what the hell did we spend our time learning?

Watched Charlie Wilson’s War last night.

Got furious, again, over the state of history education in this country.

Maybe somewhere in the U.S., there are schools that do a decent job teaching history. God knows I didn’t go to one of them, and neither did anybody I’ve ever talked to about this. We never seemed to make it past the Civil War; even in junior high, when U.S. history was split over two years, the first one ending with the Civil War and Reconstruction, we still didn’t get through the twentieth century. Why? Because we started the second year by recapping . . . the Civil War and Reconstruction. And then got bogged down reading All Quiet on the Western Front. I know nothing about the Korean War. (Except that I think technically I’m supposed to call it the Korean Conflict.) What I know about Vietnam, I got from movies. Ditto WWII, mostly. And when it comes to things like Afghanistan (the subject of Charlie Wilson’s War) or our involvement in Iran, there are whole oceans of historical incident I’m ignorant of.

Historical incident that is very goddamned relevant right now. How many people in the U.S. — especially those under the age of 30 — understand the ways in which our problems in Afghanistan are of our own creation? We wanted to stop the Soviets, so we poured weapons and support into the hands of the Afghans, and then wandered off as soon as the commies went away. What’s worse than rampant interventionism? Half-assed interventionism. But thank God we’ve learned our les — oh, wait.

You can’t learn from history if you never learned it in the first place, people.

I want the history textbook I never got. I want a single-volume overview of United States history, 1900-1999, that will tell me the basics about the Korean War Conflict and Vietnam, about Afghanistan and Iran and Iran-Contra and the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, about all those things that were kind of important to U.S. policy and foreign relations that might be tripping us up today, and most especially about the ones I’ve never even heard of and so can’t list here. Bonus points if it has colorful pictures and informative sidebars and maybe a brief quiz at the end of each chapter, because when it comes to this stuff, I’m about at a junior-high level of comprehension.

I don’t even know if that book exists. If it does, I don’t have time to read it anyway, because the downside of writing the Onyx Court series is that most of my nonfiction reading is about Britain. But I can always buy it and hold onto it until the next time I hear about some war I never even knew we fought, and then maybe I’ll drop everything for a few days and learn about my own country.

0 Responses to “what the hell did we spend our time learning?”

  1. wldhrsjen3

    I totally agree!!!! I went to the J-school at the University of Missouri and had plenty of occasion to poke around the Freedom of Information office. It absolutely shocked me to discover how much of my own country’s history – modern history, still totally relevant – I did not know. I made it my mission to educate myself, since my schools had done such a poor job. I have a collection of books about the Vietnam War, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, El Salvador, Cuba, Russia, Israel, and Lebanon. And the more I read, the more I realize I don’t know.

    I read Charlie Wilson’s War about a year before the movie came out… just incredible.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh yeah, I didn’t even touch on what we’ve been doing these last sixty years wrt Israel. Speaking of Rather Important Things I Know Nothing About.

      I’m told the book of CWW is even more amazing than the movie, being as how it can include a lot more information. But even the movie was profoundly eye-opening.

  2. stormsdotter

    Hi! I WORK is textbook publishing, in the Science department. I have actually raised this point TO the History Department. Their response? Not enough time has passed, so no one can write about the history after the 1950s impartially.

    I think that’s a load of bullshit. I’ve talked to my parents, teachers and older friends about the history between 1960-1990 (I was born in ’81, and don’t remember much about the early 80s) and had ONE teacher in High School give us a partial history of this time. Through music. Cop out.

    I was also the person who raised my hand in Sociology 101 and asked why so many people feared the Communists in the 60s and 70s. He had a good answer: The Commies were like the Borg, and people feared a loss of individuality. It took me until College to learn that!

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, because we’re totally impartial about, say, nineteenth-century slavery.

      Screw impartiality: even a biased view would give me a better starting point than pure ignorance does. Because then I would know the stuff happened, and could choose to go learn more about it.

      Did your music route involve “We Didn’t Start the Fire”? Because that’s what my history teacher did in the last six weeks of our freshman year.

      • stormsdotter

        I think that was included. The only one I remember was “American Pie.” This was back in 1998, so I don’t remember much more than thinking it was interesting, and harassing my teacher about why the hell we didn’t pull out of Vietnam faster. His responses were vague and boiled down to, “The US was the biggest kid in the sandbox and we couldn’t let the commies win victories.”

        • Marie Brennan

          Not to mention what it would have done (what it still does) to our national self-image to admit we’ve lost a war. Or botched one, as the case may be.

