Monday, April 16, 2007

Remembering what they didn't teach me in high school

In high school we never learned much about the Nazi holocaust and we learned nothing about McCarthyism. Kind of bugged me because I was always curious. I went to school in the 1970s and 1980s, and while I'll say I got a fair grounding in history and a better one in world cultures, I'd credit that more to a personal interest and a few specific individuals who happened to be fantastic, passionate teachers, whom I still remember to this day.

We were taught more about the Nazi holocaust, probably because it was more recent. Still, what we did learn was watered down, and it was a while before I learned that besides six million Jews, there were fourteen million Poles, Czechs, Russians, gays, communists and cripples, among others. It wasn't until a few years ago that my dad told me I had a great aunt who was sent to Auschwitz for no better reason than the fact that she was a Polish woman who'd married a German army officer before Hitler took power and convinced the charmer that his career depended on ditching his non-Aryan wife. That's the only personal connection my family had with the Nazi holocaust; I'm still surprised this was barely talked about while I was growing up.

I might have family history connected to the Crusades, but if I do, no one knows a thing about it anymore. But the Crusades, as well as the Nazis, are important lessons, and have a lot of bearing on the world today. There's value in learning all history, but some lessons are more relevent to some times than others. These count.

Another thing I learned about outside of high school were the McCarthy trials, which were never brought up in any of my high school history classes. The first person I ever heard talking about McCarthyism was, as it happens, a French foreign exchange student. Point of order, I say; point of order.

During my senior year of high school we didn't actually have a history class, but rather three successive classes, each lasting twelve weeks. The first was a hazy economics class, taught by a bitter aging man who only talked about his stock investments and how none of us kids were actually interested in learning anything, anyway. Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecies.

The second twelve weeks were taught by our resident Christian zealot McCarthyist; it was called "Communism," and it taught us how Marx and Engels were bitter sociopaths and how the Communists are out to get you all, and isn't it a shame that they teach English in Russia but they don't teach Russian in America? Clearly the Russians are more interested in coming to get us than we are to get them. We never learned about McCarthy, either.

The third twelve weeks were called "Death and Dying," taught by our McCarthyist again, which was supposed to prepare us for coping with death. In one class, Mr. McCarthyist cited a photo in a Reader's Digest article as evidence that there are angels among us on this earth. We also learned that teachers used to be allowed to have Bibles on their desks, but now they're not, because that crazy atheist lady got them banned and then grew up to not be an atheist anymore, true story, Mr. McCarthyist swore. (I think that might be true about that woman abandoning atheism, but I don't see how that affects our Constitutional right to not have religion subsidized by public schools. My class never got that explained to it, either.)

I heard a rumor that Mr. McCarthyist had a nervous breakdown in 1991. It seems too well timed with the collapse of the Soviet Union to actually be true, but I like to believe it anyway. Sometimes you need faith, you know?

If nothing else, Mr. McCarthyist led me to not be too surprised when I first heard the Rush Limbaugh Show. It was good training, and prepared me for the shock of being exposed not to thoughtful, reflective pondering but to bullies who are more interested in winning than in being right. That kind will always be out there.

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