Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Notes From the Front

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I don’t know what it is this year.  I’m getting sick more often, and I’m getting sick worse.  This last round has felt like a whiplash–pretty sick for a while, okay sort of, really sick, can’t get it to go completely away.  I did get to sleep a little late this morning, so there’s that.

At the moment, I’m a little floaty, but I’ve got a couple of things.

One is that I was flipping channels last night after we’d watched Band of Brothers through to the end, and I caught Bill O’Reilly on his own show–defending the position that atheistic humanists are not “immoral people.”

I was, by then, very tired, and I got it only at the end of the segment, but he seemed to be doing this in opposition to a guest (young, blonde, but not one of the usual suspects) who was declaring that humanists had to be immoral.

But then, of all these guys, O’Reilly is the one I like the most.  So there’s that.

The other thing is incredibly depressing, but I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it.

And if you’re one of those people who thinks a knowledge of history is important to the health of a nation and a civilization, this will blow your corks.

Yesterday, in class, I had to explain–not to one person, but to several–what a genocide was.

Then I had to convince them that “stuff like that” actually happened.

They’d heard of “the Holocaust,” but had no idea whatsoever what it entailed.  I had to bring up visuals on the computer to convince them I wasn’t making it all up.

They hadn’t heard of Pol Pot or the killing fields.

Which explained why they were having so much trouble with the assignment, since it consisted of the stories of three young men whose families had all immigrated from Cambodia back in the 1970s.  

The young men had never bothered to become American citizens, and they all had felonies, and they were all being deported–but my kids couldn’t untangle any of the issues, or even understand them, because they didn’t know why these families had come to the US to begin with.

Anyway, okay, I admit it–these aren’t the cream of the academic crop.  They aren’t even the middle.

But they are doing better than at least half the kids they graduated from high school with, since they’re in a postsecondary program, no matter how weak.

If they didn’t know, what are the chances the people at home know? 

And this is not like my last jaw-dropping moment, when an adult student in a night class I taught didn’t know that slavery had ever existed outside the US.

That’s because she actually did know, she just hadn’t put the words together in her head.   She was so used to hearing the word “slavery” used in radically different contexts that she hadn’t realized the two were the same thing–the slavery in Egypt in church, the slavery in the US in school.  She’d never connected the dots.

In this case, the kids really didn’t know.  They had no idea that anybody had ever done anything like that.   They’d seen Nazi bad guys in a thousand movies, and had no idea why the Nazis were bad guys, except that they were.  You know, like aliens.  They just were.

I suppose I just sound like I’m doing it again, wailing on and on about how they don’t know anything.

I think that even when I complain that they don’t know anything, I’m internally qualifying the point by going, “except, of course, they know the really obvious things.”

Sometimes, I don’t know how to cope when they don’t know the obvious things.

More and more lately, I don’t know how to cope.

Written by janeh

November 11th, 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Notes From the Front'

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  1. Bad flus can make you feel as though you can’t cope, although I think discovering people who don’t know what a genocide is, have never heard of the one in Cambodia (what about Rwanda??) or don’t know that slavery existed outside the US would probably make anyone feel like they can’t cope.

    I was startled the other evening when someone in a class mostly on ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ expressed surprise that there was a reference to atheists because she’d thought that in the Middle Ages everyone was very religious. And then there was the confusion between Charles I & II, and I think I contributed to the confusion with James I & II, before we got back to the text. But that is hardly in the same league as not knowing what a genocide is, or what the Nazis did.

    Then again, stuff I remember happening seems to be ancient history for a lot of people today, and I’m not THAT old!! Or I didn’t think I was.

    I’m taking a long weekend – today’s a public holiday and I’m taking tomorrow – but I’m dallying at the computer because I’ve got a couple of things to do that I’m not really looking forward to, and my brave words about getting exercise are sounding hollow when I contemplate the distances and the fact that the buses are on strike.

    Maybe I’ll work on a jigsaw puzzle for a while.


    11 Nov 10 at 9:54 am

  2. You should probably have a good diagnostician take a look at you for underlying problems that are making you more susceptible or less likely to recover. Anemia or something like that?

    And OMG. I don’t think even the remedial kids at Temple are quite this lacking in general knowledge…. I think I would need a stiff drink after that.