      • zunger

        I’ve heard this line a number of times before. The real English translation of it is “there are still deep social divisions about pretty much everything more recent than WWII, because lots of the people involved are still alive. That means that, no matter what we write in a textbook, school districts will get a lot of angry letters. Some big ones, especially in Texas [the biggest single market for these] will quickly end up using a ‘less controversial’ textbook, and all of the others will quickly follow. So it’s not worth it to write it.”

        The upshot of this is that recent history is generally not taught in the schools. My school had a slightly different cutoff — we covered, sorta-kinda, up through WWII, but beyond that it became “social studies” and thus wasn’t treated in history.

        But the teaching was pretty weak on all of that — and, not too surprisingly, on the Civil War as well. I don’t think I got an even basically decent understanding of the real underlying issues in the war until fairly recently, reading some books on US history.

      • misterseth

        Not only did we NOT start the fire, we didn’t know it grew into an INFERNO!

    • athenaartemis

      Let me guess…”We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

      Now, I know by March of my high school history class we were into WWI. I don’t remember much after that, not a fault of the class, but rather of personal tragedy I was going through. But I think I remember seeing Reagan on a test at some point. However, our teacher still had us sit down and listen to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as a way of introducing us to the last few weeks of the class.

  3. ozziel

    It is a book that needs written.

    • Marie Brennan

      I can’t believe nobody’s written it. But obviously it hasn’t been picked up by actual schools, because the nature of the textbook industry in this country is borked.

      • stormsdotter

        Do NOT get me started on all the things we can’t do in textbook publishing. We get yelled at if the word “create” is anywhere in a book or lab manual, because, and I quote, “Only God can Create!”

        Then there’s Texas who wants everything dumbed down, and California, who wants everything to be more challenging, and we do try and meet the national standards at the same time…

        Oh, and the deadlines we’re under means we miss a lot of small things. You would not believe the errors I catch! No, I won’t go into detail; for all its problems, I still like my job.

        • Marie Brennan

          <is a product of the Texas educational system>

          And I went to a good public high school. I had some very good classes, but history was not among them.

  4. ckd

    This may sound really silly, but the rulebook for the boardgame Twilight Struggle is actually a pretty good resource for the Cold War era. Since it’s a card-based “war”game, the cards represent real events and trends and the rulebook has a 10-page-long “card history” section that gives a paragraph or two about each one.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hey, putting aside for the moment my history teacher’s abdication of duty, I learned quite a bit from “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” So I’m not going to knock a card game as a resource. 🙂

  5. misterseth

    I myself didn’t learn about early 20th century until my sophmore year. Even then, they would gloss over subjects like the roots of World War I, the Korean War, and Vietnam. (At that time, the mid 80s, my only exposure to Korea in general was through M*A*S*H. Go figure!)After examining historical events on my own, I have learned more about the roots of Iranian extremism (starting with the CIA led overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddeq http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammed_Mosaddeq#Coup_d.27.C3.A9tat) the overthrow of Allende by US backed Pinochet, the roots of our problems with Cuba, and other events that have come back to haunt us today. It’s just unbelievable!
    Which brings me to a question to subscribers outside the US. How were YOU taught history? Did they gloss over certain events, stop at a certain period, or continue to the present day?

    • Marie Brennan

      I almost said something about how we don’t even have the excuse of countries that have been around for longer. :-/

      • everywherestars

        Reading this I’m beginning to see how (comparatively) comprehensive my UK education was.

        I studied history from grades 3-11 (10 and 11 were an elective class) in a good state school just outside London. We covered; Romans, Normans, Anglo Saxons and Vikings, The Tudors, Elizabeth and the Stuarts, (glossed over the George’s), Victorian Britain, the Industrial Revolution, WWI,(causes/treaties and events leading up to) WWII (inc Manchuria), Cold War, Korea, Vietnam and various topics within that for a couple of classes each from Colonial India, the Mughals, Abyssinia, Boer War, Crimea, the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, Italian Renaissance, the Depression and other bits I’m probably forgetting. Our history classes effectively covered Britain from 1500-1945 with sidebars and additions. Of that the most focus was on Europe from 1900-1989 and we covered everything in excruciating detail: from Emmeline Pankhurst, to the Treaty of Versailles and from Red Rising in the Ruhr and the Weimar republic to Potsdam and Glasnost and Perestroika and how to live under rationing and analysis of political cartoons and Russia under Stalin.

        the national curriculum is here – http://curriculum.qca.org.uk/uploads/History%201999%20programme%20of%20study_tcm8-12056.pdf?return=/key-stages-3-and-4/subjects/history/index.aspx – so I don’t think what I was learning was all that different to the rest of my peers. How much of it is remembered is something else entirely, but they did try! If nothing else, there should be a UKish textbook out there that covers the period in easy to absorb detail but from a slightly different viewpoint.

