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?