Autoblography Part 7: Neighbor John

By Shamus Posted Friday Sep 2, 2011

Filed under: Personal 204 comments

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.

In my view, knowing dates is great for winning games of Trivial Pursuit and becoming the returning champion on Jeopardy, but knowing the why and how is important for inoculating future generations against the Bad Ideas of the past. Learning dates is simply rote memorization and regurgitation of facts, and doesn’t really impart a meaningful understanding of history. Personally, I find it easier to learn the dates once I have the other facts to give it shape.

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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204 thoughts on “Autoblography Part 7: Neighbor John

  1. Ayegill says:

    John sounds like an awesome person.

    This reminds me of how i learned math in elementary school, only replace my neighbor with my dad. One day i came home with a problematic math assignment. If i recall correctly, it was something to the effect of: you have n amount of squares that you can arrange as you want. How many figures can you make for n= 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. This was ridiculously tedious. So i asked my dad if there wasn’t a better way to do it than just draw out figures until i couldn’t do anymore.

    My dad spend about two minutes staring intensely at the assignment. He then pulled out his laptop, opened an application, and started typing. I asked him what he was doing doing. He told me he was making the computer do the math for him.

    My mind was blown.

    Two hours later, it was bedtime, and my mom came into the room, telling us it was time for me to go to sleep. This did not happen.

    That was my first introduction into programming.

    In hindsight, i find it hilarious that his laptop took almost five full minutes to do the calculations when n=5.

    Also, why is this post under Spoiler Warning?

    1. MadTinkerer says:

      I was three when my father brought home a computer capable of running Asteroids. I asked him how the computer figured out where to draw the lines and dots. When he explained that the computer was using Geometry which is a kind of Math I would eventually learn, you bet I paid much closer to Math from then on.

      One of my best subjects in high school was Geometry. I wonder why?

    2. Potado says:

      Hehe, I do that constantly for my tedious homework.

      1. Mistwraithe says:

        You posted your reply before Ayegill posted his message that you replied to.

        That is pretty clever!

        1. Funny Money Guy says:

          4:55am vs 4:54pm.
          So 11 hours and 59 minutes later. But good try!

    3. Ambitious Sloth says:

      I did the same thing in high school. My math teacher wanted us to work on a project where we had to find and list all of the combinations for a list of about 100 numbers in class (there were some other rules to it but I forget them). Luckily I had taken a introductory computer science course the previous year and since we went to the math lab (She wanted it all typed out) all the computers had JCreator installed. In the first 20 minutes I had it completed and handed it in. I still remember the conversation,

      “You… You’re already finished?”


      “What did you do?”

      “I made the computer do the work.”

      She accepted it as work and I spent the rest of the class playing Doom off of a flash drive I had.

      1. I was fortunate enough to go to a good high school (for three years in a row! Previously I’d sometimes go to three DIFFERENT schools in ONE YEAR!) and we had an academic competition with other schools in our region. OMG it was so fun. I learned more in the two years I competed than in my entire previous life COMBINED. It was AWESOME.

        People love to learn things if it’s relevant to them. Not to the latest educational trends, but TO THEM.

        You know, it occurs to me that one of the worst signs of malaise in the modern school system is that I almost never run across kids any more who tell me what they want to do when they grow up. (I never could–I STILL can’t in any but the most vague, trite, useless terms, and I’m THIRTY.) Even if it’s kind of a silly thing that they change later (such as my brother insisting he was going to be a “bulldozer man”), there’s just no enthusiasm for being a grownup and doing grownup stuff and getting your own place etc.

        The kids I know who are homeschooled are all extremely friggin’ definite on this point. Even when they’re like, five. They are going to grow up and get a house that looks like this and live next to a lake and they’re going to be a lawyer and they’re going to go hiking and ride a bike and swim in the lake and have a hovercraft and their car is going to be purple and they’re going to have a dog and a cat and three goats and the goats will live in the shed and they’ll have ice cream for breakfast on Saturday and they’re going to have three kids by adoption because sex sounds kinda gross but they want to have lots of toys and you need kids if you want to have toys.

      2. M the Cheddar Monk says:

        I would do that too, but my school insists that rather than doing my work in five minutes with no effort, I must work for an hour, and even then, if I do it in a way they don’t like, even if I get the question right, I get no credit.

    4. ENC says:

      *Cough It’s actually maths because it isn’t mathematic, it’s mathematicS.

  2. Zaxares says:

    This is the same reason why I enjoy reading articles about history on Wikipedia. They often go into great (sometimes even excessive) detail about the background and motivations of the drivers behind the war/conflict/event. :)

    EDIT: GODDAMMIT! One of these days I SWEAR I will manage to get a First Post that isn’t just me shouting “FIRST!” :P

    1. Someone says:

      Unfortunately, there is no real way to know if whoever wrote or edited the latest version of the article has a (relatively) impartial point of view, and isn’t just advancing, perhaps inadvertently, an extreme opinion.

      1. How is this different from anything else you read?

        1. Soylent Dave says:

          With a published author, you can quickly discover his biases (if they aren’t readily apparent) – there’s often a body of his work to examine, and if not you’ll be able to look into his background and education.

          Wikipedia is relatively anonymous, and articles are written (in effect) by the most persistent, loudest shouter – who isn’t always the person who knows the most about a given subject (another topic, really), but is often someone with a definite, strong, bias.

          That’s the difference – history is written by people; an important part of understanding history is knowing who the people are who are telling these stories. Wikipedia removes that (or makes it much more difficult).

          1. PoignardAzur says:

            Well, reading the Talk pages can help sometimes.

  3. Mumbles says:

    It’s funny that you bring up the Civil War, since it was the only history class I got anything out of in school. I had this teacher that had us read historical fiction and mapped out battles like a match of Team Fortress 2. Even though I only had him for a teacher once, I had him say my name at graduation. Since then I’ve become a kind of history junkie. I read books about Bobby Kennedy for fun and I eat up any information I can get on Houdini.

    I don’t agree with you on public school because it taught me how to be strong. It’s not an ideal community for kids and it broke a lot of my friends, but it was good for me. As a student, I built the drama department from literally nothing but an empty, dirty theater and now kids are going to Shakespeare Festivals on money they made on musicals. When they’re still giving out an award named after you in High School, it’s hard to take a dump on the establishment.

    1. Mephane says:

      This is a prime example of what is wrong in a lot of systems in modern society: the winner takes all. Congratulations on your accomplishments and that an award is named after you, but for every single person as successful as you, there is probably a dozen or more who have to suffer the very opposite end of the scale. You could take any time in history, any nation or culture, ever, and point out some people who did really well, who made a name of themselves, and achieved something we still learn about or even admire today. But this doesn’t change the fact that the history of mankind is a huge collection of war, cruelty, injustice, superstition and stupidity.

      Sorry, I digress. The point is, such an example as yours does not prove anything. In any system someone is able to excel, from any system someone is going to benefit. The question is – what about all the others?

      1. Mumbles says:

        Oh it’s totally winner takes all. Like I said, it made me strong, but it broke a lot of my friends. I just don’t feel like I should hate on something that made me who I am.

        1. lazlo says:

          But it is kind of strange that you don’t hate on something that broke a lot of your friends…

          I do think public education is important, I would love for it to be more effective, but when I was growing up, it taught me three indispensable things.

          First, it taught me how to interact with people not from my family with a minimum quantity of bloodshed.

          Second, it taught me that powerful authority figures can be and often are completely wrong (I still crisply remember my 6th grade science teacher being Wrong about gravity. I knew it, but it would take until mid-way through calculus III in my third year of college to have the math to prove it. Proving Mrs. Robinson wrong was one of the most motivating experiences in my schooling, second only to reading Heinlein’s “Have Space Suit Will Travel” and being frustrated that Kip knew science that I didn’t).

          Third, and perhaps most importantly, my father taught me how to get high scores on standardized tests on subjects with which I was entirely ignorant of, and ridiculously high scores on subjects with which I had passing familiarity. However school gave me an opportunity and motivation to put that skill to practical use and hone that ability to its maximum potential. That skill has served me well throughout my career.

          If it could teach just those three things to everyone, it’d be totally worth it. Any arithmetic, grammar, or smattering of historical fact along the way is pure gravy.

          1. Mumbles says:

            I guess what I mean is that it can be good for some kids. I’d be way less confident with myself if I hadn’t gone through the ringer. It was tough and a lot of work, but I needed a hard lesson.

            But, there are people who don’t need it. They’re already individuals with strong personalities and don’t deserve the fucked up shit that can happen in public schools.

            EDIT: Also now I feel like a jerkface. I usually tell people that my friend got the award named after her because it sounds like boasting. I was just trying to make an example -_-;;

            1. Mephane says:

              I get the point, actually got it in your original comment. I was just saying that, as a system, designed to be imposed on everyone, it is bad, as you say it is not good for everyone; I just say additionally, it is bad for many and good for few only. For a general public education system, this cannot be the goal.

              That said, I coasted through my entire education, and by entire I mean entire, and in retrospect I understand that the general effortlessness with which I went through is only through sheer luck. Every brain is wired differently, those that happen to cope easier with such a system just coast through, but I have seen the vast majority of students struggle all the time, regardless how intelligent. As coined in another comment thread (or blog post), it’s like trying to squeeze the round through the square, it just doesn’t fit. By chance I was square and went through, but I know that it was no accomplishment of mine, at all. On top of it, it was despite the way things were. I’ve been subject to constant bullying since 5th grade, and it never really stopped, only softened down as other targets got into the focus.

              And, in the end it didn’t make me strong. It just made me loathe basically anything that is done because “everyone does”*. Because that is how the dynamic of groups of school kids generally works.

              *Example: I cannot wear suit and tie. I just cannot. To me, it’s something solely for convention and by expectation by the group, and wears no benefit at all, just the symbol of oppression, hierarchy, and desire for power over other people. Similarly, I refuse to do a lot of things that I personally, don’t see a benefit in other than “adapting to the crowd”. To hell with the crowd.

              Argh. I digress again. And I didn’t want to get into such personal things.

              1. Deoxy says:

                The sad part is that I can make a good case for a school system that IS “winner take all”, where only the best benefit, and everyone else loses… and that STILL doesn’t justify our public school system , as almost none of the “best” (as defined in this setting as most intelligent and most likely to make breakthroughs in science or other areas which would benefit from a good education) get much out of it (“I coasted through my entire education, and by entire I mean entire” – same here).

                Indeed, it manages to benefit a few, but not the few it would be most beneficial to society to sacrifice the rest to benefit. That is, the only justification I can find for sacrificing so many (they “lose”) for the benefit of so few is if the chosen few benefitted society (including those who “lost” in the school system)… and those generally aren’t the “winners” who are benefitting.

                In short, they managed to make a totalitarian system that doesn’t even give the benefits of totalitarianism.

              2. Jeff says:

                I associate suits and ties with Men in Black, and tuxes with James Bond.

                …I love dressing up. =P

                1. Joe says:

                  I’m glad I’m not the only one.

              3. Adeon says:

                I agree with that, especially the bit about the suit and tie. I generally force myself to wear formal clothing when it’s expected if I consider the benefit to myself to be worth it (i.e. I’ll wear it to a job interview but I’m unlikely to try for a job where I’d have to wear it every day) but if I decide it’s not worth it I won’t go or will turn up wearing what I want.

                1. Kacky Snorgle says:

                  Somehow I share your reasoning but reach the opposite conclusion…. I’m that guy who wears a coat and tie every day even though nobody else in my job does except the boss’s boss. Partially this is a conscious attempt to compensate for the fact that I have a rather laid-back personality, in order to avoid coming off as a total slacker…but partially I’m just more comfortable in more formal clothing. My grandfather was the same way; my father thinks we’re both crazy…. ;-)

            2. Mari says:

              You made the point that I’d like a lot of people to distinguish: it WAS good for you, and it IS good for some, but it ISN’T for everybody. I don’t know why we (as a civilization) keep doing this to one another. What’s best for me may not be best for you but by golly I’m going to impose my “right” on everybody else whether it’s right for them or not because that’s how I justify my choices and beliefs. I dream of a world where we can all just chill out and stop second-guessing ourselves and everyone around us and just let everyone live their own lives doing what works for them with the fewest possible universal “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.”

