This is a guest post written by my son Ian, who has made various appearances as a recurring character in this blog, most recently as the kid with the sleep disorder and aversion to tests.
Ian is currently a third year student at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA and is in the process of formulating or designing his Div lll project which is the culmination of a Hampshire education.
Enjoy this brief respite from my lengthy ramblings.
As a student, everything in my life starts with printer paper.
Take yesterday, for example. Upon realizing that both my primary file cabinet and backup cardboard box had reached maximum capacity and were spewing six months of assorted paper onto my floor, I decided to get my hands dirty and do some recycling. During this process, I found an article assigned two years ago in a class that partially instigated my decision to study history. It was likely saved for the same reason I save everything else—in the moment, my instincts as a historian-in-training told me it might come in handy some day. And so here we are. Validation!
Apocalyptically entitled Something Has Gone Very Wrong, this article serves as the introduction to James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. This is a book, I have to confess, that I haven’t gotten around to finishing, despite many favorable recommendations. In any case, Loewen illuminates an issue that has been occupying my thoughts throughout my college career—I love learning history, but so many of my peers seem to actively despise it. As he writes:
“High School students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history invariably comes in last. Students consider history ‘the most irrelevant’ of twenty-one subjects commonly taught in high school. Bor-r-ring is the adjective they apply to it…Even when they are forced to take classes in history, they repress what they learn, so every year or two another study decries what our seventeen-year-olds don’t know” (1).
I study history—communication in medieval Europe, if we’re being specific.
While I’m not sure about most things, I am fairly certain that I don’t find history boring. It is frightening, to say the least, to think that such an outlook is the norm. I mean, lets face it: topics like political intrigue and war are exciting. How is it possible that the past, rife with drama and suspense, strong characters and plot twists, is so often reduced to the kind of banal material that no one can enjoy? The History Channel needs to employ the aid of alien involvement in order to sell history, to make it exciting. Something is wrong with this picture.
Loewen cites poor quality of textbooks as a primary force in the collective hatred for history. His argument is extensive, but there are two points I wish to draw out here: the lack of excitement textbooks incite, as well as the inability of textbooks to make history relevant. To make my personal situation clear: I don’t read textbooks. This isn’t because I refuse to, but rather because textbooks simply aren’t assigned. This isn’t a side effect of going to Hampshire, an emphatically alternative college—indeed, the majority of my history courses have actually been at Smith, Amherst, and UMass Amherst. My professors don’t assign textbooks because they are aware that the alternatives are so much better for everyone involved.
Rather than being subjected to a condensed, overtly biased, and flat-out boring summary, I am assigned primary documents. I don’t read a list of bullet points. I read the documents upon which the textbook summary is derived. This is what makes history exciting for me—the notion that I’m reading words written a thousand years ago by someone who was directly involved. My readings of the crusades, for example, are not relayed by a distant and impartial narrator from the 20th century, but rather by those in the thick of medieval battle. As such, reading their accounts is an undeniably meaningful way of engaging with history—the crusades, for obvious reasons, mattered to those involved. Reading these accounts breathes relevancy and excitement back into history.
But when it comes down to the wire, when asked to justify or defend my studies—an exceedingly common occurrence—I generally take the honesty track by saying that I love what I learn. Sure, presentation and relevance certainly play a role—I could wax poetic on the necessity of understanding pre-modern ideals in order to make sense of our own present-day situations. Chivalry informs the way in which we justify violence against women; the crusades informs the way in which we justify violence against those different from us. The birth of the medieval judicial system informs our usage of grand juries. Medieval literature informs the tropes and formulae behind Hollywood. The list goes on and on, and I’m more than happy to debate particulars.
I am stalwart in my position that history need not be irrelevant and boring. No rational justification, however, trumps the true justification for my studies: I fear that this subject I love will be deemed utterly irrelevant. I am learning history, but I am also learning how to defend history—this is what makes my studies worthwhile.