A Post For Buster: Learning How To Learn
In the interval, the Anchoress has gotten well ahead of me with blogging. What is below is a response to the post of her son Buster, far down in her stack, about what he feels high school should be doing for him. As I pointed out a post or two down, the discussion of how we should be teaching High School begins with the following question:
What do you want schools to teach to ALL children, whatever the reason?
The Anchoress, who called this whole discussion forth, initially had this answer:
I think high schools should teach history (real history, not PC history, thanks) and English, writing, critical thinking and exposure to Plato shouldn't be limited to AP classes.
She has expanded excellently on the subject here. Moreover, at my suggestion, she asked her own high-schooler, Buster, for his opinions, which are also worth reading. If we quote a small segment of what Buster had to say:
AMERICAN History and the founding documents SHOULD be taught for two years, then Government or Civics. And I don't need school to tell me how to BE, I can learn that from looking at my own family, thanks.
and link it to the notion of PC history, I think we can open up some very fruitful territory and, with Buster in mind, I can make some observations about what I think is done the least well in both High School and College--teaching people how to research, how to find things out.
If you can find things out, you don't have to wait for schools and textbooks to tell you. This is called "learning how to learn".
"PC history" is a shorthand, and I suspect Buster's second sentence, I don't need school to tell me how to BE, is about what the Anchoress means by it. With any shorthand there is always the potential for misinterpretation, particularly as so much in teaching is a matter of emphasis and tone.
I suspect Buster's dissatisfaction is not a matter of teachers or texts telling him anything explicitly, but something more oblique and indirect in attitude and treatment of the historical material. But I do think we all have a general sense of what PC history might mean, and we can illustrate it in the following way.
I was never troubled, in the late 1960's, by any PC whatever in my high school classes, particularly in American History. What I was taught then can stand as a baseline for what PC history is not.
Now one of my many trades is that of historian. It was, in fact, my main academic trade as a college professor a decade and more ago. Below are a set of twenty-one questions that I might have asked a Freshman Honors Class, straight out of high school, to choose from for a 250-500 word essay supported by three weeks worth of historical research, either in the library or even, these days, on the Internet.
Each of the questions has a relatively objective factual answer, but considerable room for interpretation of historical significance, depending upon the student's point of view. No politics are necessarily excluded by the way these questions are framed.
The interpretations that my Honors Class would have given me would have been the starting point for opening up larger issues in history itself, rather the meeting of any expectation on my part of content and sophisitication, of which there would always be a range. The constant questions in my dialog with the students would be "Why do you think that?" and "How do you know that to be so?"
I think, also, a fair-minded person would agree that the questions address significant things in American History as a whole. There is also plenty of range to choose from, both in historical time period and in content.
These days, a bright, first quarter, college freshperson could write a credible, reasoned, and researched short essay on them in the time given, though they would probably have to be walked through the research tricks which, particularly for Buster, I append below. Here are the questions:
1. Describe briefly The Trail Of Tears and The Long Walk. Compare and contrast the social, political, and economic history of the descendents of the people who were part of them.
2. Critically outline the degree and type of influence the building of the Erie Canal had on the abolitionist movement, the anti-masonic party, and early 19th century American religion.
3. What was the Santa Fe Ring and what is its importance for the culture and politics of the American Southwest?
4. Why are the Bank of the United States, the Free Silver movement, and the role of J.P. Morgan in the Panic of 1907 relevant to America's current economic life? What contemporary institution embodies that relevance and why?
5. How does the history of the University of Notre Dame intersect with the history of the Ku Klux Klan? Is it important and, if so, why or why not?
6. Outline the role of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the industrialization of America. What implications does it have for contemporary life?
7. What is the significance, if any, of Sherman's March To The Sea for the world history of the last 100 years?
8. Describe how the westward migration and settlement differed for the members of the Church of Latter Day Saints as compared with other westward migrants. How has it changed the United States?
9. Prior to 1830, what was the common form of the cash crop traded by settlers west of the Appalachians and why is it important for post-1830 America?
10. One form of stock trading activity prior to 1933 was known as "window dressing". What was it? Why was it made illegal? Why is the presidency of John F. Kennedy associated with it?
11. What is a Zoot Suit and why is it historically important? What American president has the closest cultural association with the historical importance of Zoot Suits? Is this a meaningful question to ask?
12. Why are Pullman train cars of significance to the history of Black America? Who is the famous Black leader that had significant contact with Pullman cars, and what did they mean to his career?
13. Three early 20th century men: Arnold Rothstein, Benjamin Segal, Meyer Lansky. What do they have in common, how are they related, and what is their importance to the present social climate of America?
14. Where is the geographic region of America known as "the delta"? Why is it of overwhelming significance to American cultural life? Who did the people who still live there generally support for President in 2004? What political significance does this have for the geographic region immediately surrounding "the delta"? BONUS POINTS: What famous highway runs through it?
15. Three historical facts about San Francisco: the gold rush, the International Workers of the World dockworkers union, and the present population of the Castro district. What do they, taken together, have to say about the uniqueness of San Francisco's historical place in the American story?
