Some months ago, I brashly offered to write a blog piece for an Atlanta audience about fake news during World War I. I had referred very briefly to Great War propaganda in Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, and had included a section on this topic in my new WWI program for schools. My interest had deepened with having learned recently that A.A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame) was among the writers the British government had employed during World War I to concoct fake news, and feed it to American newspapers in an effort to draw American sympathies toward the Allies. I certainly included this fascinating bit of trivia in my program, followed by a rhetorical question for the kids and teachers: If propaganda was this sophisticated more than a century ago, what must it be like today?
And now we have an answer that took even the most cynical by surprise, in the form of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal.
Schools have been urged in recent years to shove aside other subjects in favor of STEM. There has already been a backlash against this educational trend, of course, from the passionate advocates of art, music, and theater, who saw their subjects sidelined in a rush to STEM. This prompted a hasty rewriting of the acronym, giving us STEAM (A for Arts, in the American sense).
I suggest that, in that case, we might as well add the humanities (English, history, and philosophy) which gives us SHTEAM or, to put it in more familiar language, education.
Wondering if SHTEAM is an initial too far? MIT requires its students to take humanities classes every semester. Unlike too many school administrators, MIT and other reputable tech schools understand that a single-minded focus on STEM is counter-productive and potentially disastrous: You cannot understand science without learning to think historically, since science changes over time, and the best book to understand that is historian Thomas Kuhn's classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Training future tech leaders without an education in ethics via history, English, and philosophy is a disturbing prospect in an age in which we move toward the ability to clone humans, and to replace their work with that of machines, while failing to provide for their continued ability to make a living, and a life.
To that end . . .
The War to End War, my newest program, available in various versions for 5th through 12th grades, is a riff on the meaning of World War One. It is not only as close to an actual college lecture as I deliver in schools, but rapidly becoming my most popular program.
Why? Because it's incredibly relevant, despite a century having passed. A historian is not an antiquarian: We're not just obsessed with all things old and past. We teach with one eye on the concerns of the present, and one of the concerns I address in this program is the unintended consequences of a mindless rush to adopt new technologies.
Oh, sure, I talk about how technological innovation made Britain the dominant power of the Victorian era. I also show students the cool gadgets of 1914, including a candlestick phone and a 3D stereoscope (an early Viewmaster, which to kids and teens is itself an antique).
But I also show that technology went wrong for the people of the early 20th century, and that the horrifying numbers of casualties of World War I is proof.
I'm not pandering to curriculum by discussing STEM in The War to End War. Rather, I am urging everyone to beware of the unthinking STEM bandwagon. An obsession with STEM encourages public school students to develop a narrow careerist focus: If the job for which you have trained vanishes, what then? I asked the high schoolers with whom I spoke this week. I asked what their interests were, and they looked at me in wonderment. "Do you mean what we plan to do for a career?" one young man asked. I assured him that if I had meant that, I would have said so. What I hoped to hear were what they cared about, their passions, some indication of their visions beyond their anticipated future jobs. Rest assured, students in America's elite prep schools are encouraged to have a broad view of life and education. There is no rush to replace books with Lego in their libraries. Our public school students deserve no less. And the arts and humanities are indispensable to that broad view.
As I show in The War to End War, the 20th century is one long cautionary tale. The Titanic (launched and sunk two years before World War I) and the machine guns and howitzers that made possible the deaths of 17 million (and wounding of millions more) in four short years should cause all of us to think twice before eagerly embracing an all-STEM, value-free future.
Does America need better science and tech education? Absolutely. Should that improvement be at the expense of improved education in the arts and humanities? Absolutely not. Not STEM. Not just STEAM. Think SHTEAM. Think Education.
Early in my grad school career, I mentioned to a fellow researcher that I had no idea why I was studying religion when I had set out to study immigration, except that this new subject was where the documents had led me. "It will be personal," she said. "It's always personal." I agreed that she must be right, but it took me a while to figure out why.
Of course we learn most avidly when we can connect what we learn about the past to our own lives today. But the connections aren't always obvious.
Charles Dickens knew poverty and child labor. He knew these things.
Raised in a middle-class home, he was educated, not merely schooled, because his early schooling was mediocre, like most of the limited formal education available in the early 19th century. He owed much to the learning that comes by osmosis in a literate household. Above all, he read voraciously.
And then, disaster.
Charles' father, a spendthrift clerk, was shut up in the Marshalsea, London's infamous debtors' prison. Young Charles was sent out to work in a soul-destroying job, pasting labels and paper lids onto jars of shoe polish.
He was only 12 years old.
But Charles Dickens was old enough to understand the implications of this turn of events: His future was destroyed. His life of joyful learning had given way to ten hours a day in a crumbling, rat-infested warehouse, doing work that was precise enough to demand his full attention, and mind-numbing enough to prevent imaginative thought. There was no hope of escape.
And yet, escape he did. Was he liberated from the boot-blacking factory because of his superior intelligence? No. Because of his superior education? No. Because powerful Victorians saw the light, and freed children from exploitation and misery? No. Because he worked hard at his humble job? Emphatically, no.
