Ted Rall: The Study of Now

Instead of teaching kids chronologically, we should be teaching Nowology, says Ted Rall. What we need, he says, is the Study of Now. Commentary.

aNewDomain.net — Everyone argues about the same education issues: testing, charter schools, unions, funding, merit pay and so on. We argue about whether college is a decent investment, whether affirmative action is fair and whether relativism and political correctness are replacing basic education goals.

It’s high time someone brings up the topic of now. As in Now. Call it Nowology. It’s the study of what’s going on right now in politics, history, literature, mathematics, science — everything.

Think about it.

In the United States, from kindergarden through 12th grade and all the way through the senior year of college, education focuses obsessively on the past.

No matter what you study, the topics either relate to the past — or, if they don’t, 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 critical, right? Either you get hooked straight away or you get bored and turn all blasé about it.

So why do textbook publishers 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. You’ve got to wonder how your typical American 9-year-old, who lives in the burbs, can even begin to connect intellectually to people who foraged for food that’s not in the fridge.

And here’s another problem with the chronological teaching of history.

Teachers rarely make it to the relevant, interesting history students might actually care about — and that’s 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 — and that’s fascinating. We never got even close to the controversies of my childhood, which included Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis.

Sadly, then and now, the only place you’ll find the study of Now in a way that appeals to kids is in the media — on TV, radio, newspapers and, now, online.

When I was a kid, what mattered most wasn’t discussed in school. It was on TV. My classmates and I had fathers who served in Vietnam. We had neighbors who’d dodged the draft. Their faces stared warily at us from wanted posters at the Post Office.

Yes, we argued over Nixon and Ford and Carter. But all that stuff — the controversy, the drama, the Now of it all — took place outside school.

And that’s how the real message sunk in: School is where you learn about old stuff. Now stuff isn’t in the classroom. It’s everywhere else.

That’s exactly the reverse of how we teach ourselves, then and now. Take, for example, pop culture. Movies and music.

No one’s musical education begins with recordings of recreations of primitive music, simple claps or banging objects together. Most kids get started with their music education by listening to what’s current. They listen to contemporary music they catch via Pandora, Spotify, the radio, TV, etc.

Those who decide to dig deeper typically 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.

Now, they might wind up getting into ragtime or Bach. But they get it last. They don’t get it first.

Same goes for movies. No one starts out in movies by watching silent films.

In other countries, there is some discussion of teaching history in reverse chronological order. In the UK Prospect last year, Christopher Fear of the University of Exeter argued:

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 continue to teach history the boring/chronological way.”

We’re always obsessing 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 such 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) every now and then.

But 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. That’s necessary 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.  Researchers were discovering these advances, ironically, in labs in the same buildings by the same professors who were filling our heads with obsolete material.

Nowology. Better now than never. For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in New York, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.

1 Comment

  • That’s an interesting approach to teaching history, but “now” and “chronologically” are not the only two possibilities. For example, one could organize a history class around threads — religion, politics, culture, technology, etc.

    One can also mix and match. For example, I teach a “three thread” course on the applications, implications and technology of the Internet (non-chronological) but I spend around 1/2 hour or so at the beginning of each week on current events relevant to our class.