My Favorite Teacher's Failure as Object Lesson on the Importance of Learning History Properly

I can distinctly remember the sense of doom I felt when I drew the topic for my research paper/presentation out of the hat. It was my senior year in high school in my favorite class with my favorite teacher, and what could have been a fun and fascinating project quickly turned into a deepening sense of dread for the hours and hours to come, slogging through a topic I had no interest in.

Mr. O’Brien was my favorite teacher. He taught my 10th grade English class, and he was funny, smart, motivated, and one of the few bright spots in my otherwise wasted three years at the central Minnesota school. I had the benefit, or perhaps misfortune, of having lived in Colorado until then and had a taste of a truly excellent high school, so I knew just how terrible things were. Mr. O’Brien’s class was one of the few things I didn’t hate about Minnesota.

In senior year, he taught Humanities, which was a full year survey of the sum total of human history through art, music, and philosophy. It was thrilling. I can still remember learning about Platonic Forms for the first time, and thinking how odd the entire concept was.

Sometime after winter break, it was time to start work on our big research papers, from which we were also to craft a presentation for the class. The trouble was we couldn’t pick our own topics. Mr. O’Brien put numbers in a hat which was passed around the class. As someone picked a number, they shouted it out and Mr. O’Brien read off the corresponding topic as he wrote it on the blackboard. It was a crazy amalgam of topics from “The Hohenzollerns” to “The Great Wall of China” to “The Battle of Marathon,” none of which we had covered during the year. I sat in suspense and apprehension as the hat was passed to me. I don’t remember what my number was, but I certainly remember the topic: Mary, Queen of Scots.

This was perhaps the first time I had ever heard the name. I didn’t know what to think, but I was a bit worried. Other students were similarly perplexed and concerned. “But what do you want me to write about the Great Wall of China?” someone asked. “Whatever you want,” Mr. O’Brien replied. “What is a Hohenzollern?” a kid named Randy asked. “Go look it up,” was the reply.

I checked out some books and started reading, and it was an incomprehensible mess. All I could find was what seemed to be soap operatic accounts of he said/she said, he betrayed/she betrayed. I didn’t have an iota of context for what was happening or why. So I put it together the best I could, got my ‘A’, and that was that. I walked away knowing just as little as I did before.

What was Mr. O’Brien thinking? It wasn’t until recently that I thought of this episode again, and came upon a theory. I think he was attempting to rectify the terrible lack of classical education we all had. I never took history, even in Colorado; it was all Social Studies, and therefore, basically worthless. It was an endless stream of disconnected facts, rote memorization, and a healthy spattering of multiculturalism. Mr. O’Brien’s Humanities class was designed to give us a taste of what we had been missing all along, and the research papers were just a part of that. But in lobbing contextless topic grenades at us in the hopes of getting us to dig deeper into history, he failed miserably. His assignment violated the hierarchy of knowledge, leaving us flailing away in a pool of sinking concretes (a mess of facts that, rather than helping to form a concept, piles up and sinks out of sight, out of mind.)

I had thought then that the presentation portion was training to help our public speaking skills, and it likely was to some extent. But I suspect that as each topic was designed to get us to dig deeply in one area, the presentations were meant to teach the other students about the topics they didn’t research themselves. Then after the whole exercise was completed, we would theoretically all be richer for it. This also failed miserably.

A few students got juicy topics that were easy to grasp, or to which they already had some context. “The Battle of Verdun,” in comparison, would have been a cakewalk to anyone who had seen an old war movie. The majority of topics were as disconnected from our context of knowledge as was mine, and the other students got as little out of the exercise as I did. As a result, their presentations were as superficial as mine was, and thus no one got anything out of anything.

The tragedy of all of this is that these topics are fascinating, if you have the right contextual knowledge. I applaud and respect Mr. O’Brien for what he did for me in that Humanities class--and even for what he was attempting with the research papers--but in trying to rectify over a decade of mis-education in history by forcing random topics on us with little guidance and almost no historical context, he was hanging us out to dry.