    11 Nov 10 at 1:16 pm

  3. When you don’t teach history for a generation, you get a generation that doesn’t know history. The bright ones and the ones from homes with books and educated parents will pick it up. The rest won’t.

    No, I’m not kidding, and I’m not even exagerating very much. K-12 textbooks talk about lifestyles, experiences and (sometimes) beliefs. They don’t do political, diplomatic, economic or military history. (Neither does Harvard, mostly.) The textbooks aren’t written by historians, but by “educators” and the classroom teachers don’t know enough to take up the slack.

    Fixing this would involve historians writing textbooks, and History teachers being qualified in History instead of being coaches. (My apologies, Mr. Shuckle: you really could do both.) But the fix will take 30 years.

    In the meantime, all the historic bad ideas will take these people by surprise, from economic bubbles and inflated fiat currency to colliding alliance systems and scapegoated minorities. (I bet some of your students know about being “dragooned” into something, but none of them connect this to there being so few Protestants in France.)

    In SPACE VIKING, H. Beam Piper had a character make quite a bit of political progress by being just about the only one who knew about Hitler. All the ideas were new again.

    Of course, Piper thought that sort of ignorance would take centuries.


    11 Nov 10 at 5:44 pm

  4. Hurray! Log in is working again. I got a nice letter from Richard Sedell exolaining what went wrong.

    I was born in 1936 and remember the Holocaust, Rwanda and Pol Pot. Jane’s students were born around 1990 and won’t remember anything before 2000. As Robert says, they have to be taught history.

    My parents lived through World War 1 and the Great Depression but never told me anything about their experiences. How many parents discuss history with their children?


    11 Nov 10 at 6:25 pm

  5. I too was suspected of Being Spam, but once again I am allowed to comment.

    Jane, you’ve had a very stressful year. Stress is one of the leading weakening forces on your immune system. That, and poor nutrition, which often goes with stress. That might help explain your virus-go-round.

    How to reduce or eliminate, or learn to deal with stress, only you can answer. In the meantime, take your vitamins, stay warm, and get a foot massage or two.

    When some governmental moron was discussing “just printing more money” I asked, “Hasn’t anyone ever heard of the Weimar Republic?” but then sadly, I realized that most of them hadn’t, or somehow hadn’t managed to make the connection with the current situation.

    But, yes, some parents *do* discuss history with their children. Unfortunately, it only takes one generation to break that chain. I heard (and still hear) stories from my grandmother and mother about the Depression, the wars (my grandmother was a young girl during WWI) and life before I could remember. However, my family was intact, our grandparents were near, and we spent lots of time with them. With new family styles, and more mobility, grandma might be someone you see once a year, and you never get to have the kind of relaxed, long term conversations that used to take place.

    My own son sees his own grandparents once every few years. It’s one of the few regrets I have about moving to California. History means a lot more when filtered through the eyes of family, and without the family, we all become a bit untethered in time.

    So I try to pass on both the family, and world history. Sometimes we talk about historical issues in the context of current events, and get into far more depth than any survey history course could cover, if it’s a particular favorite area of ours. But I know that many parents avoid any kind of substantive discussion with their children. Happily, my son is now 23, and well into that time where good children become good friends as well.


    11 Nov 10 at 7:35 pm

  6. Yes, I’ve heard of the Wiemar Republic and hyperinflation.

    I can also remember the 1950s and 60s when it was possible for Republicans and Democrats to cooperate and Congreswas a useful branch of government. Perhaps the economic shock of hyperinflation would knock their heads together and bring some sanity back to US politics.


    11 Nov 10 at 9:59 pm

  7. For me, the eye-opening event was when the 1978 mini-series “Holocaust” was televised. At that time I discovered that Americans even older than me (I was born in 1943, thus mid-World War II) didn’t even realize that Hitler had killed millions of European Jews (as well as Catholics, gypies, the feeble-minded, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and other “undesirable” groups) in his labor camps and extermination camps. I’m talking about Americans who were in their teens, twenties, thirties, etc. during WWII. Granted, not too many people outside of the Third Reich knew about Hitler’s “Final Solution” while it was happening, but how could they have lived through the period from 1945-1950 without being aware that any of it happened?


    20 Jul 11 at 6:43 pm

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