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...