Trying to be “A” Something

The topic of history and education is a hot one in my class right now.  After last week’s readings, many of my classmate’s blogs were dedicated to exploring some of the questions that remained unanswered (to read some of these great posts and conversations, click on just about any link in my blogroll to the right).

The main question our professor challenged us to answer was “why teach history?” Of course, this is a difficult question to answer (it wouldn’t be grad school if we were given easy questions)!

It is difficult to provide an articulate and tangible response to this question.  I remember when I was choosing my high-school classes, I felt pressured to take math and science classes, because they were the most “useful” and “important prerequisites for university.” There was so much emphasis on taking these courses, that I ended up dropping French in grade 11 and taking two Science courses instead (a decision I very much regret now).

Even though I knew that I likely wouldn’t be pursuing a science or math degree, I was convinced that I needed the courses because the teachers had a much better answer for the “why teach (or take) this course” question. I needed science if I wanted to be A doctor; I needed math if I wanted to be AN engineer. These courses had much more tangible applications than history.

With a history degree, it is much more difficult to be A something.  Even after this degree, I will never be A something, and my profession will always be defined by my current job title (assuming I get one!).  Although it can be scary not knowing exactly what kind of career I will have (and makes for painful conversations when I’m trying to explain my degree to people), it is also exciting and I like that I won’t necessarily be limited to one type of job.

Unfortunately, the structure of our education system (starting in high-school and continuing throughout university) is designed to make you into A something.  Starting when you are about 14 (depending on what province/country you are in), you essentially start a 10 year education plan, as you select your courses, making sure they will eventually form the correct path of prerequisites. To make sure we all stay on track and up to snuff, we are given standardized tests. This environment is problematic enough for those who know they want to attend university.  Those who don’t plan on going to university spend most of their time in high-school trying to fit into this mould and then feeling bad about themselves (and acting out) when they can’t find their place.

Ideally, it would be nice if our education had less structure.  By university, there is very little room for courses outside your department (unless you count that mandatory math class that you have to take, to which I say, stop it with the math already – after this class I will be using this new device called a calculator and I will never need to know how to derive the quadratic equation).  As much as I love history, there are so many other subjects I would like to study, which I simply can’t do during my degree.  Perhaps the web will address this issue.  I know there are many resources on the web for education – you can access course outlines, lectures from renowned universities and read textbooks online.  All of this makes education more affordable and more accessible.  However, it takes a fair amount of discipline to rid yourself of traditional systems of education (teachers, classrooms, assignments) and learn how to learn by yourself.  I don’t think the web will entirely replace traditional education, but it would be nice if we could use it to address some of the problems in our current educational systems.

I started this blog intending to explore the “why teach history?” question, but it seems that, in doing so, I was sidetracked by trying to understand how we got to a place and time where we are having to answer this question and essentially justify the teaching of history.  I will continue to contemplate the “why teach history” question and report back if I find any answers.


6 thoughts on “Trying to be “A” Something

  1. Hey Joanna,
    I can relate. i took math and science classes for the same reason in high school. looking back now I would have gotten much more form a French or computer course. I hope you find some answers because I think we are all a little lost at this point.


  2. Joanna,
    Great post! I too have had similar experiences when I’ve had to answer the questions (both in undergrad and now in grad school) “So, what are you studying?… History eh…? And what are you going to be after that?…” To which I like to reply “Smart!”. But with all kidding aside, it is true that we’re expected to BE something well defined and easily identifiable with standard careers. Those who would ask me that question most often continue with “You’ll be a teacher?”. To which I would respond “yes… in a non-traditional sense” meaning not in a classroom. I often found that that was the easiest way to define what my intentions were. To share knowledge, encourage discussion and to provoke new ideas or interpretations re. history outside the classroom was and still is my objective. Does that make me A something? Not sure yet… we’ll find out soon I hope.

    Thanks for your post!

  3. This is a great subject for discussion. Not only does it seem that the system is set up for you to become ‘a something’, it is set up for you to become ‘a very specific something.’ At times I’m sure it would be easier for you be able to say a simple ‘I’m a (very specific something)’ to another person. You’d avoid the questions and the explanations…but I wonder if that is truly better. Since you will endeavour to be employed as ‘a lesser known something’ people will need further explanation as to what you do. Perhaps then there will be an opportunity for the questioner to engage in some authentic learning regarding your occupation. Often people have a preconceived notion about ‘very specific somethings’ so once you tell a person what you do, they may decide what that means without further investigation. I can relate to your desire to study other subject areas. It seems increasingly difficult to vary your learning/activities once you are on the path to becoming someTHING. Despite the difficulty, I think it is imperative to continue to learn and be active in areas about which you are passionate. We don’t ‘become a something’ to truly BE a THING. We become something because it teaches us about who we are and who want want to be. It teaches us about the people and the world around us and helps us to make sense of it for ourselves.

    You have likely heard Sir Ken Robinson speak about education. Here is an animated adaptation of one his talks that I watched recently. I think it relates directly to your subject matter.

    Until the next blog-i-sode….

  4. I have heard one of Ken Robinson’s talks, but not this one – thanks for sending it along. I think he makes a good point on ADHD. Most children are living in a completely different world than their teachers, technologically. Kids are using computers, applications, playing video games and teachers, generally, don’t want to or don’t know how to compete for their attention. There is a perception out there that these technologies are harmful to children (makes them anti-social, ruins their work ethic, etc), but I think parents and teachers have a responsibility to understand technology and their child’s world, so that they can incorporate these tools and styles of learning into their education. It’s not that parents and teachers would be heeding to the child’s demands – they would be responding to the economic and social changes that we are experiencing right now. As Ken Robinson points out, this is a revolutionary time and the current systems of education simply don’t work anymore.
    I think it’s scary and overwhelming to think of our education system being completely revamped, but it’s even scarier to think of what will happen if we don’t start talking about this now.

  5. An excellent post Joanna! One to which I can certainly relate, having also completed a degree that did not ideally translate into becoming “A” something. And I now find myself struggling to improve my French skills in my professional life.

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