Monday, January 16, 2006

Don't Know Much About History....

When I was in elementary school back in Belgrade (grades 1 through 8) I had the most horrible history teacher. She was an example that stereotype of "dumb blonde" is sometimes correct. She was hired, I assume, because she was the Barbie-doll trophy wife of the then mayor of Belgrade.

For four years I did not learn anything about history. I managed to get all 5s (equivalent of As) until the very end of eighth grade - almost evrybody in class did. And nobody learned anything.

In middle school (grades 9 through 12) I had, at first, a tough old history teacher. He called me up to the blackboard one day to ask me some questions. I did not really know much, I admit. He looked down at the big red class book and said something like this:

"I see you have all fives in every subject possible - language, math, geography, biology, physics, chemistry - what is so hard about history?"

I said:"Well, remembering all those millenia, centuries, years, dates, names of kings, emperors and military leaders".

He looked stunned: "B-b-b-but....what is left if you eliminate all those?"

Me: "Well, the interesting stuff - the story".

He mumbled something about the need to memorize facts anyway and gave me a (barely) passing grade. Still, from that moment on he liked me (and that was important one day a couple of years later when I got in trouble in school - he saved me). He had to follow the curriculum and he was too old and set in his way of thinking to ever be able to teach "the story", but I think he appreciated my sentiment.

The remaining three years of middle school (in Yugoslavia, the term "high school" is reserved for vocational education, e.g., two-year technical schools, reserved for those who did not manage to pass tough entry exams into the University - there is no such thing as college) I had a great history teacher. She obviously loved history. Although she had to teach the curriculum, which meant memorizing trivia, she managed to weave a story anyway. My problem was that, by that time, I was hopelessly unprepared - I had no background because I have not learned anything up till then. I got fevers several time trying to study history for her - it was hard work.

I so wish I had decent history education back then. I feel the gaps and holes in my history education every day, especially in long comment-threads on smart blogs. I spent a lot of time learning history of science (I took FOUR grad classes on this!). I am trying to make up by reading history books, but that is not the same.

I have recently finished "Marriage - a History" by Stephanie Coontz. Not just that it is a marvelously written story, as well as well documented piece of academic history, but I also learned so much from it about details of history that are completely un-related to marriage. Not to mention that the whole story is starting to make sense. I can now see how pieces join together to form a bigger jigsaw puzzle. I can see the relevance of history to today's world.

Why is history not taught that way from the very beginning? Also, are there any general history books out there that I may like and find useful in patching up the holes in my knowledge?

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival


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