Among the reasons to study history two stand out: To avoid repeating past errors and to hold on to the great accomplishments of our civilization.
Now, my kindergartener doesn’t take any history classes. She is, however, exposed to some sort of soulless union-approved social studies-like curriculum. Our first taste of it was the MLK Day last month. She came home impressed by the lesson on segregation and the freedom rides. I had to cringe at the fact that this was the way the CA educational behemoth chose to introduce her to American history. Yet slavery and segregation were a reality, and children should know about them. Her second encounter with American history was right before President’s Day when her music teacher taught the class “Yankee Doodle”.
Our local library also commemorated MLK Day, and for the whole month of January books about the Civil Rights leader were displayed prominently in their children’s section. When we came back to the library last weekend to check out a book about George Washington, the same kind of books were still on display, now for the Black History Month. Since it was Presidents’ Day weekend, three books about the US Presidents were also prominently exhibited — about 20% of all promoted literature.
I got a few tips on how to talk to a 5-year-old about George Washington and made up something like a lesson plan. I wanted a colorful book to use as an illustration. My idea was to go through the book editing out some details and filling in here and there, and I figured A Picture Book of George Washington would do. That’s how we ended up with a candidate for the dreariest book on the subject (save for the pictures, which were charming, although, on the second thought, I should have used something from the period).
Unfortunately, this day and age telling children that George Washington couldn’t tell a lie is tantamount to child abuse. Instead David Adler, the critically acclaimed author of many children’s book on multiple historical topics, penned a short story with a flair of a middle-school textbook. We learn, for instance, that:
George learned to read and write in school. He practiced his handwriting by copying lists of rules such as “Keep your fingers clean” and “Think before you speak.” But his favorite subject was arithmetic.
Handwriting… arithmetic… We have computers now and our minds are freed to do exiting creative things! The pupils of 2013 should be happy that their enlightened elders developed subjects like finger-painting. Although, I have to say, 5 y/o DD loves to copy writing. For instance, if I make a to-do list, she will copy my entries in the open spaces, making it all but impossible to figure out the errands. I guess I need to move more into the 21st century direction and discourage her from learning cursive. And seriously, if Washington’s schooling was so dumb, how come he turned out to be so wise? Adler doesn’t tell.
I ended up skipping that part about the rules, even though DD could benefit from doing more of that “Think before you speak” thing — beloved historical figures can make good role models. I enjoyed stopping to explain certain paragraphs in greater detail. We talked of the 13 colonies that were all on the East Coast and set up by the Englishmen, and the fact that the 18th century life expectancy was short and many kids were forced to grow up early (Washington’s father died when he was eleven).
I had to introduce my own topics because Adler mentioned neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution by name. The following was said about the outbreak of the Revolutionary war:
The English won their war against the French. King George III of England wanted the American colonies to help pay the cost of the was, so he taxed them.
American colonists refused to pay the taxes. In Boston, colonists dumped tea into the harbor rather than pay the tax on it.
It doesn’t matter so much that the tax was to pay for the war (Adler is practically obsessed with wars, paying for wars and avoiding wars). What matters is that the colonists felt that they are being taxed without having a say in it. It’s a shame that the Boston Tea Party, a truly fascinating event by any measure, was short-changed in Adler’s treatment. I understand that children’s books have word limits, but a little more excitement and a little more detail can inspire lifelong love of history.
About the Constitution:
The thirteen colonies became thirteen states. They joined together and formed a government, but it was weak. In 1787 a new government was formed with a congress, a supreme court and a president. George Washington was the best-known, most loved leader in America. He was elected the first president of the United States of America in 1789. He was reelected in 1792.
Separation of powers is a good place to start talking about the Constitution, but where, for instance, is the Bill of Rights? Or federalism?
Of Washington’s terms in office:
President George Washington signed treaties with the Indians, Spain and England. There was war in Europe, but George Washington kept the United States out of it. When some farmers in Pennsylvania refused to pay tax for whiskey, George Washington sent soldiers to force the farmers to obey the law.
If children read this book sans a commentary by an informed adult, they are bound to be confused. What is a youngster to think when he finds out that the colonists refused to pay the King’s tax, and that wars are bad, but yet our very first President waged the war on his own people for refusing to pay taxes? Is he going to conclude that disobeying the law is no big deal? I couldn’t think of a good way of relating “no taxation without representation” to my 5-year-old, so I skipped the page altogether. We did talk about fairness and self-government.
I can see a child walking away with an impression that George Washington was some sort of a monster who lived in dreary times, and giving up on both the country and the discipline of history. Adler conveys no excitement, no sense of glory. Although A Picture Book of George Washington was first published in 1989, many of today’s teachers and parents were raised in 70s and the 80s on similar literature. (And many parents, like me, were raised abroad.) They wouldn’t know how to talk about American history. As a result, we have a second generation of kids growing up alienated from their heritage.
Take the case of my daughter who, if I were to leave it up to her public school and Adler, would know about segregation, but not the Constitution. Count me among those who think it’s strange that Martin Luther King is the only historic figure who got a whole day dedicated to him. He is an important person to know about, but not of the caliber of, say, Ben Franklin. I always thought that Franklin really personified the American spirit — an inventor and a self-stater, a free spirit with a keen sense of humor and a sense of justice. Why is he short-changed?
Maybe we can have a Freedom Riders Day and a Presidents Day on top of the Founders Day all occurring within the school year? This way the teachers union can bargain for an additional day off while music teachers get to drop in a few words about the likes of Franklin. Venerable Jimmy Carter, Millard Fillmore, Chester A. Arthur and Woodrow Wilson can still celebrate the fact that they were elected, and I can have my children at home with me.
This 4th of July I’ll attempt something different. We will look at the Constitution together, and maybe look at some 18th century American art. This way my children will be real historians, working with primary sources. I will report the outcome.