In Which Our Heroine Mentions Lies and Damned Lies, But No Statistics

13 February 2004

Still with the headache. We press onwards.

Mer and Celia answered my questions from yesterday in their journals. If any of the rest of you did, I haven't found them yet, so do let me know. I also got a couple of e-mails, one from a reader who was old enough to learn duck-and-cover drills in case of nuclear warfare. (I can hear my mother's sarcastic voice, "Wow, that old?") Some of the stuff was what I've heard before -- the causes of the Civil War, the immunological effect of the European settlement of the Americas. I was actually taught that stuff in school, in some form. I was taught that the Founders were slave-owning misogynist hypocrites. That Mayan civilization fell because they used drugs (specifically, it was implied, marijuana). That the Native American tribes had firm boundaries you could draw on a map. That Columbus was a right bastard but also the very very first European to get here. First that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, then that the Civil War was fought because white people in the north wanted different property rights than white people in the south but nobody anywhere ever cared about black people. I had to get more nuanced views from my folks or my own research. The teachers had replaced one set of lies and oversimplifications with another.

But as I read more and think more about the twentieth century, I think the biggest lie I was told was that Vietnam was the first time there was a substantial population opposed to a war. That the wars before Vietnam had been The Good Wars, and Vietnam was The Bad War, and that was that. But if WWI was an unequivocally Good War in everyone's opinion, why was the U.S. so late in getting into it? They didn't explain that. They didn't pay any attention to the war poets -- I think most of my history teachers didn't bother to know that Sassoon or Owen or the rest of them even existed. The biggest lies were about World War I, because we were Americans and could do it that way where the countries of the British Empire/Commonwealth couldn't, and because my teachers had grown up fighting with "the older generation" about war and had lumped them all together. They tried to teach us that it was only recently that humans had been horrified by death and destruction, that it was only their generation that had been able to see how bad these things could be. The generalities of that lie were easy to throw off, but the specifics piled up pretty fast and pop up where you least expect them.

Some of the teachers I had were pretty poor at what they did; others were good teachers struggling under a wretched curriculum that changed yearly through my grade school years. And that, I think, was the biggest mistake the school system made while I was there: they kept changing the social studies curriculum and pretending each year it would be the Really Really True one. I don't know about the years before or behind, but my friends who had started kindergarten in four consecutive years managed to figure out that we hadn't had a single year of overlap of curriculum and we'd all learned the same things year after year. Not their biggest mistake with me, mind you, but still a pretty big mistake to make with an entire school system.

And I think the biggest omission was...everything outside North America. We got patchy coverage of Central and South America, and we got Europe only to the extent that Americans went to war in it. We got even less Asia: coverage of the Vietnam War was only of select American responses thereto. (Coverage of the Korean War? Yeah, right.) I chose to take a European history course, but most of the people who graduated from my high school never took a single course in history that occurred outside the U.S. That seems like a big gap, to me.

I wouldn't have thought of it, but I really think social studies was the worst thing when I was there. I got around it a bit, but it was pretty bad. For English you were fine if you could do the honors program -- it crumbled badly after I left, and outside the honors program I heard some pretty awful things. The math department was good, no thanks to the administration. And the science teachers...well, to tell the truth, I never paid attention in my high school science courses. Occasionally I stopped reading long enough to listen to what they were saying. My freshman year, it was usually, "Sit down, [classmate's name]!", since poor Mr. Toring had been pressed into service teaching untracked biology. My sophomore year I wanted to clutch my head and screech every time I heard what was being passed off as chemistry. And my junior/senior year, my physics teacher actively told me not to bother. So I left without much of an opinion of the science curriculum, except that it wasn't worth my time. But social studies, oy. The smaller mistakes and the other would take pages upon pages to chronicle them.

Outside the academic sphere, the lies and the omissions and the mistakes were pretty legion, too. "If you don't bother him, he won't bother you." "If you're nice to her, she'll stop being mean to you." "Everyone is friends in my classroom." Ooh, and I just remembered this one: "You can't fight his/her battles for him/her!" Oh the hell I couldn't! And damned if I wouldn't try! And incidentally, what kind of a teacher goes to a student who's sticking up for the Chinese immigrant kid against people who are calling her ethnic slurs and tells her to stop defending her friend? That's just psycho. That's just not right. The bullies get to run in packs, but the kids they're bullying are supposed to "stand on their own two feet" without support from friends? What made high school at all bearable -- what made it infinitely more bearable than grade school -- is that there were enough of us in a few categories to band together and not let the less pleasant stuff matter as much.

Like adult life, only in miniature.

Anyway, I finished the Fussell and also the most recent Analog yesterday, and I also got into Diana Wynne Jones's Eight Days of Luke, which was good fun. I'm starting to get that twinge when I pick up her books at the library or a bookstore, though: it's gotten to the point where I've read more of them than not, and soon I'm going to run out entirely. It was like this with Kate Wilhelm, too. It takes a particularly prolific author and one I want to read in his/her entirety for me to have this settling-in comfort reaction followed by the scrabbling lost feeling. Ah well; it's been nice while it lasted, and at least Jones and Wilhelm are both still alive and writing.

One of the nice things about Jones is that she keeps repaying my trust. In Eight Days of Luke, for example -- she's got Norse gods all over the place, but they act like themselves. Even in the modern setting, they don't go around just having funny hats and missing eyes and otherwise being someone else entirely. I don't know if that's because she knows them well or because we have similar ideas about them. But when I step back and notice what she's doing, I notice that she's doing it right. And that makes me happy.

I'm now reading the recent F&SF (March is the one I've got) and D. G. Kirby's Finland in the Twentieth Century: A History and An Interpretation. The Kirby was written before the 20th century was over, but should still be just one more source/trigger for specifics. (I'll bet my interpretation and his interpretation are not the same interpretation, though.) And I liked Matthew Hughes's "Mastermindless" to kick off the issue of F&SF, so that's promising, at least.

Also, the last piece fell into place in my head for "Michael Banks, Home From the War," so I've been humming away on that. Working well on it and the book and "Carter Hall Recovers the Puck." It's been a good writing week. I think it's going to be a good writing weekend, too. And I already have a box of chocolates. So headache or no headache, life is good.

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