Sunday, November 1, 2009

I love history! or, Textbooks are evil...

On my other blog, Math Mama Writes, I often consider the ways in which school impedes our learning of math. Of course that happens in other subject areas too. Until I got to college, I loved math too much for school to come between us. For me, it was history that suffered the most from what school does to destroy the joy of learning.

In high school I hated 'History', which to me meant history classes, with their horrible, sleep-inducing history textbooks, full of presidents, wars, and stupid dates I was supposed to memorize. Luckily, the women's movement entered my life during my senior year, and when I began college I took as many women's studies courses as I could. 'Theories of Feminism' was taught by a history prof, and I suddenly found out that I loved history. Reading original sources while learning about something that mattered to me made this sort of history delightful. (Thank you, Robin Jacoby!) I even managed to remember a date or two. (The Seneca Falls Women's Conference was held in 1848. At that time, the vote for women was considered one of the more radical demands. Women got the vote in 1920.)

Those high school classes left their mark, though, and I've never wanted to study history in a more general way. So when I read Frances Fitzgerald's America Revised in the early 80s (in my 20s), about how bad high school history textbooks are (and why), it impressed me enough that I remember it still. (I've just ordered a copy from PaperBackSwap.) I don't remember much, but basically, she discussed how committees take anything 'controversial' out of textbooks, and what they leave is the rah-rah patriotic stuff. It's not real history at all.

My favorite books on more broad-based U.S. history are A People's History of the U.S., by Howard Zinn, and Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen. My favorite way in general to learn history is through historical fiction. That probably leaves me with some amusing misconceptions.

I got started on this train of thought when I saw the post at BBC News Magazine on "The map that changed the world". It was created in 1507, and was the first known map to include the Americas. 1000 copies were made of it, but by 1570 it had disappeared from view. One copy was discovered in 1901, and in 2003 the U.S. Library of Congress bought that copy for $10 million. Fascinating piece. The comments include an interesting discussion of where the name America comes from.

Maps are not usually my thing, but I liked this.

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