        • Marie Brennan

          I wish I’d gotten your history education.

          • everywherestars

            Comparing what I learned to what’s on US curriculums, and not just in history, I am so glad I went to school where I did.

            looking at it (while it is UK biased) this book – http://www.whsmith.co.uk/CatalogAndSearch/ProductDetails-GCSE+Modern+World+History+-9780719577130.html might be a good and simple place to start. It’s all set up to help a student revise, so will be written in simple bitezise chunks with all the key info.

            Chapters are:
            The causes of the First World War
            Britain and the First World War – 1914-1918
            British depth study 1906-1918
            the peace treaties after the First World War
            Russia and the USSR 1905-1941
            Germany 1918-1945
            the USA 1919-1941
            the League of Nations
            causes of the Second World War
            the world at war 1939-1945
            the beginnings of the Cold War – 1945-1948
            the Cold War 1950-1973
            the USA 1941-1980
            Eastern Europe, detente and the end of the Cold War, 1948-1968.

  6. Marie Brennan

    Maybe I’ll try Zinn. He doesn’t sound like what I’m looking for, but he does sound worth reading.

    I also kind of want a history of the United States that takes a local perspective from the start. In other words, one that views the arrival of Europeans from the perspective of the Native Americans, in much the same way that we might present, say, the Irish immigration of the nineteenth century as seen by the people already here. 1491 is the closest I’ve found to that.

  7. querldox

    Hey, I’m still looking for a good single book that explains just how the Soviet Union and related Soviet bloc fell. I’ve heard some paragraph or three long bits, but I figure that’s got to be more complicated and interesting than what I know.

    I’ve been kicking around the idea of open source textbooks to get around the Texas problem, and I’ve heard rumors that California may go to something like that (but not as open as I’d prefer) for the other reason I want to do them; currently a 4th grade math textbook costs $75-100 which is ridiculous.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t expect our current textbook market will survive, no. It’s too inefficient in too many ways at once.

    • Anonymous

      I had the same desire a few years ago and discovered Why Gorbachev Happened. Clearly written, and makes Russian history into an interesting story. Unfortunately, it was written in 1992, so there is very little coverage of the aftermath, but I felt like I got a good picture of Russia 1980-1992.

      David S.

  8. akirlu

    I got US History 1900-Present twice, maybe three times, between middle school and high school, and yet honestly, it mostly faffed around with lists of trivia without exploring much about causal relationships. I remember the Greenback Party, and that Teapot Dome triggered a scandal, but…

    Even the best of my teachers, the one who had me reading things like Citizen Hearst, and held in-class debates on the causes and cures of the Depression, didn’t do what I would in retrospect I would call a bang-up job of relating those events to anything more contemporary.

    Though I do sometimes wonder if I am the only person my age who wonders what the hell the investors were thinking every time I hear about on-margin purchases of complex bearer instruments and short positions. I don’t care what you’re buying. On margin? Really? Didn’t we learn about how well that worked in 1929?

    • Marie Brennan

      “Lists of trivia” is a pervasive flaw in how lots of history is taught. But hey, at least you got the trivia.

      • akirlu

        Yes, the whole way history is taught needs a major revision, but yes, I did at least get a cursory glance through the events of the 20th century. (On the whole, I think my public schools were quite good, though I have only come to realize this in retrospect. But apparently not everyone gets offered Philosophy, Shakespeare, and Cultural Anthropology at the high school level…)

        • Marie Brennan

          Most of us don’t, no. I took an elective called “Theory of Knowledge” that was basically a small class for those motivated few who wanted to chase down such topics, but that was it.

  9. jsridler

    Why the heck were you reading All Quiet . . . in a class on US history? That’s just bizarre. And, from my POV, the Korean War was a war, even if the UN had to call it a police action. You don’t fight the Chinese Army with a police action. Nor hand out war medals.

    As a Canuck, I suffered through the same thing. Literarlly. I had an American teaching Canadian history and all I ever remember about it is the Revolutionary War, or the Civil War, being really important . . . to Canada? (OK, they were, very important, but my nation has a rather unique though linked history to the US, and it would have been cool to learn about that).