16. The usual bevereges of Americans throughout the Colonial and Federalist period were tea, apple cider, and bottom femented ale. Around 1830 this changed predominently to lager beer. Why did this happen, what does the change represent, and to what degree, if any, is it important today?
17. Who was Father Coughlin, what were his opinions, and why were they significant to the America of the 1930's? Do they continue to have significance today?
18. What were the arguments against the position of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in The Federalist Papers? What document was being argued about? What compromise was reached between these two sides?
19. What was the Hays Office, who was Kenshaw Mountain Landis, and what was the common role of both of them in early 20th century America?
20. What is the major historical relationship of Texas to Tennesee? What is the major historical relationship of Arkansas to Oklahoma? How and why are they different?
21. Three historically prominent American women: Carrie Nation, Ayn Rand, & Jane Fonda. What do their stories have to say about the America in which they lived?
Be warned if you yourself try to answer any of them: some of them are deliberately asked in a way that when the evidence is found it may contradict how the question is worded or what the question implies.
Now I am equally certain that if I had been asked to write such a thing in my first Freshman quarter, I could have done it, but only because I had been reading adult books on history, and the Encyclopedia Brittanica, for pleasure, since the age of twelve.
Virtually nothing in my high school American History courses would have prepared me for these questions. The overwhelming majority of persons, places, groups, and events would not have even been mentioned. I suspect that today at least some of them would be mentioned.
I am not absolutely sure what PC history is. But I am perfectly certain the non-PC history in my high school left out between one half and three quarters of the real story. Moreover, I knew this before I even started junior high school, and it altered my perception of both school and the world irrevocably. In high school I was as dissatisfied about it as Buster, though perhaps for different reasons.
What you will notice, if you reflect on it, is that my questions propose a far different approach to history than the single, rather frilled, narrative of most general history textbooks. Tone, emphasis, and Political Correctness aside, the difficulty with them is that they artificially attempt to portray history as a single narrative, when it is actually a set of forking paths that cross and recross.
The true sense of our own history can only be achieved by wandering less surely and more tentatively among the paths. With enough experience, a grasp of the whole can be gained, but attempts of any survey text to induce this artificially inevitably fail and dissatisfy.
So how do you step into the wilderness of crossing and recrossing paths? And what do you do there? Here are the tricks of my trade:
1. Take advantage of the Internet to roughly establish answers to the following questions: Who? and What? These questions are posed by the nouns: Meyer Lansky, Church of the Latter Day Saints, Pullman train cars, and so forth. Plug these as keywords into the search engines and scan the results. Don't trust anything you read there. You don't yet know how reliable it is. But let it start to build a general sense of what is being talked about in your mind--if you do, you begin to get a feel for the following questions: Where? and When?
2. Take your sense of Where? and When? to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Try to find the articles in Britannica, using the index, that cross with what you've found on the Internet. Skim the articles lightly without becoming too involved with them, and, generally speaking, use what you find there to evaluate briefly what you've already found on the Internet. This should begin to define the questions of How? Why? and What Does It Mean? IMPORTANT: Make a note of the initials of the contributor of each article.
3. Go to the Britannica List of Contributors and match the initials to the contributor's names. Most of these contributor citations will include at least one book by the person. Write down its title. The people who contribute to the Britannica are chosen because they are expert scholars on the topic, and you need to look at their books in preference to their short articles.
4. Look these books up (you can now often do this online) in the handiest library catalog whose holdings you have access to, preferably a major city library or a University Library. Take note of the Call Numbers of these books. This tells you where all libraries using the particular call numbering system (Either the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress system) will put books on that same subject.
5. If you are working online, try to find a shelf scanning function in the online catalog, and scan the other books around your book of choice. This is critically important, so if you can't do this online, go physically to the library and manually shelf scan there. Pick whatever five books in the shelf scan that strike your eye. Take them out and when you get them, find their bibliographies. If they don't have bibliographies, replace them with books that do.
6. Make Xerox copies of the bibliographies and go over these copies with a highlighting pen. Look first for any book listed by all the bibliographies, then keep looking for the next most cited book, and the next, until you have the names of five books. You may have already picked one which will show up in multiple bibliographies. If you have, congratulate yourself. You are well on your way to developing a scholar's best friend: intuition.
7. Keep your Britannica expert's book, but return all the others to the library and check out the five books most cited in the bibiographies. Read these six books first. They will be the most important to really learning about the subject.
This little set of seven tricks, taken together, will tell you more that's relevant of what you really want to know than any pre-digested textbook.
Any book that is cited in bibliographies that consistenly, and that widely, is a book which you have to have read to have real expertise on the subject in question. Read this sort of book first and you will get far more bang for your scholarly buck. You will also have a basis for evaluating all the other doubtful information you have found on the Internet and elsewhere.
So, Buster, if you really want to find out about the Founding Documents of American History and the basis of our Government and Civics, that's how to do it. You could start with question #18 above. Get that one really answered and all sorts of other doors about the subject will open up for you.
And always keep in mind that real learning happens only when the student is determined to know, no matter what obstacles are in his way, and takes proactive charge of his own education for himself.