Monday, April 14, 2008

Why do I have to learn all that?

Ever since I switched over to using biographies and other books for History instead of a textbook, my 16-year-old son Jacob has been – what else? – complaining.

“Why do I have to learn all that? In school, we just had a textbook for history. Why do I have to read about the entire life of Mao Tse-Tung? And Stalin before that! It’s just not useful!”

Useful to Jacob would be how to build something or take something apart. He even volunteered to take a cooking class with his sisters next year. Now that’s useful. But to learn about the life of a historical figure? Not useful!

What could I say to defend my choices? Honestly, how useful is it to know that Stalin once said, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”? Or that when Hitler’s army attacked Russia during World War II, Stalin refused to believe it and locked himself in a room to drink glass after glass of vodka. How useful is it to know that when Mao Tse-Tung was a young man living in Shanghai, the city’s sanitation department picked up an average of 20,000 dead bodies from the streets each year – people who died of starvation and exposure. That China had 1828 famines between 108 BC and 1911. That’s Mao’s Red Army never, ever raped women or stole from peasants. That Mao changed how women were treated in China by banning the sale of brides and arranged marriages, and allowing women to own property.

I could go on and on because I learned a lot when preparing Jacob’s lessons! And frankly, I’d say these are very useful facts. OK, it’s amusing rather than useful to read that Stalin was so incredulous that Hitler broke a treaty and attacked his country when Stalin himself broke his word time and again. Maybe the only useful thing to learn here is not to be gullible. But the other historical facts help explain why there was a revolution, why China is the way it is today, and why Communism was eventually overthrown in the Soviet Union.

So why do you need to know that? Only God knows. Frankly, for me, it’s quite interesting and makes history come alive. I can say that it simply makes you a more educated and aware person. I can explain to Jacob that today’s learning is laying a foundation for the rest of his life - and who knows where his life will lead him? Certainly I did not expect to work as a writer; I wanted to have a job outdoors, like a forest ranger, and had studied Biology in college. I did not know then that the grammar I learned back in elementary school would be my bread and butter one day, more useful even than my college education, and that the only thing my Biology degree is now useful for is to help understand the material I’m teaching Jacob!

But specifically why do you need to learn all that? Only time will tell...


FatcatPaulanne said...

I know what you mean. My son is 15 and wonders why he nees to learn algebra. He asked me how often I use math in my day to day job. Not often, honestly. I'm a medical transcriptionist and I find that grammar is my bread and butter too, but but go ask Dad. He works in computers. Honestly, I don't know if he uses algebra or not but exercising your brain is never a bad thing.

The Reluctant Homeschooler said...

Exercising your brain is definitely a good thing. I certainly do it every day on the job - and when preparing my son's schoolwork! Algebra actually is a rather practical math because it deals with equations. How else will you find out how much money you make if you work 10 hours of overtime, how many gallons of gas it will take you to drive to Chicago if your car gets 22 miles per gallon (and how much it will cost you!)? It's all algebra! I don't use it at work, but I do it for calculating practical things!

The Princess Mom said...

I think the issue about Stalin is that he thought so himself so powerful that no one dared betray him. If there was a contest between him and Hitler about who was most megalomaniacal, I think there'd be a tie, although neither man would admit defeat! ;-)

Rebeccat said...

I think he'll appreciate this approach more as you go along. History isn't really supposed to be a series of facts and dates - it's a story. It's about people - what makes a good man good and what makes a bad one bad. It's about how people relate to each other - how life works. It's about what was valuable that's worth holding onto and what is dangerous that we need to guard against. But give him time and when he's old and wise he'll figure that all out :)

The Reluctant Homeschooler said...

You're absolutely right about history being a story. Unfortunately, when I was in school I considered history, as you said, facts and dates. Only after I graduated high school and began to read books about other countries and their history (I moved to Japan in my 20s) that I began to see the stories. And I've loved history ever since.

Thanks for the encouragement, rebeccat!

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

I can think of a very important use for history (and science). When politicians want to pull the wool over the voter's eyes, they either lie to your about history, or about statistics/science.

"We should all vote so-and-so because 25 years ago, such and such happened."

"We should vote to ban xyz because scientific tests have shown that on average ..."

Just understanding the history and philosophy behind the Declaration of Independance and the Constitution is vital. I am a high school teacher and am finding it very hard to get it through my students' heads that the Founding Fathers asserted our rights do not come from the gov't, but are pre-existing and the purpose of gov't is to protect those rights.

How differently would people vote if they clearly understood that?

These kids are so inculcated with "politics according to MTV" that it is very difficult to get anything across to them.

The Reluctant Homeschooler said...

Thanks, Jarrod, for pointing that out!

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)