Monday, August 17, 2009

History's Dates and People

I have an odd quirk of mind; odd, I suppose, unless one is a professional historian. I remember dates; all sorts of dates. When I graduated from college and left San Francisco, my home town, to move to Los Angeles, I found a little house in a cul-de-sac. I looked at the house number—1453—and I thought, “The fall of Constantinople.” I remember when wars happened; proclamations; constitutions; birthdays of presidents, actors, musical composers, and friends I had in high school and haven’t seen in 40 years. I even remember the date of death of the most notorious head of the Salvadoran Death Squads, the one who murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero, Roberto D’Aubuisson: February 20, 1992. That’s one I celebrate. I imagine him in the first circle of hell, reserved for those who assassinate saints.

Dates are the bane of a history student’s existence. Anyone who has ever taught history has heard the same complaint: It’s all about dates and names and I can’t remember either.  When I am frustrated by my students’ the total lack of a sense of time, I try to remind myself that mine is an unearned talent, like playing the piano by ear or having perfect pitch. It’s just there, that’s all.  But it was reinforced by the Catholic nuns of my elementary school who made us memorize all sorts of things, from the Baltimore Catechism, to long poems like Paul Revere's Ride, The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a special favorite of our teachers), the multiplication tables, and heaven knows what else. Do these young people have to memorize anything?  I sometimes think that by not acquiring this rudimentary skill, they are intellectually short-sheeted. More troubling is the fact that they have no sense of history; no idea at all about what came first. I have been trying to figure out if that is just a function of youth or if something else is going on. From a professional point of view, after all, history hasn’t been just about dates and names for a long time but unless you have a sense of time, it’s all just a jumble.

Comedian Jay Leno used to have a feature on his Tonight Show called, “Jaywalking,” where he and a crew would wander out to talk to people on the street or at an amusement park to ask them the simplest questions or ask them to identify the photo of one of our political leaders. When he would collect the worst of the correspondents to have them compete with each other in the “Jay-Walking All-Stars,” you could just die of embarrassment. How could they be so completely ignorant of history? When he took his show to the UCLA graduation (my alma mater) or to another local university, and interviewed students graduating with education degrees, I could feel my toes curl as the unwitting victims struggled to answer simple questions. It was an excruciating experience to watch it, like watching a train wreck. I often caught myself covering my eyes. Presumably, he only picked the least intelligent respondents –they make fun of smart people in other ways. You have to wonder why they would allow themselves to be be broadcast in these demeaning performances.  Is it cool to be on TV no matter the price? Sometimes it’s enough to make me want to hang up my cap and gown for good.

Is it that the past just doesn’t matter to most people? Or to young people? Of course, there are always students who excel at the study of history but how do you connect it with young people who live only in the present?

One thing I do is to try to connect what I’m teaching with their cultural landmarks. I even read People Magazine once in a while just so I have a vague idea of the gossip that they would be familiar with. We live in a culture of celebrity; our students can name celebrities that are completely unfamiliar to me but that are part of their world. How do you make the world of politics and global interests, matter to them?

I’ll take that up tomorrow.

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