Saturday, January 21, 2006

The War of 1812 Began in What Year?

Let us visit a subject that I can easily apply to all of my students, regardless of their hue and shape. As a history teacher (currently 7th grade world history), one of the intellectual aspects that I find missing from too many of my students is a concept of time and space - especially time. Trying to explain B.C. and A.D. is like trying to explain the Big Bang Theory to my 18 month old son. As far as my students are concerned, the Vietnam War is just as long ago as the Civil War is just as long ago as the Revolutionary War is just as long ago as the Crusades. I literally have to do math on the board using years to illustrate the passage of time. This usually occurs when I get a question like the following: While studying the Mongols a couple months back, a student asked me, "Mr. Chanman, is Genghis Khan still alive?" The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Me: "Well, let's see. What year was he born?"
Student: "Umm, about 1162."
Me: "OK, what year is it now?"
Student: "2005."
Me: "So let's do the math; what is 2005 minus 1162?"
Student: "Umm.......................................................3,167?"
Me: "Not quite, let's try that math again."
Student: "Umm.......................................................843."
Me: "OK, so that means if Genghis Khan is still alive today, he is 843 years old; does that sound possible to you?"
Student: "I don't know."
Me: "Sigh."

I can tell you that it can be very difficult to teach history when students have no concept of time (no wonder they are tardy so often). Their lack of concept of time is matched by their lack of perspective on historical events. When the Iraq/Afghanistan War has come up in class, to hear the students talk about it, this is the most horrific war that the United States has ever experienced. They are genuinely shocked when I point out that the number of dead in our current war - which is currently at around 2,500, - pales in comparison to the 400,000+ Americans who died in World War II, and the 600,000+ Americans who died in our own Civil War. Of course, then you have to start in with the math again, because many of my students have no concept of what 400,000 or 600,000 looks like.

Theodore Dalrymple is a British doctor and author who worked in a British inner-city hospital and prison. He nails this issue in an article called We Don't Want No Education, that he penned about eleven years ago. In this excellent article, Mr. Dalrymple explained the issue like no one else can:
Thus are the young condemned to live in an eternal present, a present which merely exists, without connection to a past which might explain it or to a future which might develop from it. Theirs is truly a life of one damned thing after another. Likewise, they are deprived of any reasonable standards of comparison by which to judge their woes. They believe themselves deprived, because the only people with whom they can compare themselves are those who appear in advertisements or on television.
I have never heard a better explanation of the missing concept of time and perspective that plagues so many of our young people than Mr. Dalrymple's. Earlier in the article, he also had this to say:
Most of the young whites whom I meet literally cannot name a single writer and certainly cannot recite a line of poetry. Not a single one of my young patients has known the dates of the Second World War, let alone of the First; some have never heard of these wars, though recently one young patient who had heard of the Second World War thought it took place in the eighteenth century. In the prevailing circumstances of total ignorance, I was impressed that he had heard of the eighteenth century. The name Stalin means nothing to these young people and does not even evoke the faint ringing of a bell, as the name Shakespeare (sometimes) does. To them, 1066 is more likely to mean a price than a date.
Please find time to read the rest of the article. It is required reading for history teachers.

Good Day to You, Sir.


George said...

But Chanman . . . I thought we were supposed to teach them critical thinking skills, not rote memorization of facts and figures! I want to hear their opinions and feelings about what Khan did. Besides, I want them to be empathetic to why Khan was so bad. Didn't his parents abuse him as a child?

Miroslav said...

nice post.
nice comment.