Friday, August 24, 2012

Words, Words, Words about History

"You don't hate history, you hate the way it was taught to you in high school. Stephen Ambrose

Yesterday, our sons returned to school. Our elder son started junior high school. I'm not sure how that happened. When did he grow fuzz on his upper lip and sprout up almost as tall as I? Soon, he'll be shaving and looking down at me when I yell at him for whining about walking the dog. Soon after that, my only leverage will be to take his car away.

No. No way will that boy drive at 16. I still vividly remember having to rescue him from impossible positions on the monkey bars.

Our younger son started fourth grade. Today, the second day of school, he turned ten.

Double digits.

Time passes. Boys grow. My hair turns gray. George loses his.

But I still remember what it was like to start school. My fourth grade teacher was Mrs. Alexander, a kind woman who had to punish me for reading a library book when I was supposed to be reading a North Carolina history textbook. My seventh-grade English teacher Mrs. Goodes had no problem with my reading The Hobbit, but my seventh-grade social studies teacher Mrs. Waggoner seemed oblivious to how easily her students memorized the Preamble to the Constitution. We all thought we were putting something over on her while we sang the song from Schoolhouse Rock under our breaths during the test.

"We the People [of the United States], in Order to form a more perfect Union...."

As I see only in retrospect, Mrs. Waggoner knew exactly what she was doing.

I didn't hate history, but some of the textbooks made for painful reading. I distinctly remember the eighth-grade text on World History because it was the first textbook that made me slap my own face just to focus on the tedious words about the Hittites and Hammurabi's law code and mummification.

What sort of academic publishing hell produces a textbook that makes mummification boring?

Nick is easily bored in school, but so far, he enjoys history. I pray his enthusiasm carries him through mind-numbing textbooks and the occasional poor teacher.

Jack's main interest in history lies in history's Important People. Ask him about Alexander Graham Bell, and he'll say, "He's dead. I wish I could meet him. He taught the deaf how to speak and invented the telephone." Other than Important People, however, history is lost on Jack.

Whether it's our personal history (the memories of babies wrapped up like burritos and all those first days of school or heroic rescues from playground equipment) or our corporate history (the memories of human greatness and weirdness and evil), history is important because it teaches us where we've been, allows us to contextualize where we are, and gives us a springboard to do better in and have hope for the future.

Just as long as the future doesn't involve motorized vehicles and teenage boys.

What memories do you have of studying history in school?


  1. I fell asleep in history class - while in the front row! To be "demoted" to the B stream the next year where I had a most dynamic teacher. I wrote my finals just remembering her classes!
    Why is it that history only becomes interesting as we get older?!

  2. I remember how b-o-r-i-n-g Sophomore World History was. I don't know how I managed to pass it. My son-in-law teaches government and history to HS sophomores and seniors. I would LOVE to have had him as a teacher. I might have majored in history. He talks about the most interesting things they do in his classes.

  3. Up until the last few years of high school it was "social studies," and my two most vivid memories are VERY vivid. First was pronouncing Greenwich phonetically while reading out loud, and making the teacher burst out laughing in 8th grade. Second most vivid? Same teacher had a pronounced tic that involved rearranging the front of his pants. You can picture what that looked like to the roomful of teens. Ahem.
    I thoroughly disliked that teacher, and thus couldn't stand history until I took a class in college in Western Civilization, from a woman nicknamed Towser. She brought it to life for me & I switched my studies to include a minor in Canadian history.
    On the aging kids thing - my 13 year old is shaving. Semi-regularly (every couple of weeks). Yep.

  4. I was a straight A student who broke out in hives with anything less than an A. In 8th grade, I got an F in social studies. The teacher wore the same outfits in rotation and they were hideous...the most memorable one was a bright orange collar shirt with a bright sky blue with navy blue polka dots sleeveless sweater, and he talked in a perfect monotone. I have the attention span of a gnat, so it was particularly hard for me to pay attention when he spoke. It is the only class in which I ever got less than an A. Tragic. To this day (33 years later), I have no interest in history.

  5. The quote from Stephen Ambrose is so on the nose. All I remember from precollege history classes was memorizing boring facts and events. I didn't understand their importance or why we needed to learn them. THEN I took an elective history class in college and LOVED it. The professor explained the significance of the monotonous facts I had learned high school and made it all come together and make sense. I only wish I had had more time for his classes before I graduated. I have read some historical books as an adult and begun to understand the mountain of dates and facts as a story rather than just dates and facts.

    I currently have a teenage boy learning the art of driving and it's actually not as scary as I first imagined. I'm quite excited by the fact that in less than a year I no longer have to be a taxi cab!

  6. As an imcoming sophomore I decided to take World History in summer school. I had the first semester the first two hours and the second semester material the last two hours. NOT a good decision. I passed, and had an extra period for an elective..but that was the only good that came from it!
    Lu C

  7. I was educated in Australia - social studies from 3 to 7 grades where I learned mostly English history - I know a lot about Richard the Lion Heart! Very little Australian history was taught. In high school, the choice was between five years of chemistry or five years of history. I did chemistry. History was looked on being for the "not so smart". Fortunately teaching has changed - Australians now learn about their own history.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!