Charles was made free because his family was middle class: His father came into a large inheritance from Charles' great-grandmother. He was released from prison, and young Charles was saved.
But the adult Charles Dickens knew that he was both fortunate and privileged. He knew that most people were not. His anger at selfishness, greed, and callousness shines through his novels: What more bitter a statement than Scrooge's vicious response to those who solicit a charitable donation from him: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? When the Christmas spirits educate Scrooge by showing him historical context--past, present,future-- nobody is made more happy than the enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge himself.
Charles Dickens needed no such liberation. His concern and compassion for others came through in his lifetime, not only in his fiction, but also in his cogent criticisms of mid-Victorian society, attacking soulless factory-like teaching methods as well as the heartless attitudes of the day evinced in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which forced the poor to choose between destitution, and prison-like workhouses. Dickens supported the efforts of working men to pursue a life of the mind, but he offered fewer prescriptions for good education than he did criticisms, perhaps sensing (as do those of us who follow in his footsteps today) that good teaching is really about caring and sharing one's own life of the literate mind.
In every way, Charles Dickens rose above his lower middle-class circumstances to embrace a generous vision of life, precisely because he had stared into the void of a miserable, meaningless existence at a vulnerable age. Perhaps because, even after the family's windfall came, his own mother pondered leaving him in the factory. A miserable youth and successful adulthood do not necessarily lead to empathy, but a good education should. Dickens believed in education because he did not want others to suffer as he had. Above all, as he knew, education ought to mean saving oneself and others from learning the hard way.
There is a reason his voice is still relevant today. Indeed, it is growing more relevant than at any time in the past century. Confronting Scrooge (and us) with ignorance and want in the guise of two wretched children, Dickens does not offer as a solution prisons and workhouses, joyless instruction and punishment by bureaucracy. He offers aid and education, not for the few, but for all. His message is both simple and complex, and it is urgent.
Learn more about my books (available worldwide through Amazon) and my programs for schools across the United States, presented by a middle grades author, published historian, and former professor with 15 years experience working with kids and teens at AnnetteLaing.com
Lady Bird, the new movie written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is getting fantastic reviews for its depiction of a teenage girl in her last year of high school, in the unpromising setting of Sacramento, CA. And so it should. But I am not an unbiased reviewer, and so this is not a review. This Brit, like the titular main character, came of age in Sacramento.
"Very well,” Mrs. Jenkins said, fetching a small hardbound book from a cupboard.
She began flipping through the pages. “Just remind me that we must stir
the soup that’s on the fire so it does not burn, and meanwhile we will make a
cake. Hmm. . .Let’s see. . .I rather fancy this one.” She pointed to a recipe, and
held open the book on the table, so they could both read it together:
To make a fine feed or faffron-cake.
You must take a quarter of a peck of fine flour, a pound and a half of butter,
three ounces of carraway seeds, six eggs beat well, a quarter of an ounce of cloves
and mace beat together very fine, a pennyworth of cinnamon beat, a pound of
sugar, a pennyworth of rose-water, a pennyworth of saffron, a pint and a half of
yeast, and a quart of milk; mix it all together lightly with your hands thus: first
boil your milk and butter, then skim off the butter, and mix with your flour,
and a little of the milk and stir the yeast into the rest and strain it, mix it with
the flour, put in your feed and spice, rose-water, tincture of saffron, sugar, and
eggs; beat it all up well with your hands lightly, and bake it in a hoop or pan,
but be sure to butter the pan well. It will take an hour and a half in a quick
oven. You may leave out the seed if you chuse it, and I think it rather better
without it, but that you may do as you like.
“What’s a feed or faffron-cake?” Hannah asked, pointing to the words with a
I was delighted to be interviewed last week for a blog run by the American Council of Learned Societies, an umbrella organization of humanities groups.
Find it hard to get kids interested in history? Here are some questions I regularly ask myself when attention wanders...
Am *I* interested in this? If the answer is no, then it’s harder to excite the kids and teens. What would it take to get *me* interested? Can I at least watch a documentary or (better) read a book? If I teach history and never learn more about it, and not just what’s on the curriculum, I’m making life harder for myself and my audiences.
Watching on TV as hundreds of avowedly racist young men carried torches through a college campus, gave the Nazi salute, chanted anti-semitic and racist slurs, and flaunted swastikas through the streets of Charlottesville was profoundly shocking and disturbing.
This is a good time to revisit questions that nag at the backs of our minds: How does history help? What does teaching about long-ago people and events have to do with the present?
The appalling events in Charlottesville this weekend, in which Nazi demonstrators took to the streets, and those who stood up to them were assaulted and murdered, put me in mind of the Battle of Cable Street (1936) It's remembered in the UK as a great anti-fascist victory. But one historian argues that it's actually a cautionary tale.
Here's the link to the 2011 article in History Today: http://www.historytoday.com/daniel-tilles/myth-cable-street
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com