Friday, July 29, 2011

Do We Treat History Like a Dead Language?

Originally published on Huffington Post:

A sweltering parking garage filled with wand-wielding Harry Potter enthusiasts (all waiting in line for the midnight premiere of HP and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) may not seem like the most obvious place to quiz one's sister's friends about current events, but it was still an hour until the theater doors opened and I was bored. So I started a trivia game and out popped a question that I was dying to see if anyone could answer:

"Who's Betty Ford?"

It actually wasn't such a random question. Mrs. Ford had passed away only a couple days before. It had been all over the news -- radio, television, the Huffington Post. That said, I wasn't expecting much. My mom had asked the same question to two of my sister's friends the day before to receive blank stares.

"Uh ... related to Henry Ford?" was the response.

I felt it my duty to clarify who Betty Ford was (the trailblazing First Lady who de-stigmatized treatment for addiction and breast cancer) before we moved on to the cheery topics of biology, Latin American dictators, and (eventually) Harry Potter as we finally filed into the theater and grabbed our 3D glasses.

Along with the memorable Molly Weasley vs. Bellatrix Lestrange showdown and the fervent thought that I never want to see Voldemort's face in 3D again, the response to that simple question -- Who's Betty Ford? -- stuck with me.

It seems we're not only uninformed about our present, we're ignorant of our past. The "Nation's Report Card" -- the NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress -- revealed that only 13 percent of high school seniors who took the test in 2010 scored "proficient" or higher.

If we can't even demonstrate basic knowledge about our country's beginnings, why should I care that a sophomore Honors student doesn't know who Betty Ford was? Maybe because someday our grandchildren will look at us and say, "Holy cow, Betty Ford died when you were a teenager? Boy, Grandma, you're old!" just like I stared at my grandpa in awe when he said he watched Robert Frost -- that Path Not Taken dude we read in freaking HIGH SCHOOL LITERATURE! -- on TV at JFK's inauguration in 1961 (and oh P.S., that started the tradition of the inaugural poet).

History is made every day. The challenge is getting everyone to pay attention to it. Paying attention to not only the biggest headlines -- Osama bin Laden; or the saddest -- the tragedy in Norway.

Not just the Casey Anthonys and Real Housewives of the world, but the end of the space shuttle and the creation of South Sudan. The death of Betty Ford, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the famine in Somalia. Don't these things deserve at least as much attention as Rebecca Black's new music video, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, or even -- gasp -- the stuff we study in high school US History?

And that's where I see a big problem -- the lack of emphasis in school on the fact that history isn't all dead people and finished wars, it's Boehner vs. Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan. I would love it if we made more comparisons between current issues and issues of the past. Maybe we'd realize that sometimes, "current issues" and "past issues" are one and the same. Our world's people still fight over natural resources, kill in the name of religion, occupy regions and give them up -- just as we did "so long ago."
When I was younger, I had a tutor whose entertaining (if at times alarming) anecdotes on the Founding Fathers and modern politicians helped shape my realization that history is meant to be spoken about, not only read. Today, my parents still ask me to update them on the happenings of the world that day, and are more than happy to discuss -- or debate -- with me. I'd love to see such an environment echoed in our nation's public schools. If only we could start talking about the serious side of news with our friends, as easily as we bring up Snooki's latest exploits...

I'm not saying there's no hope. As a HuffPost devotee and a thirteen-year-old, I know that being a teenager and being an avid news-watcher are not mutually exclusive roles. Once I logged onto Facebook to be greeted by the cheery sight of a spirited conversation about the debt ceiling debacle. The wall post, by my sister's friend Airin, read: "I don't get it... How is reducing taxes and reintroducing tax loopholes for the super-rich going to help reduce our deficit?" The part that made my day was the link underneath -- "View all 62 comments."

Those comments -- hitting the same points Rachel Maddow does in a typical commentary -- were all written by high school students. The two writers doing most of the commenting debated the merits of trickle-down economics, criticized Republicans for using the term "job-creators" to describe wealthy individuals, advocated for the Gang of Six debt plan, weighed the pros and cons of economic benefit from oil companies versus environmental damage, protested deregulation of American business (Airin writing as a supporting example, "In India, Union Carbide was allowed to escape regulation. It poorly informed its Indian employees about the dangerous chemicals they were working with [...] As a result, 8000 people died from a gas leak. The governor of the region took the CEO into custody [...] but the US intervened and he went completely free" -- an incident which many other American students -- or adults -- might not know about).

Whatever your politics, I hope you can at least agree with two statements posted on this politically charged comment thread. The first one, saying "I'm obsessed with this entire conversation" and the follow-up, from Airin, saying "I'm glad we high school kids have obsession-worthy conversations. XD"

Eyes-crossed-out-from-laughing-so-hard-smile indeed (yes, that's what an XD is). We need to start more conversations that get students (and adults too!) commenting back and forth with the same enthusiasm and well-informed opinions that we see on modern music stars. By bringing current events into the classroom, everyday discussion, and social media, maybe we don't need to wait for our grandchildren's questions to remind us we should have paid more attention to current events. History is made every day. On a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, in the halls of Congress, and yes, in the millions around the globe clutching our Harry Potter glasses.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:21 AM

    Dear Adora,
    I quite agree at what your saying. I find that students in my school barely learn enough history to know of political issues around the world. There's a two year course of our nation's history and that's it. I just wonder what happened to the Incas and the aztecs and those wars through the centuries and important people.

    People here say that history is something you can learn yourself (true) but how many students actually bother to do this? And that History isn't nearly as important as Commerce.