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Don't Know Much 'Bout History

By Scott Roeben

It's about time for school to start up again. Our future, America's youth, will be making its annual migration back to the classroom, and many will be asking the same question: "Can you make me a better deal on that Remington 700 bolt-action assault rifle?"

Another question that will be on the minds of our nation's kids is sure to be "How does History relate to me?"

It is about time that we admit that history does not relate to the average American youth, except for the fact that much of history is kept in books, which can be used as projectiles. Yet it has been said that if we do not heed the mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. Bell bottoms come to mind. So, we must strive to make History pertinent to the lives of our youth. Saying that History does not relate to everyday life is as laughable as saying that algebra or physics do not relate to our everyday lives. Or perhaps those are bad examples.

The problem with making History interesting in today's classrooms may have to do with how information is presented to students. This is a typical entry in today's History textbook:

"1200-1150 B.C. The Sea Peoples invaded the eastern Mediterranean from the Caspian Sea area and destroyed the Hittites c. 1200 B.C. Some settled on the Canaanite coast to become Philistines."

This kind of information makes History about as exciting to read as the quarterly newsletter of the "National Organization Of Guys Who Sell Colostomy Bags." When will the average American student have to know who the "Hittites" were? When will they have a need to identify the "Canaanite coast" on a map--except within the context of a History class? Of course, it is obvious to us where the "Canaanite coast" is. So obvious, in fact, that I would not imagine insulting you with any details of its location here, although if pressed you can bet I could find the "Canaanite coast" with no problem, I swear.

Even though the relevancy of History for our youths is not readily apparent, we cannot let our youths know that. Youths have enough problems as it is. Just look at their complexions. Many of our youths look like NASA photos of the lunar surface. So, our challenge is to make History fun. Here are some obvious examples of how this might be achieved for parents, educators and those just interested in spending some time around human beings with personal hygiene worse than even that of the French, if you can imagine such a thing as being possible.

Historical Fact #1: 1100-1050 B.C. Tiglath-Pileser I of Assyria conquered Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean, defeating Babylon and exacting tribute from the Phoenician city-states.

First, students should enjoy the humor in a name like Tiglath-Pileser I. Humor is a great way to make History fun. In a classroom setting, it might also be amusing to find a student with an odd name like Dick Wiener and to pelt him or her mercilessly with chalkboard erasers. Even better, encourage students to pelt "Dick" with the intention of stealing his or her lunch money, thus making the concept of "exacting tribute" memorable as well.

Historical Fact #2: 900-850 B.C. The Phoenician city of Byblos developed c. 900 B.C. on the Mediterranean coast and became the center of the cult of Baal.

Who cares about Byblos and Baal? Sometimes, it is more important to extract one important gem from a historical fact than it is to get bogged down in the details. The entertaining part of this period in history was the prevalence of cults. It should be interesting to modern students that a variety of cults still thrive today. Many cults profess to know the date of Armageddon, others practice ritual sacrifice and still others follow the teachings of men with astonishingly large, white hats. Remind students that cults are not to be ridiculed, and that all religious beliefs are to be respected, including the ridiculously insane ones that involve virgins giving birth.

Historical Fact #3: 800-750 B.C. A Greek renaissance occurred under the stimulus of trading contact with the Phoenicians.

Let's face it, this historical tidbit has sex written all over it. And although we hate to admit it, sex exerts a powerful influence over young people--not to mention our elected political representatives. What better way could there be, then, to make History enjoyable? History is riddled with sexual escapades. Historical figures spent much of their leisure time escapading. Anthony and Cleopatra. Hero and Leander. Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin and Catherine the Great. Lancelot and Guinevere. John F. Kennedy and just about everybody you can think of, for example.

The more sex you can embellish historical events with the better. When you discuss John Smith and Pocahontas, for example, don't just talk about the obvious sexual tension. Do your homework and pass along the fact that Pocahontas' father's name was Wahunsonacock.

Trust me, at the hearing you can always say: "I don't make up History, I just report it."

These simple tips I've outlined really can work. They can serve to turn the mundane into the intriguing, and the trivial into the titillative. Maybe in time every student will be able to differentiate between an "oligarchy" and a "plutocracy," because you never know when you may need that information in your day to day life.

Yeah, right, and Catherine the Great owned stables because she loved the smell of freshly cut hay in the morning.


Scott Roeben, 1999, 2000. All rights reserved.