SYNDICATED COLUMN: Schools Should Teach Nowology

Everyone has a strong opinion about education. But the controversies are always about the same topic: testing, teachers unions, funding, merit pay, vouchers/school choice, charter schools. Is college a smart investment? Is affirmative action fair? Has political correctness supplanted the basics?

I keep waiting for someone to bring up Now. As in the study of now — what’s currently going on in the fields of politics, history, literature, mathematics, science — everything.

Can we call it Nowology?

From K through 12 through senior year of college, American education focuses obsessively on the past. No matter what you study, the topics either relate to the past or the knowledge is dated.

Since I was a history major in college, I’ll focus on that.

I’ve never understood why history is taught chronologically. A book’s opening is crucial; either you get hooked straight away, or you get bored and turn blasé. So how is it that textbook publishers think it makes sense to start a fourth-grade history textbook with prehistoric humans who lived 10,000 years ago? It’s tough enough for me, at age 50, to relate to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. How can a typical American 9-year-old, who lives in the suburbs, connect intellectually to people who foraged for food (not in the fridge)?

Another problem with teaching history chronologically is that teachers rarely make it to the relevant, interesting history students might actually care about — what’s going on now. From junior through senior high, my high school teachers got bogged down in the battlefields of the Civil War. We never once made it as far as Reconstruction (which is actually fascinating), much less to the controversies of my childhood (Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis).

TV, radio and newspapers — that’s where what mattered was discussed. My classmates and I had fathers who served in Vietnam. We had neighbors who’d dodged the draft, whose faces stared at us from wanted posters at the post office. We argued over Nixon and Ford and Carter, but all that stuff — the controversy, the drama, the Now — took place outside school.

The not-so-subliminal message soon sunk in: school is where you learn about old stuff. Now stuff is everywhere else.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite of how we choose to teach ourselves.

Example: pop culture, like movies and music. No one’s musical education begins with recordings of recreations of primitive music, simple claps or banging objects together. Most children start out listening to contemporary music — whatever they hear on Pandora, Spotify, the radio, TV, etc. Those who decide to dig further usually work backward. They listen to older works by their favorite artists. They hear a musician talk about the bands that influenced them, and they check them out.

(When I was a kid, friends were surprised that Paul McCartney had been in some other band before Wings.) They might wind up getting into ragtime or Bach. Last. Not first.

Ditto for movies. No one starts out watching silent films.

There is some discussion of teaching history in reverse chronological order in other countries. Writing in the UK Prospect last year, Christopher Fear of the University of Exeter argues: “We should begin by showing children how to scratch the surface to find the recent pasts of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — pasts which they can talk about together.” But the British too continue to teach history the boring/chronological way.

We’re constantly worrying about whether our schools are preparing children to compete in the global marketplace. To support their calls for reform, activists (mostly, but not exclusively, on the political right) point to surveys that show that Americans are woefully ignorant about basic facts such as evolution, essential geographic knowledge as the location of the country where U.S. troops have been fighting, killing and dying for a decade and a half, and even heliocentricity.

Sure, it would be nice if more Americans cracked open a newspaper (or its online edition) now and then. On the other hand, a lot of this material ought to be taught in schools — and it isn’t. Day one of American history class should begin with Obama, Congressional paralysis, the early jockeying for the 2016 presidential campaign, America’s clash with Russia over Ukraine, and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these subjects naturally require digging deeper, back in time, to explain why and how what’s going on now is happening.

And it’s not just history. Studying physics at Columbia in the 1980s, no one taught us about the latest advances in cosmology and quantum mechanics — some of which, ironically, were being discovered in labs in the same buildings by the same professors who were filling our heads with obsolete material.

Nowology: better late than never.

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11 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Schools Should Teach Nowology

  1. ” … to explain why” ??

    That’s simply not in the curriculum. If we taught why 9/11 happened, it could undermine support for the war. If we taught why the Puritans came over, why we stayed out of WWII, or why we went into Vietnam, we’d destroy kids’ faith in ‘murika before they’d been sufficiently indoctrinated. Even worse, they might apply what they learned to *thinking* about the repercussions of their country’s actions today!

    Can’t have that. No, no, we’ll keep teaching “history” as a rote recitation of dates, and using it to program our young to believe that The US of A has never once been wrong or harmed anyone, let alone committed a crime of any sort.

    All together now, “I pledge allegiance to the lies …”

    • btw, what’s this nonsense about hunter-gatherers? According to my school books, the world was created in 1492.

      • I believe the hunter-gatherers were pre-Christian heathens who were killed off by Noah’s floods, thank God.