              1. Mephane says:

                Amen to that.

              2. clouviere says:


                You claim libertarianism but you speak as a socialist. Atleast that is how it seems to me. In the end your performance is your performance. I do not see how my excelling in something means someone automatically fails. Our society can not be concerned about what is good for anyone. It’s not the place our others to concern themselves with what is best for you unless they are responsible out of choice or duty. I am not responsible for you. Nor am I responsible for your schooling.

                Life is not a collectively based zero sum game. Because someone achieves success doesn’t mean some one fails. Yes…that works if you are talking about war, sports, games, competition…but not life. I do good in school it doesn’t mean someone had to fail. My success or failure, even in a our completely totalitarian public school system is still 100% up to me. All the money, all the teachers, all the rules and regulations still doesn’t change the fact that I have to do the work and I have to study. If I make an A on a test I do not remove the ability of someone else to make an A.

                I am not defending the public school system. It is not market driven. It enslaves the collective for the failures of the individual. In short it is very efficient at wasting money…that’s all it does well. I am defending however the individuals responsibility to perform…regardless of the game.

                If I misunderstood your intent I apologize.


                1. krellen says:

                  As a socialist, I will guarantee you that Mari sounded nothing like one. She railed against the collective, not for it.

                  1. Nasikabatrachus says:

                    I don’t see why an anti-authoritarian socialist couldn’t say what Mari said. Heck, many socialists complain that capitalism is exactly what Mari dislikes–that it forces people into one mode of economic existence whether they see the value in it or not.

                2. Nasikabatrachus says:

                  I find it naive to say that one’s grade is 100% up to oneself. Of course hard work is important, but not every environment is good for every student. Thus, imposing a particular environment on many different students really is a zero-sum game since some people will thrive in a given environment and others will not. Furthermore, not every student has the same motivations, so putting one in the wrong environment can be bad for their future learning. As Shamus’ account demonstrates, not every student sees forgettable plodding to get some arbitrary standard of approval as something worth doing. Subjecting students who don’t see it as worth doing to it harms what should be the real goal, which is the kind of learning Shamus did on Neighbor John’s porch.

                3. uberfail says:

                  Take two dirvers. Put one in an F1 car an another in a Mini. Is it he Mini drivers fault that he loses?

                  Or lets change things up lets race the F1 against a speed boat. If they race on water is it any wonder that the F1 sinks?

          2. Jeff says:

            Was your 6th grade teacher wrong, or was it just Lies-To-Children?

          3. Ayegill says:

            Second, it taught me that powerful authority figures can be and often are completely wrong (I still crisply remember my 6th grade science teacher being Wrong about gravity. I knew it, but it would take until mid-way through calculus III in my third year of college to have the math to prove it. Proving Mrs. Robinson wrong was one of the most motivating experiences in my schooling, second only to reading Heinlein's “Have Space Suit Will Travel” and being frustrated that Kip knew science that I didn't).

            When describing Beta Radioactive Decay, my teacher said “What happens is that a neutron decays into a proton and an electron, and the electron is then emitted”

            i raised my hand. “Since a neutron and a proton both weigh 1U, where does the extra weight come from that constitutes the electron?”

            my teacher: “That’s a good question, but i’m afraid we don’t have anywhere near the time needed to explain it”

            It was like right out of an XKCD strip. Although my teacher was probably justified in not starting on Quantum Physics in the 9th grade

            1. Dragomok says:

              He could have also answered that 1U is actually an approximation and proton is actually slightly lighter than neutron.
              But I’m not sure if that actually is relevant to Beta Decay.

              1. silver Harloe says:

                It kind of is :)
                And, yes, in the same amount of time that the teacher said “we don’t have time to answer that,” the teacher could have pointed out that the mass of an electron is is 1/10,000th the mass of a neutron, and is also very close to the difference between the masses of a proton and a neutron :)

                1. Mycroft says:

                  I asked the same question in my high school physics class, and that’s exactly what the teacher said to me.

      2. GiantRaven says:

        Why shouldn’t the winner all? Why should people doing badly be praised and recognised? I don’t really follow that idea at all.

        1. Shamus says:

          “Winner take all” implies that only one person can find success, even if EVERYONE is brilliant and hardworking. I don’t know that is relevant to the discussion of Mumbles and her impressive achievement, but I thought I’d point that out.

          1. Mephane says:

            Yeah, that’s what I meant. It’s just naturaly that people are different, and some will always be more successful, popular, famous etc. than others. But like any things, brought to the extreme, there is a tiny minority that wins, and a vast majority that, no matter how diligent, no matter how much effort they put in, just will stay at the bottom.

            This comes especially clear when you look at how, nowadays, many things, events, systems etc. around us are basically designed towards that purpose. Pyramid, hierarchy. No one cares if you are good. Today it’s all about the best, not who is good at something. In our country, they’re using the word “elite” all over the place, completely forgetting that which is more important than a small elite that greatly excels in their field – many people “only” good at what they are doing.

            Good example, here in Germany: The universities are direly lacking in funding and personell. The quality of university education has been in decline decades now, until finally, politicians found a clever solution. Now they are promoting “elite universities”, i.e. they picked out the few best (which in some cases just meant, best at political corruption, but that is another story), gave them that title and upped their funding. Of course they didn’t increase overall funding for education. So instead of caring about a good educational system with as many good universities as possible, politics now only caters to the few deemed “best”, and ignores all others.

            1. Deoxy says:

              Society can benefit greatly from such a system… IF the “best” are chosen properly. (That’s not to say there aren’t societal costs for such a system as well, mind you.)

              The problem is that, like the theoretical benefits of dictatorship are always lost due to succession (people who would make good-for-society dictators AND who are capable of BECOMING dictator are unbelievably rare), the unavoidable corruption of the “best” selection process ruins the good that might be achieved, while leaving all the costs in place (and even adding some).

              1. krellen says:

                The decline of Rome started when someone decided his son really should be the next Emperor, despite being completely unqualified. Rome wasn’t always a hereditary system – successors, for a while, were chosen on merit, not blood.

                1. Nova says:

                  Actually, no. Augustus (the first emperor) spent most of the time he was emperor desperately trying to promote and prepare *any* blood relative as his heir, as he had no sons and his grandsons died young. In the end, you got his stepson (?) Tiberius. The only emperors who didn’t attempt to have blood heirs succeed them (if they survived long enough) were the ‘good’ Antonine emperors… who didn’t actually *have* surviving sons (until Marcus Aurelius, and look how badly wrong that went).

              2. Mephane says:

                Of course society benefits from supporting the best and help them accomplish what their good at, but the benefits are void in the long run if the rest, especially those around the median, are forgotten. And that’s exactly what’s happening nowadays. In the heroic days of the USA, for example, you could make it from dishwasher to millionaire. But you also did well if you just were a mechanic. But current development goes ever more towards a system where you are either elite or working poor. That can’t go well for too long, and isn’t really desirable for the latter group, which vastly outnumbers the elite.

                1. krellen says:

                  The “dishwasher to millionaire” story has always been a hoax. Sure, you might find one or two historical figures for whom it is actually true, but they are literally one-in-a-million stories. We’d all do a lot better if we’d stop pretending that could be us.

                  1. decius says:

                    In the US, the literal ‘dishwasher millionaire’ is indeed possible. Working full-time at minimum wage, living frugally and investing at average returns, it is easy to accumulate a million dollars. Over a lifetime, and with no precedent for being able to spend it…

                    1. Adam says:

                      Both Decius and Krellen are right.

                      The “Rags to Riches” story is, more than anything, kind of a dramatized version of the actual American immigrant experience of arriving poor as hell and then through hard work climbing the rungs of society.

                      Take (just because I’m researching it right now) one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago during the beginning of the 20th century, “Little Sicily” AKA “Little Hell”. Before it was almost entirely filled up by poor Sicilians, it was full of Swedes and the like, who moved on to better things. And the Sicilians left eventually too – that part of Chicago isn’t really Italian anymore – to be replaced by other newbies.

                      A dishwasher eventually owning a mansion was never common, but a dirt-poor family moving up to the middle class, and their children going even higher? Sure.

                    2. krellen says:

                      Middle class isn’t millionaire. It is, in fact, possible to work up to middle class. It may even be possible to go from middle class to millionaire, though that is very uncommon as well. Middle class – being the “middle” – tends to be a pretty stable place. People can get there, but they don’t often get higher. We need to dispel the illusion not only that it’s possible to get above that level, but that it’s automatically desirable as well.

                    3. uberfail says:

                      Though upward economic Mobility is much easier to achieve in the other Western countries. Bar England of course as it is hard to escape your class

                    4. Actually, there was a news story here in Ohio recently about a guy who did just this–saved up over a million dollars by working at Lowe’s (a hardware store) as a plain old floor employee. He invested a very large (like 70%) proportion of his income in Lowe’s stock (which has performed well for years), while living at home with his mom. Now he can retire.

                      Keep in mind that a million dollars today is *nothing* like as much money as it was back in, say, the 1870’s when most of the hero entrepreneur stuff was going on. Back then you didn’t have to be a millionaire to be wealthy–a millionaire back then was ultra-rich, eating-caviar-on-my-yacht-the-size-of-a-supertanker rich. Nowadays it’d take a couple of hundred million to feel as rich.

                      It was common enough for people to work their way to wealth that it spawned sayings like “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”–meaning that if a hardworking man accumulated a fortune and left it to a worthless heir, the heir’s son would be back at the coalface without a cent to his name.

                      There are actually quite a few millionaires (and multi-millionaires) in the U.S., it’s just that the large proportion of them live modestly and don’t even necessarily have huge incomes–living within their means and investing is how they get to be millionaires. I’d recommend reading The Millionaire Next Door if you’re interested in some info on it.

                      Oh, and government poverty statistics are bunk because they only consider one number: income. Quite a few of the millionaires I mentioned are technically “living in poverty” according to our government statistics because they’ve retired and live off their savings–thus their income is basically nonexistent. In fact, they don’t really WANT income, because then they have to pay TAXES on it, so many of them invest in things that just *barely* give enough return to offset inflation and pay, say, property taxes on their lovely paid-off house.

                      Is the gap between the ultra-rich and the “poor” widening? Well, yeah, but again the statistics lie, because what they don’t tell you is that a large proportion of the people who have been in the lowest income group were actually in the HIGHEST income group in the preceding or following year. Being “poor” according to the government is a temporary state that many pass through but very, very few remain in year after year. That bottom 5% of income earners is not a group of people. It is a group of statistics.

                    5. Flakey says:

                      If you are born in the USA to a family that lives in the bottom 40%, you are now less likely to get out of that group, as you become an adult, compared to a similar person in any Western European nation.

                  2. Soylent Dave says:

                    “We don’t have an ‘American Dream’ in Britain. This isn’t because we lack a sense of moral purpose, or a sense of destiny guiding us towards a better tomorrow. No, we don’t have a dream in this country, because we’re AWAKE.” – Al Murray

            2. Chuck says:

              Their is a place for everyone, and everyone can find it. Call me a sappy optimist.

              It’s just sometimes finding your proper place is a pain in the tuchus or simply impossible.

    2. some random dood says:

      Interest in Houdini? Have you listened to Kate Bush’s track “Houdini” from “The Dreaming”? If not, give it a try.

