Sunday, April 27, 2003

Teaching Backwards

I think I agree with Calpundit that students would like history much more if it were taught backwards. I honestly can't remember if I was ever formally taught any modern history past the Johnson administration, and even that was probably limited to the last few weeks of my senior year in high school. I think I learned about Rome and Greece, the Lynne Cheney version of Colonial/Revolutionary American history and the Civil War multiple times, a couple runs at WW1 and WW2, and then in my senior year a teensy bit on the 60s, but that's it. The required course in college was a grand Western Civ. overview, and I took a bit of Russian history voluntarily.

It isn't entirely clear why this is the case, though I bet that part of the reason is that one can't teach the recent past without being explicitly political. All teaching of history is to some degree political, but it's much more obvious - and controversial - when the subject is recent U.S. history.

I think we could extend this to the teaching of literature also. I really don't get why Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare seem to be taught in the earlier years of high school, followed by 19th century Brits and Americans (the latter, in particular, mostly horribly dull), and modern and contemporary literature seem to be relegated to that senior year honors English class. A reasonable guess is that it's partially for similar reasons - in the case of literature, the "naughty bits" of contemporary literature are somewhat more obvious than those in, say, Shakespeare and we wouldn't want little Jane to read a couple of bad words until she's ready to graduate.

But, in both cases the effect is the same. For your average 15 year old, even 20 years ago is the distant past. And, "stories" - history or fiction - from the distant past seem to have little relevance for your typical teen.