    I don’t think you’ll find a good one volume history that is readable on each one of these weight strategic topics in US history. However, the best one volume guide to world conflict since 1945 is Patrick Brogan’s The Fighting Never Stopped. It covers each major region around the globe, breaking it down into countries. It is a little out of date (1988), and not as in depth as a treatise on any one of the subjects, but it’s a quick and dirty guide that is better than most of the other quick and dirty guides to such topics. I can probably give you a list of books for each topic, if you’re really keen (Cuban Missile Crisis, Korean War, US foreign policy in the Cold War, etc), though I am not a US specialist by any means (especially what you folks did in South America. Outside of the drug war, I don’t know beans).



    • lindenfoxcub

      I hear the american history courses skip the fact that Canada won the war of 1812. There was a hilarious ruse pulled on general Hull in detroit, where he surrendered almost without a fight. Major General Brock stuck a bunch of militia in castoff uniforms, taught them to march, even though they could barely fire guns, and passed them off as regulars. Then he warned Hull he might not be able to control the indians and their whole scalping tendencies, and The detroiters got scared and surrendered.

      also: http://www.deadtroll.com/index2.html?/1812/index.html~content

      less than informative, but entertaining.

      • Marie Brennan

        The War of 1812 is on that list of Things I Know The Name Of, But Not Much More.

        And it’s not like I’m gloriously informed about the Civil War, either, for all the damn time we spent on it. Seriously, what did we do in all those classes?

    • Marie Brennan

      Why the heck were you reading All Quiet . . . in a class on US history?

      You’re asking me? <sigh> Maybe for the same reason we read Oedipus Rex and Ibsen during American Literature: because they wanted to get it into the curriculum somewhere, and that’s where they could find space for it.

      I actually don’t want in-depth at this stage. In-depth would lead me to the same problem I had in school: I’d get bogged down on one thing and still not get to the other stuff. A quick and dirty guide is exactly what I need, so that I can acquire basic literacy in the topic and then decide what I want or need to know more about. Ergo, I may check out the Brogan, since it’s really post-WWII that I’m the most vexed about.

      • jsridler

        Cool. Brogan is the place to start. I find it hilarious that a German war novel was taught in an American HIstory class, a war novel about a war that the US is involved in for about a year. Zounds.


    • lady_puck9999

      Our U.S. History teacher told us to read All Quiet… also. I did not. I DID read it in my Modern European history class, at which point it made sense to do so.

  10. kadnkadnk

    ask your DH if he was in my history class with the teacher who had a stroke a month in, and we had a substitute who knew nothing about history for a whole year… my husband constantly is amazed at my ignorance of anything past the civil war.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeesh. The one time I’ve had a teacher vanish like that, at least it was in grad school, and I was just filling out a one-shot requirement. Though it was a pity to lose our native Navajo speaker for a guy who knew the language only as a linguist.

    • lady_puck9999

      The history teacher in my high school… she wanted to die in her classroom. She was older, incoherent, and lacked any form of discipline.

      I learned… nothing? Well, almost nothing, about U.S. history, forget even TAKING AP U.S. History.

      • Marie Brennan

        Was she the cousin of my biology teacher? Our operating theory was Mrs. Carlson had died, about eight years previously, and no one had noticed.

  11. elishavah

    My senior year of high school I took a class called “U.S. Since 1945” with a book of the same name. My mother protested, because there wasn’t allowed to be a class or book that covered her lifetime. 🙂 Anyway, it was specifically placed in my school’s course options because no matter how hard anyone tries, you just never get past WWII. It, of course, still only covered the U.S. side of things, but they were trying.

    And I suspect that the rest of the world’s history, even when it intersects with our own, is always going to live in elective limbo for anyone who’s not some form of history or poli-sci major.

    • Marie Brennan

      To some extent, I’m not sure I would want to require high schools (and younger) to cover more than the U.S. side of things. I mean, I don’t want it to be totally biased in its coverage — but in terms of how much it’s trying to include, hell, we can’t even manage to cover our own side at present. Achieving that would be a big step.

  12. kateelliott

    You weren’t by any chance in a DoD school, were you?

  13. mindstalk

    I blame Texas. :p

    My default history classes seemed to be Mesopotamia to WWI, or maybe II, over and over again. A bonus class would start with Mohendo-Jaro and Harappa instead. This was up through 8th grade; I jumped the gun and took AP European, then AP US, in high school. I’d say we covered the 60s pretty well, except I’m not certain if that was AP US or Academic Decathlon. Think it was AP US, though. Had a “current events” class in 7th or 8th grade, too. I got to surprise my teacher with the little Libertarian political quiz; he came out libertarian.

    I’m tempted to say your “all in one” book is Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Though Joy Hakim has a supposedly good series of US history books for kids, with snippets of primary sources and good perspective.

  14. lady_puck9999

    The solution seems to be: Onyx court novel about the Korean War!