    3. Peter H. Coffin says:

      True Fax: I grew up in the same town that Ehrich Weiss spent his childhood, and there was a museum in his old house when I was a kid. Mostly I remember that there were handcuffs and a lot of pictures, and that the house was yellow. The yellow seemed important.

    4. Alexander The 1st says:

      “For the last time, speak up! You need to speak loud enough to reach the people in the back of the theatre! How do you think you’re going to get the Mumbles award if you mumble?”

      1. Mari says:

        True story of how I taught my mumbling aspiring actress to project: I made her repeat lines while hitting her in the gut just hard enough to knock the air out of her diaphragm.

        1. Alan says:

          Is the moral of that:

          I will stop hitting you as soon as you have learned to project?

          1. Mari says:

            LOL No. Projection requires diaphragm control. For some people they just don’t seem to make that connection to how filling and emptying air from the diaphragm affects volume and projection. Sock ’em in the gut a few times and the mental connection seems to gel.

    5. Patrick the Drismal says:

      I’ll dump on the establishment all I damn please thank you. My school still gives out the “Patrick Award” given yearly to the kid with the worst mullet.

      I say screw those guys. I had THE BEST EFFIN MULLET in that craphole. In fact, i’m thinkin it’s about time I grew it back out because the cycle is probably ripe for the mullet to come back in style….

      Worst mullet my ass….. fascists…..

      1. krellen says:

        Really, is one mullet any worse than another?

        I believe that all mullets are created equal, subject to inalienable rights of business up front, party in the back, and endless ridicule from cultural critics.

        1. Bryan says:

          Feel the power of the phantom mullet
          Tremble and cower from the phantom mullet
          And you
          Cuttin’ it short on top
          I want that for me
          Growin’ it long in the back
          So savage and so free…

          (It’s kinda sad that I still remember those lyrics without help, more than 10 years later. Also, eep, that’s older than I remembered.)

    6. uberfail says:

      This is somthing that I am unable to comprehend. I went to school in New Zealand and the idea of school ‘breaking’ anybody is absurd to me.

      1. Mistwraithe says:

        Agreed. Although I believe our schools are gradually becoming more american style with increased bullying and a growing lack of good or better still great teachers. I say gradually because these aren’t exactly new problems but the perception is that they are slowly worsening.

  4. Icyn says:

    Re: teaching history.

    There’s another more universal and even simpler reason why kids are taught dates instead of history:

    Which of the following is easier to grade an quantify on a report card? 1) When was the battle of Gettysburg and who won? 2 points OR
    2) Why did the Battle of Gettysburg happen and why was it important?

    Teachers can get a lot more done a lot faster when they can compare the results to a ready matrix and just tick the right answers. The whole school system in the West seems to be geared towards getting good marks, not learning.

    1. Methermeneus says:

      This is often up to the teacher, however. Sometimes you get a good teacher who is willing to be the interface between the analogue (quality of student answers) and digital (grades of 0-100) systems. Even that isn’t perfect, of course, but that’s when you get teachers who would rather ask your second question than your first.

      Incidentally, I’m not defending the system in general; I’ve had maybe a half dozen such teachers before college, including one each in French, Calculus, and Literature essentially simultaneously in high school. (College became a strange experience, where such teachers were the rule rather than the exception.)

      1. Adam says:

        Well, let’s at least try to be fair, here.

        The public education system also came into being because there were a ton of kids that needed an education and simply weren’t getting it. Wonderful as it was that so many kids in the old days and today only needed a few books and some nerve to educate themselves at home, there was also a truly frightening amount of ignorance.

        So they hired a teacher to teach X number of kids in a community. It’s an obvious, very intuitive way to approach the problem. That the outliers – like yours truly, who was educated at home until high school and then injected into the system for a pretty rough four years of adapting as quickly as possible – tend to get crunched is not simply due to instructors’ laziness.

    2. Kacky Snorgle says:

      Also, Shamus mentioned that it’s easier to learn the dates when you already know the reasons, the story. But I don’t think that’s true for everyone: some of us find it easier to learn the story when we’ve already got the framework of dates and events fixed in our minds.

      I’m *horrible* at rote memorization. Possibly for that reason, those few facts I’ve managed to memorize are used extensively in keeping the rest of my fuzzy brain straight.

    3. uberfail says:

      This is why we (in New Zealand) don’t start learning any history until college (read:high school) and all the tests are essays on the particular subject.

  5. Maldeus says:

    You seem to have sorted this into the Spoiler Warning category.

  6. CalDazar says:

    Lets play?

  7. Andrew M says:

    I also had a neighbor like that in my elementary school days. My younger brother was offered a fist full of change that totaled up to about $4.32, on the condition that he could count all the different denominations for each coin. My brother was three and was able to count it up without any aid surprising our neighbor. We had to do any yard work to earn any more money from him, which he had no shortage of tasks to accomplish.

  8. Reet says:

    uhh shamus? I think you may have somehow accidently not put up the second hitman video for spoiler warning and then posted this under SW. just a heads up.
    And as far as history is concerned I agree with you. I didn’t really learn any history when I was young but then I read a series of books called horrible history that I really enjoyed. They were pretty funny and so I learnt a lot from them.

  9. X2-Eliah says:

    This is a rather nice summary of the issue I had with most subjects at school – they required memorization, not understanding. Those bits that focused on understanding the concept – e.g. maths – those I had no problems with.. memorization, however – I just didn’t (and still don’t) see the point in. Why must I know the names of rivers in central asia? Why must I remember the date Napoleon took a piss on Italy’s border?

    Then again, those subjects that were based on memorization.. well, it was easy to coast through them, just look up the last lesson’s notes quickly before the test, & it’s no problem keeping them in mind for the 10/20 minutes. Regurgitation on quick, effortless scale. Not that a single thing stuck over a course of months, let alone till now.

    Also.. there’s a certain distinction between kids who are into the logical aspect of stuff, and into the human interest angle of stuff.. Crudely put, humanitarian vs. mathematician kids. Unfortunately the common trope of memorising random year-numbers of history serves neither of those groups – it rather serves the kids who are really good at sports and need easy passes through the boring stuff so that they can kick inflated pig bladders.

  10. Rayen says:

    I will never ever accept that teaching history can only be taught by teaching dates. Even in public schools. In my veiw there are 2 kinds of treachers.

    Good teachers
    Bad teachers

    The difference will always always be the good teaching can hold your attention without you having to try. This is the problem with public school, most of the teachers are bad terachers, or rather the clash of personalities between the excessive number of students and a single teacher will cause problems.

    I’ve had teachers that i generally want to be friends with, and those teachers always taught me more than then other teachers who i had either incompatible personality or worse they only saw teaching as a job. If you have lost your passion for teaching you have no business in a classroom.

    Specifically refering to history, the most important thing is to remain impartial. Many People wrote down their reasons for doing things and even if you disagree with it emotionally, ethically, morally, or god forbid politically, the reasons are still the same. The civil war was fought because of a disagreement between the rights of state goverments and the federal goverment. These stem back to problems with the US constitution. Those are facts and they are more than dates. the trick is to teach the why as much as the hows and the whens and let the students deciide how they feel about it. IF you’re a Nazi you still need to teach what the Nazis did. You’re a jew you still need to terach why people joined the nazi party.

    I hate when i hear that teachers are handing out dates because that is the wrong way to teach history. It’s boring, It’s pointless and more and more our youth are shying awya from history becasue teachers are failing to get them properly interested.


    1. Deoxy says:

      This is the problem with public school, most of the teachers are bad terachers

      There is at least some truth in this, but also, many of the good teachers are worn down until they teach badly. Systemic problems are more to blame than any one teacher.

      The short answer (don’t have time for the long one right now, sorry) is that there is no systemic incentive to be a good teacher. The only reason to be a good teacher is one’s own desire to be a good teacher (to educate and benefit the children you come in contact with).

      This desire is very hard to keep in place for long in a system that does not reward you at all for it, even though it takes SO MUCH MORE effort than throwing worksheets at the students and calling it teaching (for one easy example).

      1. Adam says:

        Having been a teacher in some jaw-droppingly hampering circumstances: “this”. It took a ton of willpower to put enthusiasm into my lesson-planning and teaching. And I’ll be perfectly honest: days did come now and then when I lost that fight with myself.

    2. xXDarkWolfXx says:

      Another thing that could indicate a bad teacher in regard to history is if an event requires a student to write down why THEY think it happened. In my time in High School i had a teacher that would always force us to write down why WE think a big event happened and then would generally tell us we were wrong unless we had the reason that SHE said the event happened. Thats my primary problem with the public school system is that in subjects like math and science the answers are FACT 2+2=4 no teacher can debate that but in english and social studies and history everything is generally opinionated and a teacher can give you a bad mark on an assignment simply because they disagree with your view of something.

      If you cant my experiences were similar to those of mumbles’ friends except i didnt fully break i just ended up doing less and less as they put more and more pressure on me.

      1. Hitch says:

        Yes. The twin problems of “soft” disciplines. One one hand you have rote memorization of contextless facts, such as historical date, then on the other the subjective interpretation which requires you to give the answer a specific teacher finds most pleasing. The first teaches you nothing, and the second can trip you up for taking an actual interest in something. If you read beyond the prescribed text and look into it more than the in-class lecture, you’re more likely to discover something the teacher is not looking for in the essay question on the test. You might be even more right that they want, but not giving the answer they were looking for counts against you.

        1. Scott (Duneyrr) says:

          I had a philosophy teacher in college that, when presented with a paper that he disagreed with but was philosophically sound, would grade higher with a ‘Thank you for broadening my scope of vision’ on it.

          I wish all teachers could realize that, sometimes, the student’s ideas are just as valid as theirs.

          1. Methermeneus says:

            I wish all philosophy teachers were like this. I would love to tell the story of my friends’ experience in a Philosophy of Science Fiction course in which the professor was more like xxDarkWolfxx’s and Hitch’s example, but unfortunately I didn’t take the class myself, and my memory of specific examples is spotty at best. I do, however, recall that this professor seemed not to understand the concept that mathematical axioms are only system-wide, not universal, leading to an argument one of my friends (a Mathematics major) continued in emails for half the semester. (I still have the text of one email he sent to me for editing, which makes that an easier reference.)

            Second best philosophy department in the country indeed. Bah.

  11. MadTinkerer says:

    “I'm comforted by the number of people (myself included) who hated history class but delight in the History Channel.”

    I just wish they had more actual history on there and fewer shows like Ancient Aliens and whatever that loopy conspiracy show was the other night. Modern Marvels, American Pickers, Swamp People, and Larry The Cable Guy’s show are all good though.

    1. Meredith says:

      None of that stuff is history, though. I’m so annoyed by the homogenization of all the cable channels over the last few years. It’s like they’ve all forgotten their purpose (except possibly Discovery).

    2. Keeping in mind that we don’t actually HAVE the History Channel and he is remembering the History Channel of our youth (when it was new). That said we both enjoy historical documentaries thanks to Netflix. :)

      1. Will says:

        Unfortunately it turns out there isn’t actually enough History to completely fill a cable channel 24/7 indefinitely, so the History channel has to branch out a bit and start using a very fuzzy definition of ‘history’.

        1. Methermeneus says:

          But… but that would require research and time and possibly even peer review to ensure accuracy! Who has the time and money for that? Let’s just talk about all the stuff we already know about WWII and throw in some random docu-dramas (oh, sorry, “reality shows“) that we can film with three camera crews, one editor, one guy to write narration and Mike Rowe to read it!

  12. silver Harloe says:

    “Floren and Greater Elbonia”? So close. So close. “Florin and Guilder” is the correct answer.

