"History, after all, is nothing more than the behind of the present."
- From Non Campus Mentis: Mangled Moments of Western Civilization, compiled by Professor Anders Henriksson
Let's face it. From elementary school to college, history is rarely hailed as "my favorite subject." In fact, as educators increasingly bemoan, in recent years history has so steadily declined from the curriculum that even the most basic information, indelible in the minds of their elders, is often unknown by students today.
West Virginia history professor Anders Henriksson noticed this decline when he began teaching - and grading exams - more than 30 years ago. But rather than cry about the situation, he decided to pass along his collection of test and term-paper gaffes, not for entertainment, but as a positive way to call attention to the misinformation of his students.
Henriksson is quick to point out, however, that his 150-page book took 20 years to compile, and his sampling is hardly a true picture of the history IQ of all college students today.
As a former non-history lover myself, I can understand the lack of enthusiasm for attention to dates and detail. But now, as a history writer, I regret all those years of "get-by" study and relief when a course was over.
Also, as the following examples show, I realize how important that attention to detail can be. I only hope, whether in a column or in my research into the history of Columbia County, Henriksson won't be able to add my "test" results to his collection.
- In the funeral procession of nations and leaders past, "The British Empire is in a state of recline ... Chairman Moo has passed away, as has Franklin Eleanor Roosavelt and civil rights leader, Martin Luther, Junior, the latter shortly after making his If I had a Hammer' speech."
- For a synopsis of World War II, one student included these semantically-challenged (and PG-rated) details: "Hitler, a Nazi leader of the Communist Party, spurred an anti-semantic Blintz Krieg through a terrifying Gespacho, and launched Operation Barbarella,' while the English vanely hoped for peas. The war began turning around, though, when the Allies landed near Italy's toe and gradually advanced up her leg. Hitler ultimately shot himself in the bonker."
Henriksson believes the mangled information problem for some students stems from their lack of context for the material they are studying. This may explain why the following student, decades removed from the Great Depression, had this to say about that event:
- "When the Davy Jones Index crashed in 1929, many people were left to political incineration. Some, like John Paul Sart, retreated into extraterrestrialism." The same explanation may have caused another student to say, "The Boston Tea Party was held at Pearl Harbor."
- One wonders, however, how that "lack of context" would lead today's students to describe more modern events as "The Canadian Missile Crisis" and "clashes between Israelis and Parisians," or, to define the first Gulf War as "when Satan Husane invaided Kiwi and Sandy Arabia."
Henriksson laments that some students seem to have no understanding of the line between the past and present, as with the student who said, "Spartacus led a slave rebellion in ancient Rome and then appeared in a movie about it later."
History received its own share of tense-intermingling with these excerpts: "History began in the Stoned Age, and went through the Middle Evil Times and the Age of Now to the Iran Hostess Crisis." I assume these items are grouped for effect, and are not the "inane creativity" of a single student.
- Let's hope, also, that the following students are not majoring in religion: "Judyism had one big God named Yahoo' ... Christianity was just another mystery cult until Jesus was born"... and "Martin Luther nailed 95 theocrats to a church door." Fortunately, the latter writer added, "Florence of Arabia and Gen. George Custard managed to stand up anyway."
- Alas, "We Americans, in all humidity, are nothing less than the people of currant times."
Just for fun, why not gather your children, grandchildren, friends or neighbors together and ask them to spot the errors in the above paragraphs?
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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