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Past, Imperfect

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Gilbert Ford

I recently read a lament for the disappearance of "traditional American history" from public school curricula. The author mourned for the past as it was taught before "politically correct" historians invented good Indians, unhappy slaves, and women. He meant the kind of history I learned in school. If it's gone, good riddance.

Two "traditional" history courses come to mind. The first's title expressed its priorities: "California and the West." Here is California history, "traditional" style, slightly condensed:

In the beginning there were Indians, although not many of them. They were what you would expect of California Indians -- mellow, living off the land, and in touch with nature. They built special houses where they got hot and sweaty, then ran out into the cold, something we should never do. But life was too easy for the Indians and they did not have civilization. The last of them was named Ishi and he died not too long ago, which was sad but life goes on.

After the Indians, there came the Spanish, who later, by some mysterious process, became Mexicans, so I'll call them Spanicans (Span-ex also works, but sounds like a brand name). A few Russians stopped by before they became communists, but didn't stay long. Because the Spanicans were Catholics -- not that there is anything wrong with that -- they had missions that we should ask our parents to visit. Nothing much happened in missions or anywhere else in California until Americans came and the Spanicans gave it to them. Soon after, a guy named Marshall, working for someone named Sutter, discovered gold. That's when California history really began.

I'll spare you the rest of the story. We did get a field trip to Sutter's Fort out of the course, even though most of us had already seen it when our parents couldn't figure out what to do with us on an idle Sunday and thought we needed something educational. (Our only other field trips were to the Wonder Bread Bakery and the sewage treatment plant.)

The second memorable history course came in my senior year of high school and was taught by a nice man who later had a more successful career as a track and field coach. He approached American history warily, as alien territory littered with facts to be gathered rapidly and stored separately lest they contaminate each other by meaning something. Aware that his method was not inspirational, he resorted to visual aids like a plaster bust of some famous American whom we promptly dubbed "Old Grandad." Another effort to brighten our gloom was to attach great historical quotations to a clothesline strung across the front of the classroom, to which we added contributions of our own when he turned his back. Our favorite was Henry Ford's "history is bunk." Although the course was a disaster, the teacher did give us our first definition of a research paper: one with two footnotes per page. The college-bound among us vowed never to take a history course again.

If we're going to be nostalgic about pedagogy past, what about other "traditional" courses? Have they disappeared, too? Whither "traditional" typing (has it been replaced by some fad like "keyboarding"?), home economics, wood shop, and drafting? For that matter, what happened to "traditional" air raid drills when we dived under tables to protect us from radiation when godless communists bombed Sacramento? Have these been replaced by frills like drug counseling? (We got that from an older kid who hung around on a side street.)

What about "traditional" sex education? Is it, too, gone? Alas, I remember it well. The boys' instructor was a basketball coach. His normal expression was a leer and he had the same length black stubble of whiskers any time of the day. It was a face born for police mug shots.

The boys' sex-ed course was concise. Dispensing with useless detail, Coach collapsed all Sexually Transmitted Diseases into a single generic term, "it," a word that covered a lot of things in the class. He assured us that should we be unlucky enough to catch "it," "they" have things like penicillin to take care of "it." To reassure us further, he compared catching "it" to catching the "common cold." His comments on other subjects were similarly terse and encouraging. We spent the rest of the hour talking about sports.

The girls were reticent about what they learned, although it was apparent that their instruction differed in fundamental respects. Their class, for example, was visually richer than the one for boys: It included a cartoon movie featuring flower petals and butterflies. The girls were pretty mystified by what the film actually meant.

They don't make courses like these anymore. It's a good thing.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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