An Education

So we have now gotten here: Educators “conspired” to “keep” students ignorant:

[From Twitter, June 23, 2020.]

Many on that thread joining in similarly bemoan how they were “misled” and not taught “real” U.S. history.

Uh, huh. Okay, I feel this needs pointing out. (What follows will apply to none of you reading this, I’m sure. 😉 ) As a former university history and political science instructor (mostly 18-21 year olds) in New York, let me share with you briefly some of what is seen and experienced too often by those standing at THE PODIUM looking back from THE FRONT of the lecture hall.

For as presumably one of “those” charged with having “conspired” to “hide” distasteful stuff about American history and politics from eager to learn young people fully committed to the ever-sponge-like soaking up of the past, and who could not be torn from the library bookstacks, this evidently needs stating plainly. In introductory university history and political science classes little can be assumed by the instructor. With possibly 100 and more students sitting in the lecture hall – I regularly lectured to that number – we have to start with the BASICS.

[Photo by me, Potton, England, June 23, 2020.]

Because introductory U.S. history and introductory U.S. national government in political science nationally is taught in broad brush strokes to try first to explain “the forest,” and that course or two is where most NON-MAJORS stop. In advanced courses for history and poli sci students, however, various tree species’ are analyzed; that supplements and hopefully deepens those students’ understanding of the forest. You cannot as an instructor start teaching about the forest to 100 students whose knowledge of it greatly varies – down to the point that some of them may have only very little – by spending 45 minutes detailing “The Dueling Oaks” of New Orleans.

Those historical examples that tweeter cites have ALWAYS been known to those interested in depth. They have not been “hidden.” The Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre in 1921, the arrival of Union troops at Galveston in June 1865 AFTER the Civil War (1861-1865) ended, and black entrepreneurship in post-Civil War segregated Durham, North Carolina were only “unknown” to those… who did not know about them.

Because before getting to the likes of those, lots else needs explaining and contextualizing. Indeed university instructors are often SHOCKED and DEMORALIZED at finding out what BASICS students do NOT know.

I would have LOVED for a student to have raised the issue of free black soldiers in the Continental army; but lots of students apparently had little notion of the war of independence (1775-1783) beyond the “4th of July” itself. I had on “Day 1” of a new semester always to make sure this latest intake of 18 year old American Government POLI 101 students in front of me all clearly understood, for instance, that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are TWO ENTIRELY DIFFERENT documents.

We did not discuss “Juneteenth” in HIS 101? In that introductory class in which an instructor has to cover possibly three centuries, more students than you might think had trouble even placing the Civil War in history, sometimes even having thought – until corrected – that it occurred between – yes, really – World War I and World War II.

[Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a globe with borders.]

I cannot help but feel that adults who trot out the line that we as educators did not teach them “true” U.S. history may have also been among those who had regularly cut class, or spent the hour passing notes back and forth to the boy or the girl next to them, or often had a hangover. They paid scant attention even to the introductory stuff being said. Yet that introductory stuff was a prerequisite for beginning to understand, had they wanted to, deeper happenings.

And it has to be that way. HIS 101 and POLI 101 are not and cannot be THE TOTALITY of one’s education, but should merely be THE START of a lifetime of paying attention.

And what influence did, say, Rousseau have on American constitutional thinking if any? And even maybe the Iroquois? And what impacts did bordering the Catholic and slave-holding Spanish empire have on the newly independent mostly Protestant and slave-holding United States?

[Spanish gunnery demonstration, Castel San Marco, St. Augustine, Florida. Photo by me, 2015.]

That sort of depth was and is explored in advanced political science courses. Those courses are also not usually taken by (no disrespect meant), uh, dance, media, and English literature majors. If you therefore did not take them, yes, you would have missed lots of advanced political science.

Yet assign perhaps Things Fall Apart even in an advanced class of fifteen political science and international studies majors?: “Okay, read the first 70 pages by next week and be prepared to discuss it.” Regardless of a student’s race, an assignment like that was often greeted with groans. And even some OF THOSE students STILL turned up and tried to fake their ways through the discussion. (Instructors are not idiots.)

At exam times, introductory courses were multiple choice tests, so at least the students who had not been paying much attention could take guesses; they had 1 chance in 4 of being right. In the advanced courses, though, occasionally essays I had to mark were PRICELESS. How I WISH I could have FRAMED some of them… after I had spent WEEKS discussing the material. Do you know also how HEARTBREAKING it is for an instructor to find out that even advanced students failed to retain BASIC facts?: “Ugh, no, Sally, the Republic of Ireland is not in NATO.”

And I lectured in the 1990s BEFORE the distractions of smartphones and bl-ody Twitter and Tik Tok or whatever the latest tech fad is. I can only imagine what an introductory undergraduate lecture of 100 students must be like in 2020 (before the virus hit, of course). The struggle instructors must now face just to KEEP STUDENTS’ f-cking ATTENTION, for example, so they are able to move on in life after this class is long behind them and at least hopefully remember that Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman… are NOT the same person!

[Belfast, Northern Ireland. Remembrance Sunday. Photo by me, 2016.]

I will never forget a poll of a cross-section of U.S. adults in the late 1980s which revealed a large minority of respondents had thought Beirut was in Northern Ireland. That’s right. Why? A likely explanation was the evening network television newscasts would report on a bombing in Belfast – “I’m Mike Journalist, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There’s been a bombing…” – and then seconds later follow with a report on a car bombing in Beirut – “I’m Steve Reporter in Beirut. There’s been another bombing…” – or vice versa… and viewers were evidently getting the Northern Irish capital city (Belfast) MIXED UP with the Lebanese capital city (Beirut).

“So, who can tell me what year the New Deal began and what its major aims were? Anyone? Anyone? And, yes, before you even ask, it will be on the test.”

A decade or two after leaving college, we now get people tweeting of knowledge “discoveries” due to entertainment programs and social media and declaring that they will now “educate themselves.” Better late than never, I guess. As I recall the university library was often used by only a minority and my office hours (when I was available privately to discuss ANYTHING even vaguely course-related and provide even a bit of extra help) were often when I spent time grading papers, prepping the next lecture, or chatting with other staff.

All of the evidence of the ugly past that lecturers sought to “hide” in order to deny it to students? Pardon me if I laugh. But it is not at all funny.

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