      • @senator

        But wouldn’t Noah have had to pick up two cro-magnons as well? They could have slept right next to the baby dinosaurs …

      • The Old Testament God was pretty vengeful toward nonbelievers, so I doubt he was too upset to see a few of His creations go.

  2. Nowology would be great for fomenting revolutions in a reading and thinking population (a consequence I favor) but the threat to plutocracy and its propaganda would be too great for them to tolerate. Too much money is spent in crafting illusions to allow them to be punctured with a few thoughtful questions and self-evident truths.

    Indoctrination will always serve power more effectively than education, so what power will allow is what we will have.

    What is Nowology but news? Jefferson said, if forced to choose between the two, he would choose newspapers over government. So, for the lack of effective revolutionaries, it’s government indoctrination and its stenographers (with few exceptions) we will be compelled to live with and not Nowology.

  3. If I finished college I would have liked to to teach post WW2 history to High School kids. So now I just flap like Abe Simpson at anyone who’ll listen

  4. Wow, Ted!

    I never really thought about it in that light. History classes bored the crap out of me! You’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Name the “x” number of President in the order they held office. List the dates of the discovery of America, the search for the Fountain of Youth, the American Revolution, the Civil War, etc., etc.., etc., ad infinitum and the primary actors in those events. Who the hell cares?

    “Give me Nowology, or give me death!” I could have related (can relate) to THAT! 🙂

  5. Ted,

    The problem with a school goes something like this:
    “My daughter is Muslim, I will not tolerate your assigning ‘Charlotte’s Web’ to her reading class.”
    “My son is Jewish. I will not tolerate your assigning ‘Charlotte’s Web’ to his reading class.”
    “My family is vegan. We cannot condone a story that discusses pigs being made into bacon.”
    “My son is a special learning. He doesn’t absorb knowledge in written form. But he’s just as good as every other student in that classroom. But you’ll need to go one chapter a week, and he needs extra time after that. He’s going to be a lawyer one day. We’re already starting the paperwork to demand that the law schools decrease significantly the amount of work assigned.”
    “I want my daughter to read ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ But she already read it, three years ago. Why are all the students reading at this level when my daughter is three grades ahead?”
    “I’m some religion that you have to respect. Talking animals? That’s satan worship. I’m going to get you fired you godless heathen.”

    Now imagine trying to teach a history course that brings up Israel/Palestine. We already see what goes on when someone tries to teach evolution. Shall we have a unit on My Lai while we’re at it? Well, if you do, don’t forget the Japanese experiments on human captives during the war and the firebombing of Dresden. Talk about the Burma Railroad. How about we throw in Goering’s line about how the common people never want war, only the politicians do?

    Schools used to teach “Now.” It was called home economics. And social studies. And civics. And debate club. Now, we don’t teach “Now.” We teach … wait, no, we don’t teach.

  6. This article appeared in yesterday’s Japan Times and made me smile. I started teaching American History in 1970. I decided to begin the year studying 1900 through 1970 during the first semester. In December, I invited a couple of 70 year olds to do a Q and A with the kids about the events they had lived through and the kids had read about. One genius kid asked, “Could you tell us something about your grandfather?”

    “Oh yes, he fought at the battle of Shilo!” After the audible gasp from the kids, I had my perfect segue into January and the study of the Civil War, and I finished off the year with those Revolutionary war heroes, some of whom had descendants that fought in the Civil War. I never did get around to those brave explorers from Europe, how could I make sense of their motivations without studying the Renaissance and Reformation?? 🙂

    By the end of my career, I started with the year the kids were born since a lot of them had the opinion that anything occurring before their existence was largely irrelevant. Imagine their shock when they discovered the textbook had left these essential 16 years out of the chronology? So instead they had to locate the issue of Time over in the school library that was published the week they were born, and then figure out what was going on the week their journey began. This was a project that turned into a sixteen year time line with one side containing a chronology of at least one historical event, and the other side with personal history like a first memory, someone dies, when they had to move, a memorable trip, favorite-worst teacher, etc. This became a lot easier when Time launched their web site.

    From there we sort of played leapfrog backwards to the year their parents, on average, were born, grandparents, etc. This involved exploration on genealogy web sites and study of census records that had finally been made public. Also, collections of oral history from living relatives, and more sophisticated timelines. My last ten years of teaching history, I didn’t give a single test, and refused to teach AP since it was about a test, and not about learning. It wasn’t exactly, “nowology” but I think it hooked kids on what in my opinion history is really all about: understanding where we have been and the stories we were raised on, so we get a better idea of where we are going.