Lately, my daughter has been peppering me with questions familiar to anyone who has ever spent time around children and/or been one. Who invented stairs? What was the first language? When did people start using toilet paper? You can add to this list yourselves, I’m sure. And as I struggled to supply her with answers, I was reminded of the gaping holes in my knowledge of history. I am not alone in this predicament, and frankly my ignorance is all the more troubling because I was an honor student at a top ranking private school and graduated from an Ivy League university. In other words, I was no academic slouch. Most important of all, I really enjoyed studying history.
When I reflect on my history education, I recognize two distinct problems. The first I have already mentioned. It was full of holes. It didn’t flow in any logical progressive order. Fourth grade history, if my memory serves me (and this was in the seventies, so it probably doesn’t) was comprised entirely of the study of Native Americans. Certainly a worthy subject, but honestly the endless terra cotta posters of tribal variations in tepee construction have left the adult me with nothing but an involuntary loathing of Indian casinos, and most sadly, lackluster interest in Native American affairs.
As for the history I was taught, I learned it well enough at the time, memorized dates, battles, presidencies, with ease and comprehension. But here’s the second problem. Over the years, I have retained little. Much of it has vanished from my memory. I’d blame it on age, but this forgetfulness hasn’t plagued me to such a degree in other disciplines. Even ones I didn’t enjoy nearly as much.
Some of my history lessons, however, have remained as clear and vibrant as when I first received them. So I decided to review what they had in common that kept them alive in my consciousness. The answer made me think about how history is taught today.
Like it or not, we in the western world live in an age of materialism, not big ideas. That’s just the way it is. I am reminded of a test screening of a movie I wrote at which the focus group (predominantly teenagers) were asked with which political party they identified. That most said none was no surprise. That most had no idea what a political party was and were unfamiliar with the words “Democrat” and “Republican” was more telling. The movie was “Dick”, a comic revisionist take on Watergate. I’ll never forget the comment of one “skater dude” teenage boy when the focus group leader asked what they thought about the character of Nixon in the film. “He had such bad taste! The Oval Office was so ugly.” At the time, I was appalled by his apparent superficiality.
Now, thinking about history, about what I remember and what I don’t, I have a different reaction. I wonder if we aren’t using a hopelessly irrelevant, archaic framework to teach a subject that is absolutely vital to our children if we care about the future of the modern world. How about basing primary school history education on the evolution of the material, of inventions, of progress? From the evolution of toilet paper will come a thousand other history lessons, touching on everything from economics to politics to religion. And those lessons will be remembered, because they will be answering questions that children (and adults) naturally have.
Imagine a new generation of young people with a working, practical knowledge of the history of progress… We’d better do more than imagine them, because we’re going to need them.