    More on Topic: man. I wish I had been neighbors with John. I never appreciated history until after college. Everyone needs a neighbor John. Or a school system that encourages John to teach history instead of what I had: Coach Whomever who teaches history as a side-gig, makes it clear he’d rather be on the football field, and grades you on how well you copied down what he wrote on the board. I’m being almost literal. My 9th grade Texas History teacher said “well, for the normal kids, I just lecture them in my monotone [he didn’t say the last 3 words], but since this is HONORS History, you need also get to write down the two chalkboards worth of stuff I wrote this morning, and each 6-weeks, turn in your notebook for a grade.” I don’t think he was a coach, but I did have several coaches teaching “non-phys-ed” classes with the same amount of tedium. In retrospect, I imagine I could have copied a few paragraphs and wrote, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” for the following few pages because there’s no way he read 30-180 notebooks thoroughly every 6 weeks – probably he just thumbed through them. At least in 11th grade I had a doctor of philosophy (which I realize is what PhD stands for, but his PhD was actually in philosophy) for a physics teacher – that fellow made school less hellish. Though he sure liked his puns, but somehow could dish it out better than he could take it. I remember that he glared at me when I asked, “did you work overtime on this lecture?” the day we were going to cover power. But, overall, he was a good teacher and I learned a lot from him.

    Uh, somehow my aside consumed my content. Argh.

    1. Josh says:

      Rutskarn teaches physics?

    2. Mari says:

      This very morning on the way to school my elder daughter asked why so many coaches teach history/social studies. We had an interesting discussion which led to another interesting discussion when I mentioned that the only non-social-studies coach I ever had was my astronomy teacher and she wanted to know why they never get cool classes like astronomy.

      My “favorite” (sarcasm) history coach was for US History from Civil War to Present. We spent literally an entire semester drawing maps of how Europe’s political boundaries changed after WW1. We had 9 months to cover 100 years of American history and four of them were spent on that. We made it to the end of WW2 that year. It’s the farthest we ever covered in any history class. But what I will never, ever forget is what new countries were formed and how some other countries in Europe changed shape at the end of WW1. I can still freehand before and after maps.

  13. Florin-Vlad says:

    With John, I understand that armies are systems that need food, ammunition, intelligence, and even shoes in order to operate.

    And that’s how Shamus’s love for logistics in Starcraft was born

    1. Jeff says:

      I wonder if Shamus ever played C&C Generals.
      There’s actually an upgrade for one of the factions’ workers. They then say “Thank you for the shoes!”

  14. Joshua says:

    I thought History in school was only “all right”, but really, really loved it in college because it got down to the reasons you were talking about. I once read a really good book talking about the subject, “Lies my teacher told me”, that discusses the idea that history is the most disliked class in American schools because it is taught 1. In a very boring manner where events occur independently for no reason. 2. Often incorrectly with “facts” that are flat-out wrong.

    An example of #2 was that it is taught that Columbus was a revolutionary who believed the world was round, when in fact just about every learned person of the times did. They just thought(correctly) that sailing West would take way too long.

    1. Deoxy says:

      I only took one history class in college, but the teacher was a temporary one, new and relatively young, filling in for the department chair while he was out of the country for the summer.

      The first day, he said something like, “You’ve all had American History 17 times already, so we’re going to just skim through it. When I come to something that you don’t know or understand or just want to cover in better detail, stop me, and we’ll cover it.”

      BAM – we were through to WWII the first day. Seriously. We finished that in a couple of days and moved on to Korea and Vietnam, where we spent most of the rest of the class. Why? Well, teachers seem to forget to cover the stuff THEY lived through. For almost everyone in the class, “Vietnam” was some kind of awful boogeyman, this unknown “bad thing” that happened when we were very young or not yet born, but that NO ONE would ever bloody tell us anything about.

      It was a really good class.

    2. Mari says:

      I really enjoyed that book as well.

  15. Magnesium says:

    It’s the new Spoiler Warning series! Lets Play: Shamus’s Childhood.

  16. burningdragoon says:

    History was never one of my strong subjects in school. Both date foucused and otherwise. I wouldn’t really blame any particular thing for that either. However the was one history teacher in high school who I always thought it be great if i could just sit in his class and listen to him and not have to worry be tests or anything. He was great I just wouldn’t have performed well enough to want to actually take the class.

    1. burningdragoon says:

      Oh typos. That should teach me to not try to post from my phone.

  17. Mersadeon says:

    In Germany (well, at least at my school, I guess) history was alright. We never really had to learn when something happened, as long as we could say in which war or context it happened. Of course we learned about WW II almost always – and classes are often synchronized to have similar topics when the “WW II time of the year” comes around. German class would let us read a book about a jewish child from the perspective of a german child, history has the events themselves, english will have the american and british side of the war, religious education will have the role of the church during the Third Reich, and so on. It’s very interesting and at least at my school, people tend to like history – it’s easy to get good grades in it.

    1. Zombie says:

      That would be really cool for us Americans about the Civil War (Little known fact, the Vatican wanted the South to win, as reportd by the Vatican Newspaper). I also love History, and read just about anything on little known topics, like the War of 1812, and being in a Catholic school, I dont really have to be PC (Politicaly Correct).

  18. Jarenth says:

    Looking back, it’s not hard to assume that this is where your preference for home-schooling has come from.

    I’ve personally found that (from the limited history classes I had) the only really good history teachers do exactly what John did for you: turn history into a living thing, enacted by living humans for really very human reasons, instead of just a list of dates, times and accomplishments.

    1. toasty says:

      Homeschooling is great. Honestly, I’ve heard nothing but bad or average things from American Public School. I know that I would have done terrible in Public School (I have a few minor learning disabilities that are easily dealt with in this day and age, but I fear I would have been labelled “special ed” and mercilessly teased despite the reality of my actually high intellect. Relatively speaking). Instead I never actually was ever inside an American Public School (though that was mostly because I lived overseas…), homeschooled till I graduated High School, and now I’m at a decent College and have rather good grades.

      Also: anyone who butchers history needs to be shot. History is one of the greatest and most important subjects. The dates are kinda important (i mean… yeah, they’re important) but its all that other stuff that is so amazing and awesome that I really enjoy. I have a history class this semester and I’m pretty sure its gonna be awesome.

      1. Mari says:

        The one thing the dates help me with is in making those mental connections. I learned history in a way that de-emphasized the dates to the point where I was in my 20s before I realized that the “Civil War era” was the same time as the “Victorian era” (both historical periods that I was endlessly fascinated with learning about). I was taught history as a series of seemingly unrelated events or snapshots and it wasn’t until I later filled in the dates that motives, patterns, cycles, and rhythms emerged to make sense of it all for me.

      2. Jethro says:

        I love history and the study of it. I did very well in high school history; but I disagree about the dates. Dates are mostly irrelevant, except to provide temporal context (as in “this event happened AFTER that one or; “It took this many years for the results of this action to have an effect”). Memorising dates is useful when being required to draw a timeline as a time-wasting exercise, but when we ought to be helping children learn about the societal facts of how historical events affect us as people, dates are useless.

        1. Zombie says:

          Its fine to say “Something happened in this year” but not say when it started on the exact date and time and second. Thats a waste of class time, and is pointless, you could do so much else during that time, like why it happened, what it did, why its still relavint today. But dont make me fall asleep during class because you just keep telling us dates and time (Hello 6th Grade US History *snore*).

      3. Aulayan says:

        Homeschooling *Can* be great. Just like any other type of schooling, it depends on the teachers.

        My niece and Nephews? Model citizens, amazingly intelligent. I don’t quiz them on what they know, out of respect to my sister (Mainly due to her being far right wing, me far left. So I do wonder if things like evolution was taught…), but what I admire my sister for doing was in different cities (They had to keep moving), she created home school networks so the children were going on field trips, getting socialized, etc. She addressed most of my concerns about home schooling by doing that, and her kids are amazingly adept.

        On the other hand, I’ve now worked with 2 teenagers who were homeschooled, neither with any social skills whatsoever. And then there’s the nightmare scenario. The homeschooled kid who doesn’t know what her period is, despite she’s in her first year of college.

        So as anything else, It all depends on the teacher. If the parent is fantastic at it, home school is FAR better than public. But that’s not always the case.

  19. Dovius says:

    I had the luck that my first real history teachers was a guy who had a knack for even making summing up dry facts sound interesting, which started my love for history.
    Also, what is the whole thing with public and private schools people have been mentioning?

  20. Ruthie says:

    I was a preschooler when I knew “Neighbor John”. So my memories of him and his family [by then, he had a child close to my age] were of toy soldiers and Mr Potato Head, his son’s brightly colored room, the smell of cats, and eating Kraft macaroni and cheese for lunch under their ugly fruit lamp in the kitchen.
    Once or twice he let us see his model train setup in the basement. I can remember walking by the basement door after that… wishing he’d invite us down again.
    I’m a little sad that I didn’t get to know John the way you did. I’m also sad because I know that at the time, I didn’t like going to his house. His wife babysat me Monday – Wednesday, and I had a different babysitter on Thursdays and Fridays. She was my favorite, and I spent all week looking forward to Thursday.
    I wonder if they knew.

    1. Patrick the Drismal says:

      They knew they didnt like you. I remeber John telling me he”…didn’t like the nosy little sister of mine who always wanted to touch his trains. And she cries to much and smells like Ham Loaf from the italian deli…”

      I think Kathy only disliked you because you cried so much. Maybe she liked Ham Loaf or something….

  21. Strangeite says:

    I find it so interesting upon reading these how differently we view the modern educational system. I am not that much younger than you (34 in a month) so it can’t be that the system transformed overnight.

    I also was the guy picked on throughout elementary and middle school. I also experienced harsh discrimination by teachers. I still remember vividly when my family moved from Appalachia in the fourth grade with only 2 months left in the school year. Apparently the school district felt I would be woefully behind (because everyone knows that the hicks in the mountains don’t wear shoes and are dumber than a box of rocks) and was put in remedial classes. On the second day of school, I was drug to the principals office. I had no idea why. Apparently two students during lunch had unbent a paperclip, wrapped it in paper and were pretending it was a needle. Obviously I was the one that taught them to do this (I had the satisfaction of later finding out that I scored higher on the statewide tests than any other person in the school).

    But I truly believe in the power of a free public education that attempts to educate a populous, regardless of status, wealth, race or creed. This was a radical notion that was vehemently opposed and in my opinion one of the greatest accomplishments of the Enlightenment.

    Is the system perfect? Far from it. I could go on and on about the limitations, problems, absurdities and out right abuse subjected in the public school system. But the fact remains that the public school system remains the best way for an individual to overcome the limitations imposed upon them by way of whom and where they were born.

    I, in no way, want to come across as belittling your experience, but I find it tragic that a system with so much promise failed you so badly. I hope that we find out in later posts that you found that special teacher or two that resonated.

    p.s. Great posts by the way. I am really enjoying them.

    1. Shamus says:

      And I should make it clear that I don’t think that public education is some horrible thing. It works – within certain limitations – for a vast majority of the people. I don’t really have an ajenda in writing this, except to tell my story. If there’s any message at all, it might be, “Schooling isn’t for everyone.”

      I could make a lot of suggestions on how I think the system could be improved, but to some people (the ones who were happy, well-accepted, and well-educated) it would sound like mad heresy. It’s much easier to simply advocate what we’re doing now, which is homeschooling. If we’re wrong, we’re only hurting our own kids, and if we’re right, we’re giving our kids the best without disrupting things for the people who are content with the way things are.

      1. TheAngryMongoose says:

        I actually want to hear your opinions on how to improve it.

        “If we're wrong, we're only hurting our own kids”
        That’s not a nice sentence, no matter how I position it.

        1. Strangeite says:

          I also would be curious to hear your ideas on how to improve the public education system.

          Obviously you have given it some thought, since you made the choice to homeschool. What would have needed to be different for you to consider sending your kids to public school?

        2. Shamus says:

          I could back it up by pointing out (to the public-school-only-advocate) that, “If YOU’RE wrong, you’re hurting EVERYONE’S kids.”

