Starting with a quote feels super fancy!!
Variations on the repeating-history theme appear alongside debates about attribution. Irish statesman Edmund Burke is often misquoted as having said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” while British statesman Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” — Virginia Tech promotional website
I would like to add: not only are those who are innocent of history doomed to repeat it, but those who understand history are doomed to repeat themselves.
If you understand history you are obligated to teach it in the best way you possibly can. This is just my opinion, but I’m right about it, so just accept it and let’s move on. You know I’m right anyway. You feel the urge to teach history to the younger set, but it’s not about telling the story of your first car for the 700th time, Marty.
Younger people get tired of hearing about the old days, mostly. There are always a few weirdos who want to hear more about buggy whips and gas lamps, but there are so few of them under 30 that I’d like to disregard them entirely for this argument, so I will.
I’m not a trained educator, yet, but I have watched education bop along ineffectively for a few decades now, so I have some observations.
History is tremendously important and it’s probably the subject with the dampest kindling to ignite enthusiasm in the very young. It’s incredibly difficult to teach it effectively, and how can you engage students who have so little history of their own?
While a passel of teachers tried to instruct me in history in my early years, only a couple did it in a way that connected, and connection is the key. It’s not a debate about showing or telling, what era to include or what concepts get instructional time.
Can you imagine getting bogged down in a debate about which native tribes to include in a lesson or which governor of Maryland was most worthy of memorization? Take the path of least resistance and teach about the Piscataway and the Calvert Clan. They are usually the choices, maybe because the names are easy to spell.
Nobody cares about ancient news until you find a way to connect with their caring center, anyway.
As a child, I thought Maryland was loaded with very ho hum history. I preferred to hear about the floods and train wrecks rather than who owned what and who governed whom, or who governed owning whom. Harriet Tubman, yes; Dolly Madison, maybe; dueling? Absolutely. The things most removed from my own experience were made wild and strange. The history of people signing papers wasn’t wild, you could see that any day at the bank. Maybe it would seem wild now. Paper! Pens! Flammable clothing!
Barring the most bizarre aspects of the past, which might capture some random little weirdo, lessons need to bring the subject into the personal space of the student. You can tell kids that pre-industrial life is hard, or you can sit in a circle in the woods and try to start a fire without matches.
Not every teacher is going to get it right, and that’s a lesson of its own. Kids need to understand that actions cause reactions and those reactions can spiral out of control. If your mom calls to complain about your teacher and that teacher jumps out of a window, well, who is overreacting in this scenario?
Since the urge to teach this stuff is not going away, maybe we should all just have a conversation and keep the conversation going. Even if we could distill an experience with perfect clarity to pass around a group of people, it’s not like there is ever one perfect version of events to share. Sure, there’s truth, but the truth isn’t always the point of the story. Does it matter if the aforementioned teacher jumped out of the west or east window? Broke his left or right arm? Landed on a Volvo or a Volkswagen?
The truth matters, but the reasons you are teaching matter more. Do you want to tell them what to think or show them how to think?
Lastly, for those of us who worry about the misguided lessons that are weaving in and out of school curricula, please feel free to simmer down. Whatever they are teaching about history, very little of it will stick, anyway. I still can’t tell you which Calvert did what or what the Piscataway might have thought of whatever it was. Why did Prince George get a county? Did he pay for it? I still don’t care!!
Whenever you do find a resource on history that engages you, like “Your Maryland” on public radio, considering sharing it.
Let’s all learn a little something about the things that worked out, even if they didn’t work out forever.
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