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Why Do We Learn (Anything)?

Happy President’s Day, George. Abe. And the Rest. You Helped Grow a Strong Tree.

The other day a student asked why we were bothering with learning about ancient world history/civilizations, mythology, etc. His father (a German citizen) thought learning about American History would be a much more worthwhile use of time. The student wanted to know when during his time in public education would he be learning about American History? (When, indeed? The answer is every day you’ve been in public school, but maybe not as intentional as it should be?)

Wow. Where to begin?

First, there is a logistical response. In my school district, 8th grade Social Studies covers Ancient World History. It’s not what the state recommends, but the curriculum is in place, and has been for many years before the state determined the curriculum. I don’t know more than that, and can’t seem to get any more answers that what I just wrote. Ultimately, I’m not sure that it matters, but I would like to know where students are coming from and where they’re going through high school.

Next — it’s very important to learn about Ancient World History, Ancient Civilizations, and Mythology. Mythology is the Greek word for “story.” I’ve said this many times, and had my students repeat that learning about the first stories, the ones that connect all of humanity, connects all of us through time, cultures, and build our background knowledge in a myriad of pathways and inroads. A young student cannot begin to appreciate the sheer force, the will, the absolute shoulder-to-the-grindstone effort it takes teachers to try to provide and enrich as much background knowledge as possible.

I gave the example that even in a pop-culture magazine; there was a mention of Mariah Carey and her ‘Greek chorus.’ How cool it was that we just learned what a Greek chorus was, and if he had been reading that article his brain would have comprehended the writer’s intent and allusion much more quickly (cue student’s blank stare). I went on to explain with another example about movies, and modern stories (more of a light-bulb moment). If you know “it,” no one can take “it” away from you, and you use “it” every day.

We have discussed in our classes the connection between Greeks/Romans and their political system breakthroughs, and how those breakthroughs influenced the great minds of our American forefathers (who I still think really, really, got it right – go Constitution! Go Bill of Rights!) We as a nation only veer off-course when we interpret their very just laws for a “few people” and not all, when any one branch of government gets too powerful and uproots the rest of the tree in the process.

I wanted to give his question the time and fairness it deserved, but the contemplation of the question even overwhelms me, puts me on mental overload, because I do think, I do consider, I do ponder, question, and wonder. The real question is: how do I get my students to ask, to ponder, to answer their own questions? I should have just put it back on him, but that’s not always fair. There’s got to be a place I can point to start them out on their inquiry journey; then, it’s up to them.

So – here’s the challenge for my students – why don’t you tell ME why you’re learning this? Are you being fair to yourself, just sitting back and not taking charge of what you’re learning?  Ask the questions, and demand an answer.