          1. Strangeite says:

            Very true.

            I believe homeschooling can offer the best education to an individual child, however it requires a very special parent, a deep level of commitment and patience, and tons of hard work.

            When it works, it is a thing of beauty.

            1. toasty says:

              There are such things as Co-ops and online tutoring. Few parents have the time or the ability to teach, for instance, high school math. My mom had the ability (College degree in Medical Technology) but not the time (working part time and teaching my two siblings), so we did a lot of online tutoring. I know a lot of other people have co-ops, where parents work together to teach kids (so 3 families have 5 kids between them, and one mom can teach Math really good, so she teaches math, one teaches history, etc).

            2. Mari says:

              “it requires a very special parent, a deep level of commitment and patience, and tons of hard work” is the saddest statement I’ve read today. I wasted 9 years thinking I wasn’t “special” enough to educate my own children despite the fact that I somehow managed to teach them how to walk, talk, read, count, eat with a fork, brush their teeth, wash their bodies, poop in a potty instead of their pants, behave in public, treat others with respect…well, you get the idea. If we, as parents, can teach such basic and vital skills, why aren’t we able to teach the rest?

              1. BenD says:

                There are plenty of parents who would need to take remedial 4th grade math before they’d be able to teach it. Those parents may have many valuable things to teach, but if they want to homeschool their children, they’ll need help from other sources. To the credit of homeschooling, those sources are being developed.

                1. Mari says:

                  But the resources have always been there for the motivated student, whether public schooled or home schooled or whatever other mode of education you wish to use. Was the entirety of everything you know imparted to you by an authority figure with worksheets? I’m betting you’ve learned a lot from books, the internet, asking adults who weren’t teachers (perhaps people who excelled in a field?) and some of it you figured out virtually on your own. Heck, half the high school teachers I had needed that remedial 4th grade math class. They just had a book and an answer key, not necessarily a greater knowledge of mathematics than me.

                  As a matter of fact, when one of my kids was IN 4th grade our school adopted a new math text book. A lot of the answers in the answer key were wrong. At least once a week I had to write the teacher a note asking her to check her answer key and credit my kid BACK the points she had lost on a math assignment for a “wrong” answer that was correct. Yet the teacher failed to notice it EVERY TIME until I pointed it out. I knew to do it because I had to do the exact same thing on my own behalf in high school geometry.

                  I stink at trig but I guarantee that if my kids decide they need to know it, we’ll find a way for them to learn it.

            3. Jethro says:

              Not really. We homeschooled both of our children and it was quite easy. YYMV, of course- our kids were eager to get their work done and get on with their days, and so were generally ‘done’ by 9AM. By ‘done’, of course, I don’t mean they finished learning- but rather that any ‘busywork’ they were required to do was finished.

              Parents who homeschool are generally able to choose the way in which they do so: I have found that those who decide their kids need the same 6-hour day as the public schools provide often burn out and give up, simply because it IS too much work.

  22. Swimon says:

    They really taught you dates in history? At that age? I get why they’d do it if you were taking history classes at a university level. At that point you probably need that knowledge to keep the timeline straight so the cause and effect is apparent but before that, what’s the point?

    Maybe this is something that has changed since then or maybe it’s a difference between the swedish and the american school system or maybe I was just lucky but no one expected us to know any dates. Sometimes, very rarely, we had to remember years or maybe decades but usually as long as we knew the century and understood what followed what we were in the clear. I mean as you said yourself the important point is to know why things happened. This stayed true for as long as I had history classes (taking the science route instead of the humanities I guess that stopped fairly quickly).

    Not to imply that our history classes were perfect or anything. I never understood why we studied swedish jistory to such an extent. I mean sure we live there but swedish history is just so incredibly insignificant all the big events in european history usually happen in france, italy, england and to poland (poor poland they always be stuck between a rock and multiple super powers). Whereas swedish history can usually be summed up with some king succeedes another king the war with denmark is going good/bad sometimes there’s a war with russia the end.

    Yeah i ran out of things to rant about.

    1. Rockbird says:

      You forgot “The people in Dalarna riot. Again.”
      (Seriously, once they deposed a king, then found the new king to be bad so they deposed HIM and put the OLD one back on the throne…)

    2. Flakey says:

      I think it more an American thing. In Britain, when I took history, dates were of very little importance. Essay answers were standard in exams, and you could get a good mark without mentioning a single date in your answers.

  23. silver Harloe says:

    Part of me thinks I should become “neighbor John.” I live in apartment complex, so there are plenty of young children about, and we have a “community center,” so I could even propose to teach there without making everyone think I’m a pedophile, but… hrm. It’s difficult to imagine even a child’s cost/benefit analysis leading to the decision that I offer them anything. Certainly, nothing I would teach would improve their grades (teaching empathy and “why people fought for losing causes” is pointless in a date-based curriculum)… I dunno. Argh.

    1. Jeff says:

      I’m sure the parents would love a free babysitter though!

  24. Chuck Henebry says:

    I don’t think this is how history is taught in school nowadays. Certainly not here in Cambridge MA, where my kids learned history in terms of stories (often comparatively, linking similar moments from different eras). Perhaps this was possible due to the high degree of political unanimity in our community. But I think that today’s blog post is another instance demonstrating how fundamentally education has changed in the 30 years since you were in primary school.

    1. silver Harloe says:

      …or a story about how you live in the most awesome school district in north america.

    2. Scott (Duneyrr) says:

      I was in the LAUSD. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even HAVE a history class.

  25. Meredith says:

    Being a history nerd, this hits home for me. I won’t go on a huge rant, but I will say: History is freaking interesting! I get so upset with people who won’t read/hear about it and with all those movies that butcher it till it’s unrecognizable. Just tell the story, I promise it’s more interesting than anything you can make up.

    Perhaps I should start blaming it on the school system instead of Hollywood. I honestly don’t remember history lessons being this terrible, but then my big fight with school was always lit classes. I read voraciously and school managed to ruin it for me with all their literary analysis. Bleh.

    1. Chuck says:

      Ditto. As a future professor of history, when people go “ew, history” I think “you do realize that this is an amalgamation of the entirety of what has made the modern world, and that through this we not only understand each other and ourselves, but our future, right?”

      also the dead don’t insult you or judge you. Neither do dogs. Probably why I prefer them to people.

      1. Hitch says:

        Just remember that there’s a lot of really bad history teaching going on out there and almost every case of “ew, history” is really “ew, rote memorization of dates without context.”

        Yes, they really do teach that as history in places. become a good history teacher and reduce that percentage, please.

    2. monkeyboy says:

      When people say “I hate history” I always say “no you don’t you hate history classes.”

      Once you figure out history is events experienced by people not much different than you and anything you love now was loved by someone in the past…it just clicks.

    3. Rodyle says:

      Whups. Misreplied…

  26. Slothful says:

    Hey Shamus, your slavery reparations link is broken.

    When I was a kid, I read the Cartoon History of the Universe, and then after a while I found that I knew more about history than my history teachers (especially since my school had a habit of giving some teachers multiple teaching jobs).

    History as it’s taught in school is mostly just endlessly repeating the same points every year, never going in depth. Anyone who’s been through the same school system that I’ve been through has no excuse not to know what cuneiform is, since that was a vocabulary word EVERY DAMN YEAR.

    1. Scott (Duneyrr) says:

      Y’know what? I’m buying this book.
      Maybe I’ll actually learn something about history.

    2. brashieel says:

      Cartoon History of the Universe and it’s sequel books Cartoon History of the Modern World are probably one of the best best ways to get a kid (or most adults) interested in history. It humanizes history, turns it into a narrative, and imparts a huge amount of information at the same time.

      Larry Gonick is awesome.

    3. That series is awesome! Not only does it humanize history, it wanders through many civilizations we miss learning about with Western history. I still reread them.

      He’s also done cartoon physics, genetics, and US History ones.

    4. Rodyle says:

      I remember that series! I read it when I was ten, or something. I got the WORST NIGHTMARES EVER from it (I still don’t know why, but I did), but I didn’t want to stop reading them because I enjoyed them so much.

  27. swenson says:

    I had a great history teacher in high school. He was kinda crazy and occasionally completely wrong (as in, we could follow along in our textbooks to see precisely how he was wrong) and had endless handwritten worksheets in illegible handwriting, but he was at least interesting. (The worksheets were SO difficult to decipher that even I, eternal goody-two-shoes, was perfectly willing to collaborate with everyone else to figure out what the answers should be!) And he genuinely loved history. Not the dates and the rote memorization of boring stuff, but why it worked and how it all fit together.

    It’s funny you should mention the Battle of Gettysburg, actually, because I very distinctly remember him explaining it to us. He was so excited about it! He drew this huge, sprawling, extremely messy diagram on the board as he talked about it, showing all the troop movements and who did what where and why. I may not remember everything about the battle, but I remember an awful lot, simply because he was so enthusiastic about showing us how it all worked.

    I’m sure a lot of people in the class were still bored because they didn’t like history no matter how you explained it, but I loved it. Unfortunately, most of my other history teachers were the dates and names kind of people. I think that’s why I like good historical fiction so much, actually… it shows the past as a real time where real people did real things, not little puppets that moved around because that’s what a history book said they did.

    It also helps to travel to important historical places. :) I’m very lucky in that my parents love to travel, so I’ve been all over the US and some of Mexico too, and when you can tie together a real place with what you learn in history class, that helps a lot. (kinda like Susan teaching in Discworld without the teleportation, come to think of it!)

    1. monkeyboy says:

      Walking the ground, whenever possible, is important. Geography plays a huge part in history as well. One of the best and hardest classes I had in college was a geography class that looked at geography (arable land, water supplies) as a shaper of history. It talked about those “why did they build here why did they fight there.

      Military “graduate-level” training still includes “staff rides” where you walk a battlefield and discuss decisions based on the terrain.

      Last note: if you are going to visit Gettysburg, go down to the Anteitam battlefeild, its close and very powerful.

    2. Mari says:

      Errrr…I’m not sure how seriously I would take a history textbook as evidence of a teacher being wrong. The textbook adoption process is agonizingly political which leads to all sorts of bad history being presented in textbooks. Also, just to make you feel *really* bad about the textbook process, here’s a fun factiod: most history textbooks that you learn from, with the exception of state history books, were written to please TEXAS schools. Texas, as one of the main consumers of textbooks, holds a lot of sway in the textbook authoring process. Publishers’ goal is to get a textbook adopted in Texas and then they consider the rest of the states. What this means for you is that whatever thing (nutty or sane) that has captured the minds of people in Texas will be taught to you or your kids in New Hampshire or Utah or wherever you are. If, in Texas, a consensus of people in the curriculum planning and textbook adoption arenas (these people ) decide something is important it will be included in the majority of history textbooks across the nation and if they decide it’s unimportant it will be left out. (For the record, I’m not making a statement advocating any particular political viewpoint in that link, just giving you some idea of the realities of things)

      1. swenson says:

        Yeah, I know, but it went a little beyond that with this teacher. We’re not talking about political or controversial things, we’re talking about fairly basic matters of historical record! And it wasn’t even like he took the time to say “well, the book says this but I think/believe/have learned blah blah blah”, making it kind of obvious that he never actually read the book.

        We did use the pictures on occasion, though. :P

  28. TheAngryMongoose says:

    I remembered hating History in primary school, though it was never about memorizing dates and events, but instead focused on how people lived at various time periods. It seemed to consist primarily of colour (like geography) and fiction writing tasks (Imagine you’re a Victorian matchstick girl; write about your day at work. Imagine you got transported back to ancient Egypt (uhh, when?); write about your house. Imagine you’re an alien that fell through a wormhole in a blackhole and now you’re in the court of Henry VIII; write about your commute to work).
    It wasn’t until secondary school, where the focus shifted to interpreting sources, identifying bias, ect, that I started to enjoy it. Possibly the only subject (other than perhaps poetry analysis) where I could write for paragraphs and not want to kill myself.
    The only date I can remember pre 20th century, in fact, I think the only date that was ever really taught, is 1066. And EVERYONE knows that one (well, in England at least).

