I’m playing tutor to a friend’s fifteen-year-old son. English, mostly, and history.
The kid is smart enough, but hates most teachers, spends far too much time playing Assassin’s Creed, delights in amassing bits and bits of obscure knowledge, yet won’t make an effort to remember two Roman emperors in a row.
The way he is made to learn doesn’t help, either. They hop from emperor to later emperor, leaving out whole decades – never mind that they contain key logical steps of the whole story. Diocletian, Constantin, something of Theodosius… Right, but what of the fifty years of anarchy Diocletian ends? Blank. How does Constantin become emperor? Never mind. And what about the Visigoths? Who?
Thinking there is no way he can understant – let alone appreciate – history by fits and starts, I try to bridge the gaps. To make him see cause and effect and cause and effect. To show how all these disconnected names are actually characters in one long tale – and a true one.
Speaking of which… we are talking late Empire, here. An eventful, messily adventurous, exciting time, if a gloomy one. The kid is a voracious reader, a lover of adventures and battles – the gorier the better… how, how, how on earth can he miss the stirring romance of it?
So I’m trying hard. I tell him about the people, the places, the times, the battles. I make him think, work out the long shadows thrown by even the dryest piece of fiscal policy. I make him put himself in the shoes of Diocletian, of a peasant faced with ruinous taxes, of a general at the north-eastern border facing the Visigoths…
“I think you have too much imagination,” he says, shaking his head at me – after telling me he likes Julius Ceasar because he invented the testudo formation and some kind of trap or other…
At least he never told me yet that history can’t have happened. That was another girl I tutored, years ago. She was fifteen too – it must be a bad age for history.* This started out with Latin, actually. One day she didn’t feel like translating Titus Livius – some battle I forget – she up and told me it was useless, anyway.
“I refuse to believe it ever happened.”
I was perched on a ladder, browsing a bookshelf for an Osprey volume depicting the battle in question – and nearly fell down.
“You refuse what?”
She said it was at once to absurdly complicated and too pat.
“They made it up. They must have. And Latin as well. Who’s fool enough to speak something that needs conjugating at every step?”
I might have mentioned modern German and Russians, but I had other, more pressing questions in mind.
“But, my dear girl, if you don’t think they fought battles, spoke Latin, grew farro, laughed at outrageous comedies, and occasionally murdered each other, what do you believe they did all the time?”
The kid shrugged with the supreme indifference of youth.
“Something else, clearly.”
And she would have proceeded gleefully to invent a known- worldwide conspiracy to magnify the glory of a less-than-glorious Rome – except I sent her back to work on her translation.
She is a brilliant pharmaceutical researcher now, and we still laugh about her theory when we meet – so I guess one day we’ll laugh about Diocletian as well…
But I don’t despair yet. The romance of history and the fun of the thought-process are there, his for the taking. The kid shall see it – if I have to beat him all the way there.
* Well, actually, at fifteen I already loved history to distraction, and indeed, it was the age when… but I guess that a) I was a bit of a geek; b) this is fodder for another post.
Davide Mana said:
If it is any consolation (and I think it is not), teaching English language and literature crashes on the same attitude – a supreme lack of interest, the deeply-rooted certainty that it will not matter in the end.
Five paragraphs to be learned by heart to get a 6+ in the next test – and my role as a support teacher is providing alternate wording to those paragraphs, so that the teacher will be pleased by the kid’s originality.
And no curiosity at all – you mention amassing bits and bits of obscure knowledge… I see most often bits and bits of highly dubious knowledge; urban legends, prejudice and hearsay elevated to the rank of fact.
And then yes, history: a confused landscape of meaningless events acted out by people whose name must be learned by rote, often infected with strands of disquieting ideology, and an attitude derived from videogames – the faction that gets the higher power boost wins, and deservedly so.
I think school failed – and it pains me, because I know many teachers, and they are working hard, but as I already said in the past, they are not perceived as the norm, they are perceived as a bothersome minority.
Most teachers in Italian school hate the kids and do not care about their jobs.
la Clarina said:
I know, I know… And yet, this one kid, as I said, is smart, and can summon up some interest at times, and asks good questions, and reads on his own… needless to say, he himself is, at times, perceived as a bothersome minority by classmates and teachers… Which is unspeakably sad.
Davide Mana said:
The worst drama is that the smarter kids are the ones whose curiosity is actively repressed.
Strangely enough, often our school encourages the mediocre to bask in their mediocrity.
Unfortunately, the situation is exactly the same if we consider math, chemistry and physics.
And maybe I understand that the elegance of geometry theorems can’t captivate a teenager
(Oh when I was fifteen I loved that elegance and perfection, but, ok, that’s another story!)
My question is: how can you be not curious when it comes to processes that only chemistry and physics can explain?
For example magnetism or how it works the reaction of hand soap …
No interest in the microscopic world, no attraction for the space and the universe.
They have the brains fried from the television offering models of success characterized by cynicism and a lack of curiosity and interest in what surrounds us.
This is exasperating.
But I think that TV, bad teachers and terrible school programs are not the only problems. Also families have their faults!
It’s very sad to see parents of young kids that spend so much energy and money to make their children learn English or early writing and reading or musical notes,
because they don’t spend time to talk and answer to kids questions.
This attitude is a real disaster because it kills the interest and the curiosity: a little kid have to learn a lot of notions
and nobody takes care about his natural curisity about the world!
“It’s still early for answers,” told me a mother “there are so many things they can’t understand!”
Can you imagine this little kids when they will be fifteen? It’s so sad!!
la Clarina said:
Yes – curiosity. And imagination. And interest. And all those wonderful things a child should be brimming with… Our society and schools seem dead bent on suffocating these kind of traits in children. And you know what teachers tell me? Even if a child is blessed with a lively mind, encouraged by an open-minded family, and fortunate in classmates and teachers, a moment comes – usually in middlegrade – when all that is drowned in the wish to belong to the pack. Too many smart children just stop asking questions and contributing ideas, because the others won’t, and they’ll become outsiders if they do…
Being smart becomes the sort of unpleasant exceptionality that gets one the cold shoulder – and perish the thought!
Again, it is sad, sad, sad.