Teacher battles historical ignorance

Published 10:00 pm Monday, April 20, 2009

For many of us, memories of high-school history class are the excruciating recollections of teachers endlessly droning on about names, dates and places without connection to today’s world. Facts often were learned by rote memorization — or, worse, by cramming on the night before the test — and have long since been forgotten.

Sadly, that type of teaching style neither contributes to a true understanding of the perspective that history can give us on the world as it exists today nor an appreciation for the circumstances, sacrifices and hardships of those who shaped it. The average history lecture that so many of us remember utterly failed to inspire either a love of the subject or a desire to delve any deeper into its topics.

George Santayana, an American poet and philosopher in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is credited with observing, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The adage is widely used as a caution for those who seem oblivious to the mistakes of history, blundering along on their own similar paths.

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While such a fate is frightening enough in itself, ignorance of history has even broader and more odious repercussions. Witness the widespread belief in the fictional claim that America was intended to be a secular nation, instead of one in which the government would not overtly support any particular religious sect. More than two hundred years after George Washington first finished the presidential oath of office with the four-word prayer, “So help me, God,” even the words “under God” are not safe in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Historical ignorance — reinforced by marginal teaching methods and uninspiring teachers — has been a major factor in everything from the secularization of American institutions to the diminishment of the 10th Amendment as a check on federal power.

Fortunately, there are teachers like India Meissel, who was just named the nation’s second best history teacher by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Meissel’s sometimes offbeat technique — she once dressed as a flapper to help her students connect with life in the Roaring 20s — is the kind of approach that keeps students engaged and inspires them to learn about the subject matter.

It’s too bad Meissel didn’t win first place in the competition, but Suffolk still has reason to be proud of this teacher, her achievement and her commitment, both to her students and to society.