Thursday, September 3

Teaching History Backwards

Education has failed me.

I say this with great trepidation, because I respect and admire teachers, both as a whole and individually. However, just because I admire and exalt scholarly thought, doesn't mean I think the institution is perfect. I wholeheartedly support the notion that a society cannot be both democratic and uninformed at the same time, which is why it pains me to admit that I, like many Americans, am ignorant.

I know absolutely nothing about the twentieth century past the end of WWII. Every time a class was supposedly about "United States History", we'd generally start at the colonies, and end around Reconstruction, or possibly touch on the Industrial Revolution. Then the semester would end, and the timeline would cease. This pattern continued throughout middle school and high school, and then in college, where nothing about current events mattered in order to graduate.

Apparently the U.S. has been involved in nothing of interest in modern times. The bombing of Bosnian Serbs my the senior year of high school was not as important as me learning calculus or running a mile in under eight minutes. I did not need to know anything about the Middle East in order to obtain a college diploma.

I know of no reasons as to why other places in the world might have dissident views concerning the U.S. Especially not concerning our "defense" budget, or that we have the most powerful and advanced military in the world. Or that this amount is actually a small percentage compared to our GDP (4%). Though that leads to the question of why our GDP is so much larger than the rest of the world. (Not counting the European Union, though that would be a great discussion topic too.)

To a certain extent, it's not the fault of the teachers and administrators, since the curriculum seems rooted in the tired old cave paintings and pyramids, Greeks, Romans, ah, the Dark Ages, how sad, Colonization, and Independence! treadmill due to what society wants. (And by society I mean you and me.)

I think the issue here is twofold. First: educators want to stay away from anything politically charged. That means anything recent gets ignored, because no school board wants angry parents rioting when their kids' teachers cover the Vietnam War. (Which in Vietnam is called "Resistance War Against America", or the American War.) No one gives a crap about which Pharaoh boinked which handmaiden, or whether the U.S. declared war on Mexico in 1846, since everyone involved at this point is dead.

Second: people have double-standards concerning adolescents. On one hand, society expects young adults to magically transform into thinking adults at the age of eighteen, while keeping them blissfully innocent (ignorant) of anything actually important up until that time.

Concerning the first point, I absolutely agree. Education should not be in the business of peddling ideologies. However, this does not mean that an objective mention of current events is beyond the scope of a school setting. Why can't teachers give the facts, without endorsing one particular side or the other?

As for the second, how can we entrust the future to our children without giving them the tools necessary to make informed decisions? They don't have the luxury of being innocent, especially when they must make adult choices, which cannot be framed in terms of demonizing one camp or the other. In a true democracy, no one group can hate another, or else the entire process fails.

I propose that every class with the brand of History on it do a complete 180 degree turn. Instead of starting with some random event far back in time, which has zero bearing on today, every history teacher should start with today. Then work backwards. Then students can see what is happening now, then travel backwards to yesterday in order to explain today, and then look at the yesterday before that, and the yesterday before that, and so on.

For example, we are in Iraq. Give the situation as it is occurring today. Then step back in time to 2003 and the invasion, and the circumstances surrounding it. Then push back further to every related incident with Iraq, going backwards with the First Gulf war, and the instability in the region due to the establishment of the state of Israel and the Zionist movement, and the Cold War.

This type of backwards thinking, where we anchor ourselves in the present, then work toward the reasons why things got to be the way they are, is the only way that we can free ourselves and our society from the shackles of ignorance and partisan thinking, where one person's freedom fighter is another's terrorist, because none of us really know what is going on because no one told us, for fear of giving us the truth.

If we aren't working with the truth, then how can we possibly work together in the future?


  1. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend you read _Lies My Teacher Told Me_, by James W. Loewen. Good book, and somewhat discusses your points above...


  2. I have, though I haven't read the updated version or the sequel.

  3. Hmm.... I have only read the updated version, and I didn't know there was a sequel. Thanks, I'll check it out!