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history fog

December 14, 2010

Yesterday I was driving two seventh graders home (son and other child) and I asked them what they had learned in school that day: Oh, we heard a lecture on India. What about India? The history. What about the history? I don’t know. Me either. I was horrified. Well, did your teacher talk to you about the British or was this ancient history? How far back in time did she go?
Again, they didn’t know. It was kind of confusing, said the child who was not my son. Why was it confusing, I asked through my teeth. Oh she jumped around a lot, said my son. Yeah, chimed the other child. She is a really confusing teacher.

Well, did she mention the British, I asked. Yes, something about the British. Did she mention Gandhi? Um. . . .No, I don’t think so. Well, when did the British colonize India? Maybe around the time of Alexander the Great, hazarded the person who is Not my child. At least my child looked startled by the idea of Alexander and the British being contemporaries.

I managed to refrain from being sarcastic, largely because
I remembered how history was for me when I was in 7th grade: a smoky plain of single names so dense that there was no room for much else. Who knew what Galileo’s first name was? Or Aristotle’s. What was the gospel writer Luke’s last name. Even Cleopatra was just Cleopatra. The past was populated with anyone who did not live now, so incas, Romans, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians were all there, walking through mosaic courtyards, huddling in cave dwellings, and striking up conversations about the gods, the arch, or the sphinx.

This situation was complicated by the fact that I also found geography smoky: Who knew where all these famous people lived? Missouri was all I really knew and barely that. I knew where the Mississippi was. I knew that Jefferson City was west of St. Louis and was actually the capital, although it seemed like St. Louis really was.

The question, then, is how am I, the one who saw things through a mist, now able to tell you where Thailand is as well as the dates of the French Revolution. How can I explain the Puritan emigration to America and the development of monotheism? How did I learn these things? How do I teach a sense of history?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. George Rosen permalink
    December 15, 2010 10:42 am

    Not to be (once more) an old fogy–see etymological note in next comment–but I learned history and learned to love it via stories, both familial stories(like the ones you’ve been telling about your grandfather, if you situate that story in a somewhat larger context–my parents and those of my generation always talked about the Depression and the War as part of their personal stories, because they came from a generation that couldn’t escape being involved in history) and published stories. The Landmark Books–in a numbered series, so one could greedily accumulate them, like baseball cards, etc. –have you seen all the episodes of 24?–were a particular and really important joy. Some are now out date and all, I think, are out of print, but they’re really easily available. They were stories told at a level halfway between “little Timmy goes off to fight the Spanish Armada” and “a history of Elizabethan England” that was immediately engaging. There was also–again a specific series of books that looked and felt alike, same illustrations, all in silhouette–a group of biographies for younger kids, stories of Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison (and Jane Addams and Florence Nightingale, too) growing up to become themselves. So, stories of people who are embedded in history–like all of us. [By the way, again, that school you refer to has, I think, a particular problem in that it’s pedagogy lends itself to seeing the past as a big sack–“smoky plain”, as you say– of formerly alive people rather than as history, a majestic, articulated stream of living beings moving through shared experience in time.] Even if there aren’t those series of books anymore, there’s gotta be some equivalent?

  2. George Rosen permalink
    December 15, 2010 10:47 am

    For the historically minded, what I found when I looked up “fogy/fogey” (I want to go to that Fogies’ Hospital when I need comfort and aid….)

    Fogy \Fo”gy\, n.; pl. Fogies.
    A dull old fellow; a person behind the times,
    over-conservative, or slow; — usually preceded by old.
    [Written also fogie and fogey.] [Colloq.]

    Notorious old bore; regular old fogy. –Thackeray.

    Note: The word is said to be connected with the German vogt,
    a guard or protector. By others it is regarded as a
    diminutive of folk (cf. D. volkje). It is defined by
    Jamieson, in his Scottish Dictionary, as “an invalid
    or garrison soldier,” and is applied to the old
    soldiers of the Royal Hospital at Dublin, which is
    called the Fogies’ Hospital. In the fixed habits of
    such persons we see the origin of the present use of
    the term. –Sir F. Head.

  3. December 15, 2010 10:49 am

    George, You are a true historian. At least three times, you’ve helped me with history.

    Also, I still remember the RFK stories. Do you ever write about them?

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