Two doors up from us lives an eccentric fellow named John. He’s married, and his children are grown. He’s a large, wild-looking fellow. Big black beard. Thick black curly hair. Thick glasses. He’s also amazingly gentle and soft-spoken, as well as enormously humble and polite. In all my years knowing him, I would never once hear him speak ill of anyone.
My brother Pat – two years younger and about a thousand times more outgoing – talks to Neighbor John now and again. Eventually John discovers that Pat doesn’t know his states and capitals. He quizzes me, and finds I am similarly deficient. He insists that This Won’t Do, and asks our mother if he can help us learn them.
I am skeptical. This sounds like school, and I do not like school. School is the place with bullies (the teachers) and jerks (the other kids) who disapprove of me and let me know how much they don’t appreciate me or my scholastic efforts. It’s a constant assault on my sense of worth and my sense of agency. I spend all day watching the clock and waiting to escape, hoping I can make it home without experiencing any major humiliations. I spend my non-school hours avoiding thinking about school, and trying to ignore the dread that tomorrow, or Monday, or next fall, I’ll have to go back again. There is no end to this punishment, and the best I can do is put it out of my mind for a few hours.
So I do not like this idea of a neighbor showing up and giving me MORE school during non-school time. However, he’s very different from my teachers and his approach is very different from their fetish for bureaucratic paperwork. I humor him.
He hand-traces a map of the United States somewhere, and pays to have them photocopied. (In the 80’s, you didn’t surf to a webpage, look something up, and hit “print” to get a nice color copy from your fancy inkjet printer. You drove to the printer and you paid to have copies made.) These look like worksheets to me. On the other hand, he made them himself and he cares that I fill my sheet out. Even better, if I fill in this map he isn’t going to turn around and make me fill in another one just like it, and another, forever. We have a finite goal, and we were working towards it. We are trying to accomplish something.
Slowly the map is filled in as I learn each state (I’d always been hazy on all of those square states in the midwest) and then each capital. When we succeed, he presents us with a gift: A massive five-foot color map of the United States. (That map still exists today, and is hanging in my parent’s basement. Thirty years old, and it’s still in good shape.)
Having accomplished this together, I become friends with John. I visit him regularly. When I arrive at his house, he greets me warmly, offers me a drink – usually lemonade – and a seat. (We have to sit on his porch, since he has dogs.) He treats me just like any adult would treat another. He asks me how I am and is genuinely interested in the answer. We sit together and talk about history.
In school, I hate history. History is this:
- The Battle of Gettysburg was fought on July 1-3, 1863.
- The Union won the battle.
These things happened spontaneously and for no particular reason. Why were the armies in Gettysburg? Because that’s where the battle was held, apparently. And then they showed up and fought and one side won.
With John, history is an increasingly complex web of events where fates and fortunes can often turn on the most surprising circumstances. In school, I’d come to see wars as armies moving around a map, like recounting some ages-past game of Risk. With John, I understand that armies are systems that need food, ammunition, intelligence, and even shoes in order to operate. I understand that war is often an expression of varying ideas and values that can not reconcile or tolerate one another. In school, people fought wars for no reason and won without explanation. (Oh sure, the nation of Floren and the country of Greater Elbonia were fighting over territory, but why did they want that territory?) This is further hampered by the slow pace at which historical events are memorized. If this week I tell you when Bilbo left Bag End to Frodo, and next week I tell you the date when Frodo left the Shire, and the week after I tell you the date when Frodo left Rivendell, it’s not going to make for a very cohesive tale and I shouldn’t be shocked if you have trouble remembering it.
With John, I come to understand how human beings could come to do something so shockingly stupid and painful as have a war. He teaches me all of this without ever wasting my time with paperwork or tests or worksheets. In an afternoon I’ll absorb and retain more history than I will during an entire month of schooling. I do so effortlessly, while enjoying friendship and sipping lemonade. The learning isn’t even our goal – it’s a byproduct.
Knowing the dates is admirable. Knowing the reasoning is crucial.
Having said that, I can see how things ended up this way and I’m not really outraged at the public schools over how history education works. Teaching why means teaching about the ideas behind the various conflicts. In the American Civil War alone, you can blunder into debates over State’s Rights, Natural Rights, the Confederate flag, and Reparations for Slavery. As soon as you decide you want to explain the reasoning behind events, the pressure will be on from various Interested Parties to have their talking points codified into curriculum that will be imparted to every student. After all, what better way to propagate your beliefs than to do an end-run around your political rivals and go directly for their kids?
It’s unavoidable: Teaching actual history will sometimes lead to conflict and controversy. Much better (from an administrative standpoint) to sidestep all of these possible battles by sticking to dry, indisputable facts. Unfortunately, this often makes the lesson itself nearly pointless.
I’m comforted by the number of people (myself included) who hated history class but delight in the History Channel. In the early 1980’s, Neighbor John was my own personal History Channel, and I’ll always be grateful for that. He stopped being part of my life when we moved away. (A little more than a year from now, in our story.) I encountered him again when I reached adulthood, and got to see him from a completely different angle. I’ll talk more about him later.
John is a vigorous autodidact. I’m confident that he never attended any education beyond high school, but he has a voracious reading appetite. His house is packed with books. Not fiction, but a broad selection of textbooks that reflect his interests. Science, philosophy, religion, and a double helping of history. His free education is so effective that it will be years before I even realize I am being educated.
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