What a shame it was that I had no idea who Mary, Queen of Scots was, or why she was even worthy of study. If I had only known about the English Reformation and Henry VIII, and about his establishment of Anglicanism and the later reign of Bloody Mary who set about trying to reclaim England for the Pope, I would have understood Mary, Queen of Scots and her conflict with Elizabeth. The intrigues with Spain and the other powers in Europe would have made sense, and in the wider context of the Reformation on the Continent, the struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism would have made the story that much richer.

Instead, I spent weeks of work in a haze, reading, writing, practicing my presentation, all the while having no idea why anything I was doing had any value at all. I felt somewhat betrayed by Mr. O’Brien back then, since such an arbitrary exercise didn’t fit in with the otherwise logically constructed course. Looking back on it now, I understand what he was trying to accomplish, and why he failed.


madmax said...

I have a near identical story from my experience in high school except I was assigned The Battle Of Hastings. I remember loving the military aspects and being intrigued by both William The Conqueror and Harold Godwinson but I never really understood anything fundamental about the event. I finished writing my paper with a sense of "thank goodness that long assignment is over."

It seems that teaching history is a lost art or perhaps an art that is in need of being discovered. I get a little jealous when I read about what the kids are learning at the VanDamme Academy or at Scott Powell's school.

Slightly OT: I am almost finished reading Richard Gabriel's book on Scipio Africanus. It is excellent. It doesn't really contradict anything vital that B.H. Liddell Hart wrote. It looks at the same events with a much better eye for military details. But the conclusion that Gabriel reaches is pretty much the same one that Hart reached. Gabriel subtitles his book "Rome's Greatest General". I've come away with an even greater appreciation of Scipio.

There are also major implications for not only today's fight against Islam but for foreign policy strategy in general. Garbriel lays out the difference between Scipio's foreign policy vision and the one held by Fabius. I can see modern leftists or libertarians calling Scipio "imperialistic" or a "neoCon" because his strategy involved "interventionism". But I don't see how Rome could have been defended otherwise. Anyway, reading Gabriel's book will definitely be worthwhile and it will get you thinking about more than just Scipio vs Hannibal.

C. August said...

Oh man, the Battle of Hastings is amazing. That's an even worse topic than mine to be dropped on an unsuspecting kid with no context. What a shame!

You know, Scott Powell offers history for adults. Even if you have a good grounding in history, his "periodizations" of history and Objectivist philosophical foundation makes for really amazing courses. I've taken Am. History, European, Ancient, and his focused class on Middle Eastern history.

And this year, I'll be working with my 5.5 yr old in Scott's American History homeschool course!

And thanks for the prelim. review of the Gabriel book. It's definitely on my list.

Doug Reich said...

Ok, you guys actually learned any history in high school? You shouldn't complain!

My "social studies" teacher moonlighted as a security guard at K-Mart and he only showed up for half the classes. The class consisted of sitting and reading our textbooks and then periodically taking a multiple choice exam - I once asked him to clarify one of the exam questions and he just gave me the answer. The class was held in a "relo" which was an outdoor trailer because the school was full. We would occasionally sneak out the back door of the trailer when we had a sub.

Public education...can't wait until they run health care

Anonymous said...

C. August: You had it easy. We never got as far as Mary, Queen of Scots. Or any English history. Not much American history, either, and what there was of it was presented sans context. I had a high school class called "World History," which was an unqualified mess. It wasn't until I left high school that I hungrily hit the books, because school was otherwise unendurable torture. This was in the early 1960's. I can't imagine how bad it is now, and I pity the students.

I will note here that middle school students especially who come to my booksigning table and become interested in the Sparrowhawks, invariably hale from private schools.


Rational Jenn said...

Wow. This makes me appreciate my years with the nuns a little bit more. My history was History, and while I certainly had some holes that needed filling (and a pro-Church slant, I'm sure), I definitely knew what the Battle of Hastings was, and who Mary, Queen of Scots was (among many other things).

I also did quite a bit of independent study, since I was a kid who was interested in History, and I gleaned quite a bit from reading historical fiction (Katherine by Anya Seton, for example), and from my study of English Literature.