    I had my first good history teacher just this winter, for modern European history (which included a great deal of U.S. history as well). We went up to the present, into the debate about Turkey joining the EU. We learned SO MUCH in his class.

    Sadly, because it was only 10 weeks long, I did not have time to learn ENOUGH from this wonderful professor, and I am just as ignorant as the next person about all of the aforementioned wars/crises/insanity. Though I do know about Vietnam, mostly from my hippy father, and my awesome high school English teacher who did a whole unit on it.

    At any rate: history is awesome and should be taught awesomely, and hardly ever is.

  15. misterseth

    The more I follow this thread, the more I fear Mike Judge’s ‘Idiocracy’ will come to pass.
    Really sad…

    • Marie Brennan

      I wish I still had the link, but at one point I came across something which contended that the U.S. educational system was based on the ideas of a fellow who was actively trying to produce a mindless, obedient populace.

      I fear it’s succeeding.

  16. Anonymous

    Well, year was 1975 when my first history textbook told me about the crimes of American Imperialism in Vietnam.

    So that I should be aware that Imperialism never sleeps!

    Thanks to the insomniac Imperialism the history of the 20th century was covered widely (even if edited shamelessly to fit the Soviet view to history) first in the basic school course and then, in more detail and citing relevant parts from works of the classics of Marxism-Leninism, again during the high school.

    Sometimes I wonder – was there less bullying in our high school than it seems to happen in USA because we had more homework and so less time left to bully the undesirables?

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m not sure an American school in 1975 would have been any less shameless (more shameful?) in its editing, at least where the commies were concerned. Talk about blind spots . . . .

  17. scribble_myname

    I know what you mean. I’ve been blessed with a grandfather that worked in the Minuteman Missile Project and a grandmother that stays really on top of everything, so I heard all the stories and we did find some curriculum that covered it really, really well. (And I lucked out in 8th grade and got the 3rd degree on WWII, even if NOTHING else.)

    But my grandmother tells me all the time about how they started changing the textbooks and pulling things out. And there are things she remembers as a young black woman that never made it in! Like the cities that African Americans used to make until that got broken up.

    But the best bet I can give you is to purchase books written IN the time period. The best way to cover your own mistakes is to never publish them. Propaganda by omission. I learned early on not to count on school to teach me anything. My main classroom was library and life.

    • Marie Brennan

      I believe there are books both from and after the relevant time periods that give good information. Just not all in one big overview of the sort that basic education really needs.

  18. Anonymous

    I had an excellent high school history teacher, and in my junior year we got all the way through Carter or so, allowing us to cover the early Cold War and Vietnam pretty thoroughly. I wouldn’t say that I know those subjects thoroughly, but I know the basics and have at least a frame of reference for most subjects.

    I still don’t remember anything about the Korean War, except for something about Macarthur disobeying the president.

    Alas, I have no idea what textbook we used. That’s because our teacher mostly taught us with her own (highly entertaining) lectures, and I don’t know if we even opened the textbook. Still the best history education I’ve ever gotten.

    • Marie Brennan

      A good lecturer can make up for many textbook deficiencies, it’s true. Especially since that’s often more engaging than reading something on the page.

  19. pentane

    If you figure out Iran-Contra, please let me know, I was following it in the news and I could never make sense of all the factions.

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. There is that — sometimes not even an abundance of information can make it comprehensible.

      • pentane

        I remember starting to read Clausewitz’s _On War_ and just put it down because the book pretty much described the arc of the first half of the 20th century in Europe (published in 1832).

        Then again, I just finished reading _The Black Swan_ which talks about problems in after the fact prediction. There’s always an after the fact rationalization, but picking the right one out beforehand is tricky.

        A employee of mine told me that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. I countered with “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

  20. lord_codfish

    Eric Hobsbawm’s “The Age of Extremes” – which covers World War I through the end of the Cold War – isn’t bad, though it’s quite Eurocentric (he does pay a certain amount to the US, because it’s hard to do much about this era without it). He has stuff on Asia, Africa, and Latin America, naturally, but it doesn’t come across as confidently – you get the feeling he knows he’s out of his depth. Still, it’s a decent introduction, albeit in many ways depressing as hell. (Short summary: the twentieth century SUCKED.)

    In particular, it’s kind of cool because it doesn’t focus on historical “episodes.” Sure, there are plenty of anecdotes, but Hobsbawm is much better at saying “this is how it started, this is how it ended, this is why” – so more about how the USSR’s socialist system brought down the country and less about the specific actions of Gorbachev that did. So it’s much less of a list of trivia than many other history books.

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