July 25, 2008

Why Teach History?

The silence of our empty house has left me with lots of free brain time. You know, how your brain just goes and goes and thinks and discovers and opines and argues when there's silence? Your brains do that too right? With all this free brain time on my hands (in my head?) I decided to get some audio books to keep my thoughts company. Sure, I could listen to music but sometimes--most times, actually--I'm too hungry for information to be satisfied with music. I love music--don't get me wrong--it's what got our little family going in the first place (Warren and I met at a Grateful Dead show), but more and more lately I prefer information to melodies.

In an effort to provide some brain food for my silent, child-free days I went to the library and checked out some audio books. I got Beloved by Toni Morrison (because I haven't read it yet), Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Suzanne Clarke (because I have read it and loved it and am dying to know how they incorporate the footnotes into the audio book) and A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I was listening to the later this morning as I cleaned off our kitchen counter (it's spotlessly clean and free of papers and books and legos and playing cards and puzzle pieces and other junk as I type this).

Listening to this book made me wonder, Why do we teach history? What's our purpose in telling future generations the stories of the past? The obvious answer is to keep them from making the same mistakes. I mean, you hear people, even teachers, say that all the time right? However, history, as it's taught in most public schools (unless there have been big changes since I was in high school) fails miserably at this task.

For example, I didn't know that before the Vietnam War it was America who set up the government in South Vietnam (after France bailed) in an effort to keep the popular communist leader Ho Chi Minh from establishing a united communist country--regardless of the fact that he was extremely popular. I didn't know that when the people of Vietnam turned on the South Vietnamese (puppet) leader and he called the White House asking for help they told him it was 4:30 a.m. and they really couldn't do anything to help and never bothered to call back. I didn't know that soldiers who spoke out against the war were court marshaled and jailed. I knew protesters were attacked and sometimes killed. And I did know that people were put in jail, but I never imagined they were kept there for years on end. I had a vague notion that we were fighting a war that wasn't ours to fight but I didn't really know the specifics. Now, I know what I learned today is just one small sampling of what went on. I don't know the whole story, even now--still I was surprised by my ignorance. Okay, not surprised, exactly. I know my knowledge of history (even though it's one of my favorite subjects) is pretty dismal. But I did think I might have been clued in to these fact at some point before my 40th birthday (much too rapidly) approached.

One could argue that I've been in charge of my own education long enough that I should know these things right? Oh, but wait. We're not really taught to believe we're in charge of our education are we? The state, the teachers, the board of education are in charge right? Once we graduate our "education" is over. Hmm, that sounds like a problem. It certainly doesn't sound like a smart way to raise an informed populace. In fact, it almost sounds like the exact opposite of an informed populace.

That's kinda scary. So that's what I'm spending my brain time on. History. Thinking about it. Learning about it. Figuring out how best to share it.

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