If the eighth grade girl you see in the photo had realized that history was about real people, she might have been a much better student. However, she had the misfortune to have several history teachers who were also busy coaches (don’t throw things- just stating the facts) and whose standard teaching practice was “read chapters 5, 6, and 7 and be ready for a test on Friday”. The tests were always “multiple choice” or “true/false” and asked about dates, events, wars, laws, generals, presidents, etc. At least by the eighth grade I had a teacher who was fascinated by the Civil War and encouraged me to do some research about it. Sadly, even that amounted to a lengthy, tedious paper about battles and dates and generals. It must have pleased him though, because he never returned it!
By college I had little interest in history and took only the basic requirements and did little more than the basic reading. Again, much of it was about dates and events. I can still remember climbing the stairs with a classmate while we recited the four most important dates we thought would be on the test. I struggled through that class! Of course when I first attended college we were living history in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, so I suppose my interests in anything earlier were somewhat limited.
What I wonder now is why my teachers didn’t ask us to read more about the lives and families of some of those presidents and generals. I know the boys in my class would have been thrilled to know that Andrew Jackson ran off with another man’s wife and killed a man in a duel. Why didn’t they try to make our early leaders seem more like ordinary men doing a job? Why didn’t they tell us that the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence sat around and argued about it first? Was I supposed to just presume that because my thirteen-year-old brain had accumulated so much knowledge about the way the world works? And why didn’t even one teacher ask me if someone from my own family had emigrated from Europe or settled Kentucky with Daniel Boone or fought in the Civil War? How did I get to be an adult before realizing that history wasn’t made by a noble group of white-wigged strangers, but our ancestors- real men, with real lives?
Maybe my teachers can’t be blamed. Perhaps it was more difficult to obtain some of the information we now have so readily at our fingertips. Or perhaps as a teenager I just wasn’t interested or paying attention. I only know that my investigations into genealogy have given me a new perspective on history. As I research our area and make discoveries about the famous and infamous people who once lived here, I make it a point to find out if my own ancestors knew them. No one lived in a vacuum; each person we learned about in history class had parents and other family members, neighbors, friends, enemies, co-workers, classmates, etc. They made history together!
I’m not sure how history is taught today. I haven’t made any inquiries beyond the first grade. I could look at our PASS but that would only tell me what the state expects students to know, not how it’s being taught in the classroom. But I hope that teachers today are making it much more interesting and relevant than mine did. I hope they are helping students to discover their own history and the role their ancestors played in the development of our country. As I’ve said before, history is all about real people with real lives.
BTW- I posted about this topic today because of my discovery that a former resident of Caddo went to France as part of the WWI Gold Star Mother’s Pilgrimage. Fascinating…and you can read about it on my Caddo blog.