    1. Jonathan says:

      Ewww, “social history.” Some people like it, but I always found it boring, hard to relate to, and lacking in real information that could be applied to modern geopolitical trends.

      1. Flakey says:

        Jonathan I am not sure you caught the implication of what he said (I have no idea if you are from Britain, or not). The period of “social history” was when he was aged 6 to 11 years old. I for one think it an interesting idea to get a young child interested in history by using their own imaginations, before going onto the more serious stuff when they a little older, and can better appreciate it.

  29. LadyTL says:

    Oddly enough that dry fact stuff is why I want to teach history. I want to change that into something that kids will enjoy. I want to teach the why and hows with little focus on dates and rote. In reality they don’t have to teach like that. History is the only core class with a non test related curriculum. There is no history on the standardized tests so there is not nearly the pressure. The reason so many teachers do the dry facts way is because they don’t like history and are just doing it because they want to teach something else and can’t find a position. I found this out from several of my history teachers over the years. The worst one though was in college. He wanted to teach american history without ever talking or teaching the wars that went on.

    1. Chuck says:

      That and the “what” of history is easier to teach then the “why” usually.

      Easier to write about, too.

    2. monkeyboy says:

      As a history major in college and a current history nerd, I’d suggest using origiinal sources as much as possible. The “why” is often easier to talk about when you’re using their own words. Examples include Mcpherson’s “For Cause and Comrades” from the US Civil War and there’s still nothing better to describe the origins of WWII than the “Why We Fight” movies.

  30. Irridium says:

    Your history experience in school was essentially mine until about 2000. It was then I asked my history teacher, who was a cool guy by the way, why we never learned the “why’s” of war and all that, just the dates and locations. He said it’s for a lot of political and religious reasons. I asked “what do you mean?”. He told me to come to him after school ended and he’d explain it. I came after school, and he said basically what you did, about how people of all sorts would want their views teached over everyone else’s. I asked why would they do that, he said “if they would let me actually teach history, you’d understand. So, come to me after school each day, and I’ll teach you”.

    It was here where I learned all sorts of things much like the ways you learned, Shamus. It was great, and I loved it. I was actually having fun learning about all the reasons behind everything.

    Because of him, I love history now. And read all I can about it. And through him teaching me the reasons behind a lot of history, I also learned a lot about religion, politics, and about people in general. Things I probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

    And on my birthday he gave me a copy of Civilization 2. He said it was a game about history, you took control of a civilization, and tried to stand the test of time. I was intrigued, and when I installed it, I ended up reading the entire Civilopedia. And Civilization became one of my favorite game series.

    EDIT: Also, why is my comment awaiting moderation? I don’t think I said anything bad…

    1. Hitch says:

      Well, you mentioned both politics and religion, two highly inflammatory topics…

      Not in a way that needed moderation, but the bot can’t be trusted to determine that.

      edit: and now this is awaiting moderation.

  31. HeadHunter says:

    I think the reason that schools teach the “When” of history, rather than the “Why” is pretty clear-cut:

    “When” relies entirely on facts. Dates are verifiable.
    “Why” is not as apparent – and often times, may be a matter of opinion – not to mention, each side’s “why” may differ.

    If the Internet has shown us anything, it’s that society can neither abide nor respect such varying differences of opinion. And if the modern education system has shown us anything else, it’s that the concept of more than one “correct” answer for a problem is equally unacceptable.

    I don’t believe we can change the way we educate our children without changing the way we educate our educators – and that requires re-educating ourselves first.

    1. Tizzy says:

      Indeed, the whys are debatable, and hotly debated by historians every day. That does not make it especially unsuitable for the classroom, quite the opposite: understanding that there are real questions out there, and how one can come up with answers, however imperfect, is what makes you an educated person.

      I work in higher education in the US, and I can tell you that most of my Freshmen passionately resist this kind of education. They finally get over it later (or drop out, I guess), but all you hear in the first semester is a variation on: “tell me exactly what you want me to parrot back to you”.

      And I don’t know who is to blame. I know that young children have endless thirst for discovery, so does the school system breed it out of them, or is puberty to blame? If it is schools, is it because it’s easier for the teachers to teach dates, or are the teachers forced into this by other systemic parameters? (e.g. standardized testing, or the special interest group pressures that Shamus hinted at…)

      Either way, it is very clear that few high schools manage to foster curiosity in their students. We do our best to fix this at the college level (google “Inquiry-based learning” for instance), but it’s still very sad, and probably too little too late.

      1. James Pony says:

        School kills a lot of interest by teaching thoroughly that any given subject is almost exclusively nothing but BORING and HOMEWORK. Of course it depends on country/culture/school system/teacher, but generally people without existing interest do not get a chance to develop any interest.
        Nowadays the internet helps a lot, though. If you see an interesting historical (or at least superficially historical) movie or TV show or such, you can just google or wiki all the stuff.

        They should show more movies in class. I hardly even knew anyone did anything in Spain when Napoleon was about until I watched Sharpe. Hell, I hardly even knew why Bony was such a big deal aside from being told that he was a kind of a big deal in his time. Why was he? Because he was good at war or something. There’s a whole lot of stuff I’ve only learned after I’ve seen a movie or a well-made documentary, because either I WAS NEVER TOLD ANY OF THIS IN SCHOOL or IT WAS SO FUCKING BORING THAT I NEVER PAID ANY ATTENTION AND/OR FORGOT. If there was anything about the Battle of the Bulge I was taught in school, I never learned it, and it most likely was nothing but some dates and names. Why would anyone remember “X and Y in ####” when nobody associates it with “NUTS!” for you?
        I’ve learned (directly and indirectly) so much actual history from Cussler books and Empire Total War (just to mention a couple of examples) that it’s not even funny.

        1. swenson says:

          Haha, yeah, I kinda agree with the thing about seeing movies. I didn’t know anything about the Alamo until I saw that one movie about it with my family… I don’t remember the title, but it was fairly recent. And because the movie went into more about the people and places and why they were fighting, I actually started to care about it.

          Of course, it was only later that I realized it was substantially biased in favor of the Texans and that the Mexicans probably were actually in the right there, but hey, at least it got me interested in the subject.

      2. Dwip says:

        This sort of thing makes me really sad. Historiography was one of my favorite classes in college, and I’d say by far the most useful one.

        Of course, when you have a public school system, as Shamus so aptly demonstrating, that revolves to a large part around making it easier on the teacher and classroom management (probably for good reasons, mind), what do we expect, really?

  32. Aulayan says:

    For me, I love History. Now.

    I didn’t hate it in school, not at all. I actually liked it when it moved away from American History (Only now, in my early 30s, am I appreciating American History much. In school, it was the same things over and over and over again, so it felt oversaturated). I loved the World History class I was in, and I actually read the entire book 3 times before the month of September was Out.

    However, then halfway through the year, we got a teacher who wanted to make class ‘Fun’. You know the type, young male, mid to late 20s, probably saw Dead Poets Society too many times. What those types don’t realize is, they can alienate just as well, if not better, than embrace. And I was alienated. Turned me off completely. It went from my favourite to least favourite class immediately (Overtaking math, somehow)

    1. Tizzy says:

      I feel your pain. I must confess I mostly enjoyed school. But I had a high-school literature teacher who decided she didn’t feel comfortable giving us grades any more ( = can’t be bothered to take work home). So there went any valuable feedback, in one of the classes where I needed it the most to improve.

      I had a couple more like this in my career (teachers who want to be your friend and so on), and if the class as a whole started out liking this, we usually saw through it within half a year or so, and things soured very quickly. I don’t know how it works these days, but my classmates didn’t care much for patronizing adults.

      1. Yeah, my school experiences were generally quite positive. But: I was in the honors track from a very young age, I was not being viewed as special education material (except for when I had to be sent for speech therapy since I spoke like my Quebecois mother in some ways; this bothers me because it’s effectively cultural conformity and not really education), and I invested myself into the process and had parents who made sure that I was getting information myself. That having been said: I have learned far more from the books I read myself, like the Cartoon education books of Larry Gonick, than I ever learned from school.

  33. Methermeneus says:

    I kind of wish I’d had someone like Neighbor John in my life. I was never really turned off of history by school, but they never made it interesting either; it was largely a list of dates, and then I’d go out and read the why and how myself. I never had anyone to make any school subject interesting to me but me. I always hear about these people (sometimes a teacher, sometimes a neighbor like John, sometimes a relative) someone can sit and talk to for hours, and just in the course of talking learn about the world, and while I suppose a few (very few) of my college professors could qualify, I never really found myself becoming friends with them like some students do. The closest I can think of coming to that were my French and Calculus teachers in high school, the former of whom was a fiery old woman who spoke five languages plus Latin (which few people actually speak, you understand), and the latter of whom treated high, abstract mathematical theory as a game. (“Stop being such a third derivative!”) Unfortunately, the timing was off for any decent interaction at the time, as that year was me at my most withdrawn, a long story for another time and venue.

    1. Zukhramm says:

      “Stop being such a third derivative!”

      What’s that even supposed to mean?

  34. albval says:

    Reading through all these comments and the comments in the previous posts, I can’t but feel _very_ glad not to be living in the US. Your school system sounds horrendous. The problems we have with our schools here in Finland seem insignificant compared to yours.

    But then again, I’m a biology/geography teacher, so my view might be biased. (Although I have some sources to cite)

    1. uberfail says:

      I second this. I’m about to finish my secondary Education in New Zealand and it seems far better.
      No pun intended.

    2. Methermeneus says:

      It’s not so much bad as inconsistent. The system doesn’t do much to encourage teachers to teach well, nor to treat students like people, but it doesn’t encourage teachers to force memorization down your throat either (as opposed to, say, 19th century England, or Korea in the 1970s). Therefore, the quality of your education depends largely on a combination of the environment encouraged by the school district and the quality of your individual teachers. I’ve personally run the gamut, having started in a decent district, then moved to a horrible one, and from there to a great one. I’ve had both good and bad teachers in all three, although the second one seemed to discourage good teachers (I did have one excellent art teacher there) and the third to encourage them (I’ve mentioned my French and Calculus teachers higher up), and while I had one horrible Lit teacher, I also had several other excellent teachers in most subjects).

      As is often the case, the bad tends to stick in our memories more than the good. The outstandingly wonderful teachers I mentioned earlier aside, it took me quite a bit of thinking to recall my decent teachers, like my third grade teacher, my Physics teacher, and my Electronics teacher. Meantime, I could fill a thread with stories of my hated fifth grade History and tenth grade Lit teachers. That plus the fact that Shamus’s bad early school experiences bring these thoughts to the foreground and geeks are, for a variety of reasons, more likely to have had unhappy school experiences (I speak of correlation, not causation), and the majority of Shamus’s readers are, in fact, geeks, means that you’re probably hearing a disproportionate amount of complaint against the US school system here. It’s not perfect, and may well not be as good as your schools were (while I know a bit about the school systems of France, Germany, Japan, Korea, and the UK (none firsthand), I can’t speak to Finland’s schools at all), but it’s a far cry better than nothing, and even a fair amount better than these comments make it sound.

      This is, of course, a description of the school system as I went through it. I have several friends who are either teachers or working on getting their teaching certificates, all of whom agree that recent mandatory-testing/minimum-score legislation seems tailor-made to force our school system to encourage the kind of education people here are complaining about.

      … Why am I ending my defense of our school system by talking about how much it’s beginning to suck?

      1. “Ultimately, it sort of bumbles through and doesn’t do too much damage, which is about what most other school systems do”.

