“Things they never taught you” redux

I was back in California over the spring, as I may have had cause to mention, to attend my wife’s sister’s wedding. On the day before the ceremony, we made a quick stop by a craft shop to pick up some decorations for the reception. While there, I saw something that really took me back: a whole section of supplies for building one of these.


Now, if you are a Californian this will make perfect sense to you; at some point or another — usually in fourth grade, I think — California schoolkids build a model of one of the missions set up by the Spanish and later Mexico in Alta California in the 18th and 19th centuries. Because everyone does it, craft shops actually have a section that’s just full of little brass bells and pantiles and so on. There is an accompanying report; I can’t even remember which one I did (San Francisco Solano?), but I remember that I tucked some authentic string or something into the report as a piece of evidence that I had been there. And someone in the class made a model out of sugar cubes, which if you think about it are more or less the right colour and probably quite easy to work with.

Anyway, my point is that this is a shared historical experience, something that seems common only across a quite limited pool of students — well, OK, millions of them in California, but still not many compared to the world at large. If I recall correctly, it is (or was) part of a philosophy that starts kids out with the history of California, then moves them on to the history of the United States, then the world. Which sounds like a sensible idea in theory, but I don’t recall it actually working like that, so maybe I’m wrong.

Whenever I teach history, I run into these weird little land mines of ignorance. I frequently get students — teenagers, I’m talking about — who don’t know who the Pope is, for instance. And I don’t mean the current Pope, I mean they don’t know what a Pope is. And it’d be easy to decry that as the ignorance of the young, but I don’t think that’s it, necessarily. I mean, there is a lot of stuff to take in, and people often don’t know what students don’t know.

I’ve spoken in the past, I think, about how there will always be these articles about the things they don’t teach you in school, and how whenever I read one of those it turns out to be about something they taught me in school. Like, you’ll often hear that schools don’t teach about west African medieval empires, but mine sure did. I still remember seeing a full-page painting of a king of Mali sitting there contemplating a block of salt. Or maybe Ghana.


Although certainly many don’t cover that topic. But that’s what I mean; there seems to be a lot of variation, and my schools left out a lot of stuff as well. What they didn’t cover I didn’t even know about until I came to university here in the UK and realised I knew nothing about British history. And I thought of myself as an Anglophile …

Part of the problem is that history doesn’t have a natural progression like, say, math. I’m sure there’s some discretion in the order in which you teach math, but fundamentally you need to know how to do this thing before you do the next thing, at least at a basic school level. With history, not so much. Everything connects to everything else in every direction, and even if you adopt a strictly chronological model you’re going to leave some parts of the world out. I would guess everyone has some part of history that they just remained profoundly ignorant about until it was embarrassingly revealed.

What’s yours?

“Things they never taught you” redux

8 thoughts on ““Things they never taught you” redux

  1. Part of the problem is that, almost by definition, you don’t know of which areas of history you’re woefully ignorant. There are several areas where I’m weak on detail: eastern Europe, renaissance UK, east Asia, but probably the largest area of ignorance would lie in Africa: Ethiopia, Mali, Ghana et cetera. On the other hand, my meso- and south-American and south-west Asia has improved quite a lot in recent years in ways I could not have predicted.

    1. Absolutely. I remember the very first time I read the wargame De Bellis Antiquitatis — it’s full of army lists for the Kipchaks or the Ilkhanids or whoever, and I’m — I mean, I have a history degree already by this point and I’m reading it going “who the hell are the Kipchaks?”

      Quite educational in its way.

  2. I don’t know about embarrassingly revealed, but I’m constantly learning new things; not just new things about periods I thought I had down, but entirely new periods that I was unaware of in my entirely Anglocentric historical studies (seriously, British school history is all about the England; I don’t even know if Scotland got a more Scots slant to the curriculum until recently.)

  3. I had an interesting revelation a year or two ago looking at costume patterns. In commercial patterns there are specialty companies that do authentic period ones, of course, but I usually just go with what is cheap and modify as needed. In fabric stores there are usually the “big three” (Simplicity, Butterick, McCall), plus a couple other main brands, like Vogue and Burda. Burda is a German pattern company, that gets published over here for some reason as part of Simplicity, and I was looking through their costume patterns one day and realizing that they were 1) a little more authentic looking than the American ones (not much) and 2) that what I think of at Victorian costuming they were labeling as either a 1848 costume (later Victorian) or a Biedermeier costume (earlier Victorian).

    Now I knew about the revolution(s) of 1848 (though somehow missed this in high school and college world history and only got up a little to speed on it because of an epistolary novel set in that time which I read for an English paper I wrote). But I had somehow not grasped that this would be such a big thing that it ends up a defining moment in time worthy of being marked out in the costume patterns, like our Civil War patterns. And I certainly didn’t know what the Biedermeier period was, and had somehow not really thought about those years as being different on the continent than the Victorian ones, even though, duh, obviously, Victorian is a specifically English way to mark time and in Europe they looked at it all differently, even though the clothes were basically the same.

    So um, there, that was a really big embarrassing thing I should know known many years before I did.

    1. I don’t know that periodization in 19th-century Europe is necessarily something one *should* know? On the other hand, the 19th century, other than the basics, is a bit of a blur for me, I think because I had to study it in my first year as an undergrad and I sort of rebelled.

  4. Trimegistus says:

    The problem is much worse nowadays. My youngest is finishing up Sixth Grade in a couple of weeks. The history curriculum throughout elementary school has been a seemingly random grab-bag of stuff with no context, chiefly built around things like Black History Month, Women’s History Month, etc. So they learn about the Civil Rights Movement every year or two, or the Tuskegee Airmen; but they don’t learn about World War II or the 1960s as a whole.

  5. Sally Brewer says:

    British History that wasn’t English. I still don’t really know who ruled Scotland before Mary Queen of Scots, the Welsh didn’t really exist in my school curriculum and the Irish sprung into existence fully formed in the 19th century.

    Our cheerful habit of ignoring the British Empire while focusing in racism in the Southern United States also still bugs me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s