“Kids need assignments that they can relate to.” Within today’s Edworld, one of the most pervasive notions is that students should be reading and writing about stuff they can connect to their personal lives. As educational outsiders have pointed out, this assumes kids can’t be interested in things that are distant, whether in time and place, from the mundane and familiar. It excludes the possibility that the long ago, the far away, or the esoteric, might engage children precisely because they are long ago, far away, or esoteric. But isn’t school supposed to open doors rather than close them? Isn’t it supposed to take children out of their egocentric worlds to places they’ve never been before?
In one sense, the Edworld does have a point. While it’s not the case that kids can’t be engaged by exotic or unfamiliar material, it is true that such material can be harder to make sense of. Works set in faraway times and places—particularly if they were also written in these faraway times or places—may employ an unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence structure, or assume an unfamiliar knowledge base. If enough words, sentences structures, or presupposed facts are elusive, it’s hard to get much out of the material, let alone actually enjoy it—even if you take the trouble to look everything up.
The Edworld’s recent harping on “relatable” material, furthermore, may reflect current realities. Blame screen time: blame social media; blame long-form TV shows that scratch the itch that used to drive people to read novels: for any number of reasons, today’s kids are doing less and less independent reading. Aggravating this, K-12 classes—particularly K-8 social studies classes—are providing less and less instruction in general background knowledge—whether about civics, power structures, military concepts, or life in Regency England. The result is that much of what kids used to readily relate to, however far away in time and setting, is no longer so accessible.
I suspect this is one reason why history is less and less popular—to the point where some history teachers don’t want to teach it any more. Consider these passages from The American Vision, a high school history text used in Philadelphia’s public high schools:
One of the most contentious developments of Jackson’s presidency was his campaign against the Second Bank of the United States. Like most Westerners and working people, President Jackson was suspicious of the Bank. He regarded it as a monopoly that benefitted the wealthy elite.What is meant by “the money supply” and “interest rates”? How would a national bank benefit the wealthy elite? What is “easy credit,” and why is it needed to run farms?
The bank had done a good job stabilizing the money supply and interest rates, but many western settlers, who needed easy credit to run their farms, were unhappy with the Bank’s lending policies…
At first, excitement about the war inspired many Northern and Southern men to enlist, swamping recruitment offices and training camps. As the war dragged on and causalities rose, however, fewer young men volunteered, forcing both governments to resort to conscription.What does “enlist” mean? What are “recruitment offices”? What is “conscription”?
To pass a new tariff, Taft needed the help of Speaker of the House Joseph G. Cannon. As Speaker, Cannon appointed all committees and decided which bills they handled. By exercising almost total control over debate, Cannon could push some bills through without discussion and see that others never came to a vote.What does “exercising almost total control over debate” mean; why do Cannon’s powers as speaker lead to that control; and how does that control enable him to allow or prevent bills from coming to a vote?
These are all questions, I’m sure, that most of us can readily answer. But how many high school students have been provided with this vocabulary and background knowledge—which is not explained in situ in the Glencoe text? And how many of them are turned off to the material—and more generally hate history--simply because of this lack of preparation?
As the history book moves towards modern times, it gets sloppier about using words it never defines, but simply assumes kids have picked up elsewhere: "destroyer;" "Third Reich;" "Capitol Hill"; and, especially, economic terms like "freeze assets;" "speculator;" "free enterprise system;" "black market." But have they?
Moving backwards to Regency England, consider these passages from Pride and Prejudice:
Mr. Bennet's property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed, in default of heirs-male, on a distant relation; and their mother's fortune, though ample for her situation in life, could but ill supply the deficiency of his. Her father had been an attorney in Meryton, and had left her four thousand pounds.“Entailed on a distant relation”? “In default of heirs-male?” “The deficiency of his”?
Mrs. Bennet was prevented replying by the entrance of the footman with a note for Miss Bennet; it came from Netherfield, and the servant waited for an answer. Mrs. Bennet's eyes sparkled with pleasure, and she was eagerly calling out, while her daughter read --
"Well, Jane, who is it from? what is it about? what does he say? Well, Jane, make haste and tell us; make haste, my love."
"It is from Miss Bingley," said Jane, and then read it aloud.
"My dear Friend, -- If you are not so compassionate as to dine to-day with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day's tête-à-tête between two women can never end without a quarrel. Come as soon as you can on the receipt of this. My brother and the gentlemen are to dine with the officers. -- Yours ever,
"With the officers!" cried Lydia. "I wonder my aunt did not tell us of that."
"Dining out," said Mrs. Bennet; "that is very unlucky."
"Can I have the carriage?" said Jane.
"No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night."
"That would be a good scheme," said Elizabeth, "if you were sure that they would not offer to send her home."
"Oh! but the gentlemen will have Mr. Bingley's chaise to go to Meryton; and the Hursts have no horses to theirs."
"I had much rather go in the coach."
"But, my dear, your father cannot spare the horses, I am sure. They are wanted in the farm, Mr. Bennett, are not they?"
"They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them."
"But if you have got them to-day," said Elizabeth, "my mother's purpose will be answered."Even if they have figured out by now that Mrs. Bennett wants Jane to end up marrying Mr. Bingley (in part because Mr. Bennet's property being “entailed, in default of heirs-male, on a distant relation”), how many of today’s 9th graders will have the background knowledge (about horses vs. carriages and the significance of rain) required to make sense of this passage? Is the “carriage” the same as the “coach”? What is a “chaise”? Why Jane would have to “stay over” if she goes on horseback and it rains? What does Mr. Bennett mean by "They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them”? What does Elizabeth mean by "But if you have got them to-day, my mother's purpose will be answered”?
Again, all of us may readily answer these questions, but how many students have absorbed enough of the relevant background knowledge by 9th grade? How many teachers are carefully going over and explaining these passages as needed?
When people today say they hate Jane Austen, it’s easy to conclude that it's because they have no interest in the class consciousness, arch conversation, ballroom dances, and “marrying well” that constituted middle and upper-class Regency England. But how do we know that the real problem isn’t simply that they no longer have the tools to make sense of the subtle ironies, compelling characters, lively dialogue, suspenseful plots, and still-relevant commentaries on human nature of a writer who is as engaging and entertaining to those who give her a chance as she is dismissed by others as frivolous and irrelevant?