  35. LunarShadow says:

    Your neighbor John reminded me of myself a little bit. I am a huge history nut (majoring in it) and I do eventually want to teach (after I retire, I want to make some moolah first as an analyst so I don’t have to worry about cash as a teacher). I have always hated how history was taught in high school and before, as most classes didn’t connect the dots. For example, we are taught about the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WW1, but it is hardly ever mentioned how powerful they were before and that it’s fall can be traced back to the Siege of Vienna in 1529 when Suleiman’s push into Europe was halted. I do see one problem with me becoming a teacher though, I go on these wild tangents as I connect the bits of history (as you could probably tell by my many parenthetical asides, but I type like I talk) and run out of time. Also students tend to not care about that which they are not tested on, which saddens me when it comes to history as bloody everything is connected and can be extrapolated upon.

    1. Yeah, unfortunately a) the whole curriculum has to be focused on a Euro-American perspective (which, to be fair, does have some merit because part of the idea of history classes is to teach civics that are salient to our institutions, culture and values, but does have that problem that children don’t really get why things happened) and b) you only have so much time. The World War I unit has to get you through the events, so the Ottomans are just some weak power that gets stomped with everyone else.

  36. Cybron says:

    I had a fairly decent public school experience. For every boring teacher I had, I had another one who made learning something I wanted to do. Middle school was awful, because that was the height of the stupid busy work (which I usually just blew off, which left me with terrible habits regarding work), but the rest of my time in public school was mostly positive.

    Of course, I’m not dumb enough to think my experience is by any means universal. Probably didn’t hurt that I was in gifted classes and not in remedial ones.

  37. Ozymandias says:

    The History Channel? Well, never let anyone accuse you of being a snob, I guess.

  38. Eärlindor says:

    My dad is a huge history nerd, particularly in the areas of military history and the Late Roman Era. So I grew up with history.

    Neighbor John sounds like a really cool person. :) I hope this “completely different angle” is nothing negative. :(

  39. Irridium says:

    Oh, also, I managed to learn all the states/capitols thanks to The Animaniacs.

    Ah, I loved The Animaniacs…

    1. Methermeneus says:

      While I had to puzzle through the states and their capitals on my own (as well as the capitals of world countries, which was actually an interesting unit to me), Animaniacs did get me through the nations of the world. Apparently Rob Paulsen still sings that at lives shows.

  40. Zombie says:

    What I hate about Public School Hitory Classes is how they have to be SO PC its not even funny. I mean Take the Civil war. In Public School, South is bad, North is good, North wins,so Good guys win. WRONG. The south exercised the rights the Constitution gave them to leave because they felt they needed to leave. Abraham Lincoln didnt want to fight Mexico, but hes willing to send soldiers to destroy the south, fellow americas, who, only twice (unless you count the Border states as “Part of the union”) invaded the north, so they could end the war QUICKER. The north goes and uses total war tactics to make the south stop, it was so bad, even Sherman said he sould have been courtmartialed. And it wasnt even about Slavery. Lincoln would have left all he slaves as slaves if he could have. He just said all the slaves in a diffrent country were free. An its sad to see that this is now what most americans, if they even know what the civil war IS, will never know, unless they actually read a book. Sorry about the rant, but I felt I could vent some steam, talking abou History and all.

    1. Zombie says:

      Because Im having trouble editing this, where it said: And it wasnt even about Slavery, I wanted to put after it: Yes slavery is bad, but few people know, Lincoln…

      1. Flakey says:

        Please point to the section in the Constitution that details the states right to leave, I can not find it.

        1. Zombie says:

          First, youve actually read the whole Constitution, top to bottom? I applaud you. Second, Virginia, New York, and I think Rhode Island woulnt ratify the Constitution if they did have the option to leave the union, and if the Constitution applies to every state with the same law, All the states had the right to leave. Also, The Declaration of Indpendance is all about leaving a government if its becoming tyrannical.

          “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” is right from the Declaration, so they did have the right to leave the union.

          1. Zukhramm says:

            Regardless, not having the right to leave is a pretty good reason to leave.

          2. Except that a) the Declaration of Independence isn’t actually a governmental document, if it had any force it would have applied to the Articles of Confederation and it didn’t even apply in that instance and b) it is absurd to say that anytime someone doesn’t like what the government does they have a chance to leave. The Confederacy left because of slavery. Period. It was a white supremacist institution and its defeat was a triumph for humanity.

            1. Zombie says:

              So The Declaration of Indpendence means absolutly nothing, and is only a peice of paper? and also, until 1863, it was about Tariffs and ideas about Government (Small Government in the south, Big Government in the North). Most southern states wanted gradual Emancipation, and Virginia almost passed it, until Nat Turner and John Brown showed up, and also most people down south though slavery would die out, and many wanted it to (Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, Jefferson Davis, ect.).

              1. Shamus says:

                I would just like to say that this exchange illustrates my point quite nicely: These are complex subjects, and anyone attempting to teach them in detail would find themselves with a dozen outraged parents, having this same conversation.

                1. Zombie says:

                  True, but you could set aside somedays, like how schools do some movies, where your tought this stuff. Give out a form to parents telling them the class will go over controversial stuff, they could opt their kids out, and everyone else takes a class to learn this stuff. It wouldnt be on a test or quiz or anything, but you could still learn about it.

              2. Dwip says:

                Just to keep proving Shamus’ point, here:

                Declaration of Independence aside, and I’d argue that there’s a substantial difference between our founding ethos and the actual law, people keep bringing up this Davis and Lee thing, and I never have found anything to support it. Maybe you know of something. On the other hand, Davis is on record as calling the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man”, so there’s that, I guess.

                The idea that it wasn’t about slavery kind of falls apart for me when you consider the various declarations of secession, almost all of which mention slavery as a primary cause. For instance, the second line in Mississippi’s is “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.” Tariffs, not so much really.

                Alexander Stephens, VP of the Confederacy, similarly: “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” Apparently that was up for some debate, because in his correction to that speech, he says, in part, “(Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession; out of it rose the breach of compact, for instance, on the part of several Northern States in refusing to comply with Constitutional obligations as to rendition of fugitives from service, a course betraying total disregard for all constitutional barriers and guarantees.)”

                One may argue the position of the North as regards slavery, Union, and matters of the economy, but the position of the Confederacy seems pretty clear on the subject.

                Moreover, speaking of fugitives, neither Dredd Scott, the Fugitive Slave Act, or the assorted compromises seem to me to be particularly opposed to what one might call big government, but that may just be me.

                Of course, the notion that the Confederacy was quite literally an evil empire and its position was thoroughly immoral and reprehensible ought to encourage no controversy. Nevertheless.

    2. Dwip says:

      Points taken about nuance in history aside, I suppose this goes to prove the whole “history education is lame because it’s not contentious enough” thing, since, well, I got the better part of your “PC” telling of the war, and it didn’t really occur to me until some years later that one might contest the notion that, for instance, slavery caused the war. These days, having read the odd book, I still kind of figure that the debate on that question is altogether vigorous, short, and one-sided in favor of the “PC” crowd.

      Milage on the questions varies, of course, which is the fun part they never really got around to teaching me.

  41. Dwip says:

    My own personal Neighbor John was probably my dad. I’d watch him sit and do stuff at his drafting table or do some programming, and it was like “Oh. You draw some stuff, and buildings and things happen? And you type some stuff and things happen? COOL. I wanna do that!” He was also that same type of autodidact – most school he ever had was a year of college, but I’ve got two degrees and if I get to the point of being half as smart I’ll be doing good.

    But history, now. Used to be that I told people I taught myself history up until I went to college. I guess we had history in grade school a tiny little bit, but the teachers didn’t seem all that interested, and aside from a bit in 5th grade on the Revolution that I don’t remember and our big unit on WWII that was essentially reading Anne Frank and perhaps watching the recently-released Schindler’s List. In high school we got a brief step above rote memorization that stopped just before WWII in any case.

    I suppose I’m incredibly lucky that two of the books of my childhood that I somehow discovered were Shogun and Roots, both of which I read to death, and that my parents loved the Shogun miniseries to pieces, so we always watched the whole thing. So from an early age I had this sense that history was actually a huge story where badass people were being epic badasses all over the place. I’m also pretty lucky that Ken Burns’ epic series on the Civil War came out when I was about 10, and if you watch that and don’t get interested on some level in history, I dunno what to do for you really.

    Ultimately wanted more of that, and it seemed like in every time period I looked at, there was awesome stuff going on, so I just kept reading, and ultimately that turned itself into a history degree. But I think back to my time in school, and I’m amazed that I can even have legible conversations about history with the people I know who went through with me, because it was pretty awful.

    Which I’m not sure I can really blame them for, to be honest. History isn’t the sort of thing you ought to foist on unprepared grade school kids (and we were, let us be sure, wholly unprepared), and in high school, well, we had one solitary year of US History, let’s say 7 hours a week. Maybe it was 5. If I remember correctly, we were going through about ten years a week, usually less, and what can you really do with 7 hours on the Civil War and a solitary rather thin textbook? You throw in the Ken Burns tapes and hope really hard. If you’re lucky, and we weren’t, you might even have enough time to get into the last 50 years. And what’s going on in China or England or wherever? Nary a mention.

    I’ve always been kind of angry that they mandated 4 years of math I never use and English where I spent time dissecting stories nobody cared about, but we only ever got the one year of history.

    I tell you where that rote memorization thing really worked though, was geography. My 7th grade teacher really pounded that stuff into us, and sure enough, by the end of things we could pretty much all name every country in the world and find it on a map. Ditto on the states.

    [edit] Oh, and speaking of history autodidacts, I’ve been watching Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic pretty much re-teaching himself the Civil War over the past couple years. Fascinating stuff to watch.

  42. Patrick the Voracious says:

    The thing that I remeber most about John was the first thing I remeber, during the first converstaion. As Shamus referenced, he spoke to me as if I were another adult, not just a 7 year old kid. His tone didn’t change the way most adults do when they speak to a child ( I don’t know why most adults do this. I hated it.)
    The rythym of their words change. They speak slower. I’m sure you all notice this if you think about it. Most of you probably do it unconciously. Teachers don’t speak that way, but they do so out of a sense of practicality. They don’t speak TOO me, they speak AT me.

    John is the first person I have an adult conversation with.

    1. Methermeneus says:

      The way people speak to children is actually a legitimate linguistic phenomenon (the scientific term for this manner of speaking is, I kid you not, “motherese”*) in which people will do the following in the presence of a child:

      *Vocal volume is lowered

      *Vocal pitch is raised

      *Speed of speaking drops, resulting in long syllables often with breaks between them. Specifically, many short vowels become long vowels.

      *Words with fewer syllables or morae are used. Words with more than two syllables become rare.

      *Words with marked (essentially more difficult to form) sounds are replaced with less marked synonyms

      *Marked sounds within words are replaced with similar less-marked sounds (For instance, “ch” might be replaced with “t.” The tendency for children and people speaking motherese to make this change has actually been noticed in Japan, resulting in a shorthand for baby-speak in which that particular change is made. This is why the honorific -tan (derived from -chan) is considered particularly cutesy.) This also happens to vowels, with many diphthongs becoming single long vowels.

      *The above two phenomena result in a high frequency of vowels, glides (y, w), nasals (m, n, ng), labials (m, b, p), and voiced sounds (b, d, n, g, m).

      This is why you will tend to hear a lot of “baba”, “mama,” “gaga,” in a variety of languages, no matter what the children actually say for themselves, and why English-speaking mothers seem particularly fond of the phrase, “Yes you are!” (It’s nothing but vowels, glides, and our language’s least marked fricative.)

