lectures in 30 or 40 minute doses, year after year. This assures that 1) the kids that get it early are bored stiff; 2) the kids that get it late or never learn that they are stupid; and 3) everybody, barring a miracle, learns that math is both hard and boring, and to be avoided unless you’re some sort of weirdo genius type.

The over-arching achievement of modern math instruction: nobody develops the habit of thinking logically.

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Daniels, left, has a Faraday look in his eyes. There is some real chemistry between them.

Science: similar to math instruction, except that the schools can shove it to the side as an esoteric specialty field more easily than can be done with math. Classroom school science is taught as a series of facts, not as a method. Even when experiments are performed, there is a presumed right answer, and you fail if you don’t get it.  Thus, the true discipline of natural science, which unites Aristotelian logic with careful observation, and involves an unavoidable element of doubt (and an unfortunately easily avoided dollop of humility, when done honestly)  is never learned at all, but is replaced with a form of ancestor worship.  Science has shown, and all that.

Thus, we end up with few who can think scientifically about anything, but many who, alternately, worship science or dismiss it as irrelevant to real life. We get a world where people either ‘believe’ in claims that should be fully subject to truly scientific uncertainty and skepticism, or are ‘deniers’ – no in-between. And scads of people who think astrology and personality studies based on brain scans are science, too! And many who, having had their core beliefs beaten down with dogmatic scientism, reject the claims of science out of hand (these folks – creationists, for example – have a really good case, it’s just not the case they think they have). And, finally, we are infected with many who value science precisely and only to the extent that it can be used to browbeat and marginalize people – people who don the Sacred Lab coat of Science! and make the oracular pronouncements, typically for personal or political gain, but sometimes as duly puffed up useful idiots.

But again, as with math, the opportunity to learn how to think rationally has been not only missed, but forcibly suppressed in favor of conformity.

History: History is both the hardest thing to teach honestly and the easiest to co-opt for other purposes. See, for example, Marx, who learned from Hegel how to use theory to filter history so that it only shows you what you want to see. Or take Columbus – the modern tendency is to determine if he is a villain or a hero *first*, then check to see what facts support that conclusion.

Yet, in grammar school, one might suppose that kids would learn a bunch of true stories, the bare outlines at least, with emphasis on the more interesting stuff that makes the story good. That way, our kids would build up a base of knowledge upon which to build a more detailed and subtle understanding over the years. I mean, what kid can’t get into the story of Squanto? Or Zuan Chabotto? Or, of course, Washington and Adams and Jefferson?  And a million others? This seems to be the general approach that was used from time immemorial until the one-room schools were shut down in the 1940s.  Then, as the teachers and products of those one room schools shrank to an insignificant percentage of the school staff and population – by 1970 or so – it was possible to fully implement the graded classroom method of fragmentation and incoherence: 30-40 minute classes on predigested ‘subjects’ removed from any context and rendered as boring as possible.

And, by making history a political football – exactly what passing laws to mandate what topics must be covered achieves – we make it ever more easy for the schools to do the minimum, to comply with the law and leave everything else out.

Which suits the overall goal just fine. What happens when the kid who learned in early grades what heroes Washington and Lincoln were finds out they had flaws and enemies, even? And that their enemies even had some good points?  You know, you actually have to think! You have to judge the sources (or even become aware that there are always sources – an idea that seems to truly baffle even intelligent, well-educated adults!). A kid would need to develop habits of scholarship and logic and judgement.

Well, we can’t have that! imagine how awkward it would be for major party campaign managers if people habitually expected more than content-free slogans, sound-bites and charisma. And so, we don’t do any of that real history stuff.

With this background, it’s no wonder our colleges get staffed with blood sucking parasites who teach that history is to be deconstructed along some flavor of Hegelian/Marxist/Freudian lines, that science has no legitimate claims on our loyalty, and that logic is just a tool of capitalist/patriarchal/racist oppression.  Reason and truth are the enemies of Progress.

Two final notes:  first, us old guys, say over 50, simply had a different school experience than kids are having today, and not just in the more obvious headline making sense of kids getting suspended for making a gun with their hand or talking about God in class. We are the last people educated by people at least some of whom had real educations themselves, who learned in places like one-room schools or Catholic schools. In these old time schools, there was a clear connection between culture and society, on the one hand, and what was expected of the student on the other. Simply put, kids were being educated to take an adult role in a coherent society. Now, after a 150 year relentless assault, that coupling has been completely severed: today, kids are being educated to become part of a dream world utterly different from any existing culture. a world where people choose their identities from within a Cartesian dream state, entirely free from any outside considerations, and where the only evil permitted to be recognized is passing judgement on whatever someone else has chosen to be. At least so long as they have not chosen to be a critic of this dreamworld, or to believe in an objective God or even an objective reality – those choices are bigoted and judgmental and evil!

We’re now entering the third generation since this sea change, and are enjoying all the slippery slope outcomes the most cynical among us feared – and then some. Even the cynic might have imagined we’d get a few more decades along before we started marrying our goats.

Finally, I am truly inspired and honored that the kids at Diablo Valley School asked me to teach them American history. Tomorrow, we do exploration, discovery and early settlements. I’ve got some great stories to tell!

3 Responses to “Teaching History to Kids”

  1. JM said

    “A kid would need to develop habits of scholarship and logic and judgement.”

    You mean it’s not enough to just pass a law mandating that A, B, and C be taught. A person has to actually develop good *habits*? Dang. Aristotle strikes again.

    “us old guys, say over 50, simply had a different school experience than kids are having today”

    I must admit, I am sometimes envious of your generation (I’m in my 20s). I often feel like I had to drop out of school in order to actually get an education.

    • Two thoughts;

      “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”
      – Winston Churchill

      And don’t envy us old guys too much – it’s just that we caught the dying breeze of a real culture, which was heady, but by high school it had died out completely. read about the educations of Washington and Farragut to see truly awesome education at work.

  2. DmL said

    Ah, to hear about the pioneer spirit for the first time. Natty and Laura, among others… I pray we find new, true frontiers before we lose that spirit altogether.

    From the article:
    “Watch it to the end. The woman makes her point, very well, and with no acrimony.” Ha! Right, like when she asked, paraphrasing, “Which US President sent a boatload of Jews back to certain death?” No acrimony there, only good sense.

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