Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fourth Grade’s Tail and Will Durant’s Dog

When I was in the fourth grade, I didn’t have to walk five miles to school, uphill both ways. But I did have to study geography and write reports occasionally on a state or region of the U.S., listing the capital, size, population, chief geographic features, chief industry, and chief agricultural export. It seemed tedious at the time; I didn’t even know what the word industry meant and barely had an idea about export only because it had the handy antonym import. But I remember learning that Florida grew oranges, that Texas had cattle, and that Ohio made tires.

Was that pittance of knowledge worth all the tax money allocated to the schools? Well, keep in mind that this wasn’t the sum total of my fourth-grade education. I also learned the multiplication table (although I still have to think about 6x7); I learned that when asked to spell post office in a spelling bee, one must say “space” in between “tee” and “oh”; and I learned that I could not do more than three push-ups total or even more than one without calling forth peals of laughter from the other fourth graders. In any case, these geography lessons converted tax dollars more productively than our current day's exercises to clarify personal beliefs regarding whether states should be part of the United States.

Fast forward twelve years. As a young adult trying to build a library (I’m now an aging adult trying to dismantle a library so the next move isn’t so hard!), I purchased an antique history of the United States from 1907. As I sat down to read it, I opened to the first page thinking I would read about explorers, since Columbus and Hudson and their pals started out every general American history book I’d ever read. To my surprise, I found this instead:
In the present chapter will be found a brief description of the great natural resources which a kind Providence has placed at the disposal of the inhabitants of the United States. Without this knowledge, the student will seek in vain to understand the history of the American people.
First of all, a kind Providence? Yes, if public education has changed in the fifty years since my fourth-grade experience, it also changed in the sixty years prior. No less shocking to me, though, than the allusion to the Deity was the statement that geography affected history. I’ve tried to be honest in these posts about how ignorant I am and about how long it takes me to learn some things. So I have to be honest again and say that it was a total revelation – although it seemed obvious immediately afterwards – to discover that the mountains in Colorado, the timber in Oregon, the fish in Maine, and the grain in Kansas might have shaped history. Maybe those fourth-grade reports weren’t so pointless after all. I just hadn’t learned to put things together. History as my schools presented it to me consisted of lists of political movements and events, inventions, and wars. But I didn’t get any narrative sweep with causes and effects. (A possible exception: I think one teacher in elementary school tried to teach us that the cotton gin caused the Civil War. Hmm.) For the first time as I read this antique history volume, I started to think of one event in history causing another down the road.

OK, that intro ended up longer than I thought it would be; I’d better move on now to the dog so the tail can wag it. And the tiny dog is just this: Will Durant does a marvelous job moving back and forth between detailed stories and descriptions on the one hand and grand visions and explanations on the other. The other day, I read that the Papacy’s move to Avignon helped lead to the Hundred Years War and paved the way for Wyclif. Why should we, reasoned the English, send all our church taxes to France where they’ll only fatten the purses of the Dukes across the Channel? And why should we, reasoned Wyclif, give lip service to theology we can’t conscionably accept for fear of the recriminations of a mere pawn of the fat-pursed French Dukes? Simplistic? Yes. But the connections definitely do have a basis in fact and certainly help me remember that these were all events of the fourteenth century.

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