      The chances that an adult will lapse into this manner of speech reduce the older the child with whom they are in conversation, as does the degree to which they will do so, and of course every individual lapses into motherese with differing degrees of readiness. Some people won’t react with any degree of motherese to anyone older than a toddler, while others might even talk that way to teens. (I know one person (in her fifties) who talks somewhat babyish to anyone who isn’t around her age or older. Yes, it’s as annoying as it sounds.) As with many common human psychological phenomena, it’s possible to overcome the habit consciously, which I highly recommend, as I have never heard of anyone under the age of five who actually enjoyed being talked to like a child.

      *EDIT: Wikipedia will probably tell you it’s called IDS or CDS (Infant/Child-Directed Speech), but if you ever talk to a linguist or read a linguistics textbook or a paper on linguistic development, the term used will be “motherese.” This is a case of the more technical-sounding term actually not being the one used in scientific literature, by and large.

  43. Kdansky says:

    I find this to be a typical American problem. Why would you not talk about racism and slavery? Because someone might abuse their position and brainwash you? Well, crossing the street is not without risk either, and risking a nutty teacher for the sake of education is certainly worth it, especially when you teach your kids to think for themselves first and foremost. Secondly, you just need decent teachers, and the US is rather famous for having stressed, unqualified and underpaid teachers on top of classes that are too big.

    And then I see a problem with a society which is so heavily against skepticism and considers teaching Creationism in Biology (apart from spending a few hours demonstrating why they are wrong). At that point, you really need to fix the system, because something is very, very rotten.

    It’s actually quite hard to bullshit a sceptic kid, because they are lacking the prejudices and agreed upon insanities; Tell a kid the first time there’s a heaven and a hell, and they’ll ask you stuff like “Where’s heaven? Can’t you make a tunnel into Hell? Why can’t I see the gates on the clouds? What happens with heaven if there are no clouds?” which are actually very sensible questions. But if you train your kids to ignore such contradictions, they are highly susceptible to any madman’s ramblings.

    1. Shamus says:

      Uh. Are you aware that:

      1) I’m a Christian myself, and
      2) I don’t appreciate thread-jacking a mildly controversial topic with a MUCH MORE controversial topic?

      However, I agree that “Don’t teach this material because someone might teach it wrong” is a terrible position, and leads naturally to a system where the only things kids can be taught are things that don’t matter to anyone.

      1. Shamus: What occurs to me is that we sort of have a “worst of both worlds” system. When I went to school, being fairly Buddhist in my orientation, I can say that just not accepting what other people say (like “Don’t say damn, it’s bad because God says it’s bad”) led to some weird dissonance, and I had a school with many iconoclastic people. (One of my favorite teachers summed up history thusly: “Some people killed some other people and took their stuff”). We have an issue where Christian values and assumptions are built into the curriculum, but no one is actually teaching Christianity, which means that people get none of the good and all of the bad of both secularism and Christianity.

  44. DaveMc says:

    Hi Shamus, just dropping in much belatedly after catching up on this series, to let you know that I’m really enjoying it: well-written, interesting slices of life. The present tense keeps making me think of Doctor Mahattan (“the photograph is falling”), which is an added bonus. Do you, in fact, experience past, present, and future simultaneously, or is that just a stylistic decision?

    1. Shamus says:

      I experience time asynchronously. However, I do not run around naked, nor do I glow in the dark.

      1. DaveMc says:

        Well … good. :)

  45. asterismW says:

    “I'd always been hazy on all of those square states in the midwest.”

    This made me laugh. Having grown up in the west, I was always hazy on all those tiny, crazily-shaped states in the east. Why can’t you people have decently large states, with properly straight borders like us? And how am I supposed to know which state is Rhode Island, Connecticut, or Massachusetts when they’re all squished together like that?

  46. Aanok says:

    You know, Shamus, until I read this series and went through some other older entries of yours, I never actually realised that there was such contempt in the USA towards public schooling. I’m Italian myself, so you could say that you have my sympathies in that regard :D

    However, this has led me to a new level of understanding as to why a project like the Khan Academy can be so overwhelmingly important. Have you considered joining it with your kids?

    As someone has already pointed out, our education system comes straightly from the Enlightened notion of democratic, widespread access to knowledge: prior to that, education was only administered by private tutors or religious schools (like the Jesuites), a privilege only for the wealthy. Fact is, the system has worked well for a long time, but now it has come to show all of his weaknesses. Democracy, in parallel with the development of consumerism, has been interpreted as lowering the standards, so that everybody could manage to struggle through with minimum effort. But that’s the lazy solution.

    Here in Italy, God forbids, we’re still a long way from collapsing completely, so I can relate to your tales but up to a point. The majority of the school buildings is in very bad shape and lots of teachers would do better community service staying home and watchin’ teevee (Middle Schools in particular are underfunded, manned by incompetent people and meant to follow ridiculous curricula).
    Yet, if one actually finds the willpower to look thoroughly, there are still peaks of excellence around. My High School experience has been very pleasant, as I found a nice, hard, rewarding course mostly taught by competent, passionate people and followed by like-minded students.

    It is very sad, and actually very eloquent, that my course has been suppressed with the latest education reform. But I don’t want to get started with the government :)

    My question is, is it so terrible where you live that in no way you could have found a decent school for your kids? I’m not criticizing, I’ve come to trust your personal judjement, it’s just a question on the state of the American education system.

    1. Zukhramm says:

      Khan Academy actually seems interesting, but he called me emotionless in that video. But they do have quite a good range of videos on mathematics (unfortunately not physics), so it’s actually quite useful.

  47. The one reason I have found that knowing the dates is actually useful is this: Whenever we go into history, we don’t do the history of the whole planet chronologically. That’s just not effective. We do time periods in various locations in some kind of sequence. Even the masterful Cartoon History of the Universe (infinitely more effective than any textbook I’ve ever read) and Gonick’s other books do that: They’re willing to cover a good portion of the labor movement then go back a little bit. Knowing dates is useful to see when things are happening. You realize that these African empires are really old (which then leads to some unpleasant conclusions about our history’s structure and focus), you realize that many of the events in China and the rest of the world were connected or parallel, etc.

    1. Zombie says:

      Kind of like Italy wasnt even really a country almost until our Civil War, or that While Rome was being built up from Mud Huts to jewel of an empire, Egypt, Greece, and Persia were already huge empires and states fighting each other and advacing science, math, philosophy and inventing paper and warfare? They never really teach that stuff in school.

  48. Blake says:

    I hate the way lots of things are taught (history being a big one).
    Couldn’t stand history at school, but what really makes me rage is the way maths is taught.
    I was always able to keep up, (went on and studied more by distance and some at uni), but back in primary school and high school so much arithmatic is taught by memorisation rather than deduction.

    I was that annoying kid that kept asking ‘But… Why?’ during lots of math classes, like when they first taught us calculus formulas but skipped over the first principles part of it.

    While maths was always one of my best points at school, I can absolutely understand why so many people find it tedious.

  49. Johann Weissgerber says:

    Just wanted to say that I’ve read all seven parts and I’m really enjoying them. You’re a great writer and even though it’s a true story (so it’s not as exciting as fiction) it resonates with an honesty that I’m sure a lot of your readers understand. I love your line about the rise in learning disorders being more indicative of the rigidity of the education system then the children.

  50. ccesarano says:

    I know these points have likely been discussed thoroughly and I am a filthy skimmer of comments, but so sue me.

    I think the difference between what Neighbor John is doing is facts versus semi-fact, or more Int. versus Wis.

    In College my friends and I categorized some traits based on how they work in D&D, and we were able to figure out which friends would have higher Intelligence scores or higher Wisdom scores. We looked at it as intelligence being the memorization of facts or various bits of knowledge, but that’s all it is. Facts and knowledge. Wisdom may know a lot of facts and knowledge, or may know very little, but their strength is in application or figuring out the why to the who-what-where-when.

    The world feels biased towards those who “have high Int scores”, as knowing a lot of facts seems impressive. Considering our educational system, it’s no wonder. It also explains why you keep hearing people shout stuff like “REMEMBER THE NAZIS”, without remembering how Britain allowed Hitler to stomp all over Poland because everyone was so afraid of getting into another war. Oddly enough, our high school teacher never even alluded to any sort of events leading to other events, but I remember reading that post-WWI Europe was pretty much demanding pay-back out of Germany, leaving the country in social and economic ruin. All of a sudden, reading the events that unfold, it occurs to me that Germany only followed Hitler because he promised a dream, which any desperate person would do. It wasn’t until a couple years later watching stuff on the History Channel that I was able to confirm my theory. It was never taught in such a way, but at the same time no one ever asked “Why do you think the Germans became Nazis?” It was simply “The Germans were Nazis and Nazis are evil. DON’T BE RACIST AND DON’T COMMIT GENOCIDE”

    Which is a bit pathetic, because even baby cartoons create scenarios to explain why someone might commit a bad behavior, but why they shouldn’t anyway.

    This sort of education has even seemed to fester in Christianity as well. I’ve never been good with the whole “memorize a daily verse” thing, and have worked much better with reading a chapter of the Bible a day (perhaps two, depending on schedule and how interesting that part of it is). I cannot quote scripture precisely, but I can recall stories and the meaning behind them.

    This has actually become frustrating as I speak with more and more Christians. They know what things are said, but there’s no real correlation or understanding of what led to what. I can’t even comprehend how these people can be so fired-up for Church every day in a way I cannot, when they don’t even get the same charge I do discussing what it must have been like for Christ to have been surrounded by disciples that were expecting him to physically conquer the world, and then the emotional weight it must have been when they saw their Messiah die, and then what it must have felt like to see him return and suddenly understand.

    It’s like wisdom is universally looked down upon.

    1. TheAngryMongoose says:

      I’ve always seen Int and Wis as they other way round. Wisdom is the sum of all your acquired knowledge, whereas Intelligence is your ability to reason and apply logic. Hence, Wis is useful for druids and clerics, and gives them extra spells, along with survival and profession skills, whereas Int is useful to wizards, gives them extra spells as well as harder hitting spells, gives extra skill points per level, and is used for skills such as craft, decipher, and forgery.
      In fact, reading the Dand wiki: “While Intelligence represents one's ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one's surroundings.”
      “Intelligence determines how well your character learns and reasons.”

      That being said, I agree that reasoning is the better thing to foster through education, whereas conservative systems prefer the memorization of facts.

      The British education system has moved more towards understanding and reasoning abilities, thank goodness, but the Johris Bonsons of the world want to move back to memorizing dates… and they’re in power… and very enthusiastic about pissing on our education system…

  51. Aldowyn says:

    I just want to mention that I have this PS2 game about the Civil War. Published by the History Channel. The battle of Gettysburg was in it.

    And yes, it was fought because Lee’s army needed shoes. And the narrator said that.

    Just thought I’d mention that :P

  52. s* says:

    Reading this post, I have come to suspect that your Neighbor John turns out to be John Holt himself. Though my understanding is that Holt lived in NYC and seems to be older in 1980 than your description of Neighbor John.

    I, too, love reading these autoblography posts. Thank you for posting them, Shamus.

    Also, I have been advocating for homeschooling our kid, and your wisdom and perspective I think helps make this prospect less scary for my husband. An added bonus for us!

  53. Zak McKracken says:

    I begin to understand more and more why you prefer homeschooling to public schools…
    Teaching dates in History has another advantage: If you know a critical mass of them, it becomes ever more easy to remember the order in which things happened, and what stuff happened at the same time and so on. There is just very little data involved, and it contains the skeleton for the whole rest of history. For me, memorized dates are an aide in bringing the interesting bits of history to memory much easier. But then, memorizing stuff has always been easy to me, even though I didn’t like it much.
    So yeah, I understand your point.

  54. So, you thought armies were cool, and maybe you want to be one?
    I think armies are kind of cool, but I don’t want to be a leader of an army when I grow up.

  55. Leah Spooner says:

    I don’t know all the states. But I would like to know all of them. Right now, I only know four.

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