Sunday, July 4, 2010

For There, I Think, Am I

Happy 234th Birthday, America. Isn't it interesting that this date, so pivotal to our nation's history, is buried in the middle of the season wherein children will never deliberately learn about its significance? They will witness explosions, marching bands, and parading politicians, to be sure; but without deliberate parental intervention, this date of all American dates will have to wait until school resumes to be explored. It's a time-out-of-joint problem in the sequential teaching of history that happens constantly.

In November 1989 I watched the destruction of the Berlin Wall in my AP US History class. My teacher, Kathy Keane, was good enough to interrupt her unit (maybe the Compromise of 1820?) to explore what was probably the most hopeful geopolitical moment my American generation had seen since the 1980 Miracle on Ice. We had no experience of the turbulence and divisiveness of the Vietnam 1960's. I was about as old as my son is now when Nixon resigned. We lived through OPEC gas station lines, and the Exxon Valdez, the Iran hostage crisis and the Iran-Contra scandal, and "The Day After" but before the Internet.

Poor Mrs. Keane couldn't possibly help us understand the full meaning of the Wall coming down; in fact, we would barely, by June of our senior year--days from graduation, already committed to university or job or military--scratch the surface of why it went up in the first place. We would come close, finishing WWII and the atomic attack on Japan, to understanding why the Cold War would start. Ultimately, though, we were ill-prepared to understand the world as it was shaping around us, or why exactly it all changed the way it did eleven years later on 9/11. And we had a 20-year head start on today's high school seniors. How irrelevant will our approach be for my son and his high school class of 2025?

Something's gotta give. Will teachers stop teaching pre-Colombian America? Will they start with the Declaration of Independence? Skip the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Will they split US history into 2 required years? When will the Civil War no longer serve as the half-way point to the present?

Here's the point: we should be teaching it backwards. As long as we teach history past to present, we are also teaching, implicitly, that our present outcome is the right, proper, and intended outcome of the founding of our country. If the implied question in any history course is, "How did we get here?" then how we arrange the answer, including our starting and middle points, suggests that all these events were leading us to this point. The problem with this approach is, there is always another antecedent. Another "Well, why did that happen?" And the answer is relevant.

Still, we will almost never reach the most important and immediate antecedent to our students: today. Wouldn't history become immediately more relevant to them if we asked them how their history happened, and how they came to occupy their present situation? Rather than selecting an arbitrary point in the distant past vetted for its proper patriotic and political significance, why not focus on those events which tie each individual history to those of their classmates, and examine those events which appear common to all?

In investigating their own origins, they will learn not only the processes by which history is unearthed, examined, analyzed, and written, but also the significance of local, regional, national and global events that directly impact the lives of their families. As my 5 year-old daughter will ask a series of "Why?" questions until she finds a proximate "Because" that satisfies her, questions of historical cause and effect can be explored in reverse by middle- and high school students, as they find the answers relevant to their own lives. They need not wait until they have sat through several hundred years and two (or three) full semesters of prelude to locate themselves in the story. The story will, as it should, begin with them.