There may be an increasing trend in the way history’s taught in our country today, and it disturbs me. I took a course in my senior year of high school at Northside called “contemporary American affairs,” taught by Larry Jones (a true rarity – not only is the man unafraid to air his opinions, but either in spite of that or because of it, he’s liked by almost all of his students). Jones’s teaching method included, as do many instructors’ styles, interjecting little snippets of his own views here and there, but in the end, he gave his students the raw facts and implored them not just to follow his lead or that of any other teacher, but instead, to work it out for themselves. He’d do this with any event: Korea, Vietnam, Woodstock, Watergate, the Kennedy assassination, Reagan’s era, why thirtysomething was on the air so long – the list goes on. Not all teachers do this; some regurgitate the book verbatim (and take it from someone three years out of high school – textbooks do have their own underlying opinions and biases). Others sidestep complex issues that have a potential for debate. (We had some fantastic shouting matches when I was in Jones’ class, and I almost wish I was a year younger so I could’ve been there to see the debates on Desert Storm…)
I think the fact that someone doesn’t know the date of the bombing of Pearl Harbor may point to a growing timidness in America’s schools to face complicated historical happenings of the past. This may be due to the political correctness syndrome, or perhaps could be attributed to the fact that we’re just now realizing that some of these events are still having repercussions today, such as the uproar during the Pearl Harbor anniversary about George Bush demanding an official apology from the Japanese government for its actions in 1941. History cannot be relegated to “ancient” status. We can’t ignore the past half-century because we’re still being affected by recent history. Even “ancient” history is controversial – aren’t we now hearing something of a furore about whether Columbus was a great explorer or the first of many destroyers? History can’t just be locked away until it is safe to deal with.
So, here’s what I propose to any educators that may be lurking out there, wondering how to tackle complex events in public schools. I feel that public schools’ handling of history gives one the impression that the school system is accountable to the public. Though this is true to an extent, perhaps in matters of teaching history, the school system should be impartial to the public, not bowing to pressure from any special interest or political correctness. Too often, my teachers cushioned the blow of a staggering body count or a corrupt political coup with the news that it’s all been sorted out by now, it’s all ancient history. That’s not true, nor will it ever be. Give the students precise dates and places. Give them facts, figures, names. Let them figure it out for themselves. Let them read the body count for themselves and consider the implications. To victims of wars in recent history, the dates and locations are not forgotten because they saw the actual events. The closest students in America’s public schools can get to that traumatic experience is to find out for themselves how many people were killed, who killed them, what reasons were given at the time, and what happened next. Explain it to them. But don’t tell them it’s all right and it won’t surface again. (Personally, I’d tell them that it could indeed happen again if they don’t learn history’s lessons today, but that’s just my view.) Perhaps, if the past sinks into the consciousness of history students of the present, history – as well as current events – will hit that much closer to home. As it is, it all seems so dreamlike, as pictures in a book, “something that happened before we were born.” If citizens of this country learn, in their youth, to think for themselves and watch the events taking place around them, that “something” won’t happen again before we die.
End of tirade. Wow…it makes me feel so poetic, so long-winded…almost makes me feel like running for office or something.