Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Semi-magnificent obsessions...

I have a strange type of obsessive personality. From time to time, I stumble across some event in history (usually as a result of a movie) and I then set off in pursuit of learning everything I can. In the past, this obsession has led me to become somewhat of an expert on baseball, hockey, the Plains Indians, NASA, and most recently, English history, specifically of the Tudors and Stuarts. I used to camp out at libraries for hours on end, or go to historical spots (don't even ask about all the trips to Cape Canaveral), but the internet has made my obsessions much more accessible. I don't even have to get dressed, much less go to England!

But how is it that 99% of history teachers make history class about as exciting as a root canal? I've often said that if I ever get tired of teaching English, I want to switch and become a history teacher. As it is, I love teaching literature through a historical lens. Novels, poems, and plays aren't created in a vacuum -- they are influced by and reflect what is going on at the time they are being written. Somehow in my education, I never learned much about English history. I knew about King James and his Bible, heard about King George being the target of American revolutionaries, and -- thanks to my antique-loving mother -- knew about Victorian furniture and Queen Anne chairs. But the ins and outs of English history were mostly unknown to me for most of my life.

I think the 1988 movie Elizabeth started this obsession, and continued through others, such as Shakespeare in Love, plus reading books like Phillippa Gregory's. Her novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, was fabulous, and then turned into a terrible movie. (Natalie Portman was a horrendous choice as Anne Boleyn!) Actually going to Scotland only made my obsession worse. I wandered around Edinbugh castle with this open-mouthed goofy grin on my face, hardly believing I was in a place, parts of which were more than a thousand years old. In the US, it seems we consider things old and obsolete within days.

Anyway, one of the many things I love about teaching is that I get to help my students learn how to read literature with an understanding of how literature reveals history and points us toward the future. The theme of my 12th grade British Literature class is that human nature never changes. That's why stories and poems written a thousand years ago still speak to us today. An average kid in urban Florida still has the same hopes and desires as the richest king of England ever did. The politics of Tea Parties and Obamacare have nothing on the plots and subversions of the English court.

Someone much more famous than I (George Santyana, I believe) said that "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Very true, but I would put forth that those who do not learn to appreciate history are doomed to live a shallow life, void of understanding and perspective.

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