Students despise history. They tell me so ad nauseum, consistently labeling it their least favorite subject. While they might complain about other topics like mathematics or language arts, students still seem to agree that although they’ll never have to solve for the unknown angle of a trapezoid or analyze rhetorical nuances in Mark Antony’s speech, math and language do matter and are useful. The study of the past, however, is not.
“Why should we care about George Washington,” they harp, “or how the Egyptians built the Pyramids? What do old, dead white men have to do with us today? If school is supposed to prepare us for the future, then why are we dwelling on the past?” I’ve always known better than to assume the lectern and deliver the age-old “History Repeats Itself” sermon. “Besides,” we add, “you never know when you might need it. How do you know that you’ll never be a historian?”
But kids are right: they will never be historians. And there’s nothing to be learned from history that is of any “practical” use. History can’t help you balance a budget, fix a door hinge, escape a fire, or compose a letter of complaint. As far as they’re concerned, history is useless.
Math and language do matter and are useful. The study of the past, however, is not.
But how would they know, anyway? For all their hatred and criticism of history, they seem to know nothing about it. My rowdy eighth-grade Early American History class of 2016 seethed with objection yet contained grown adolescents who couldn’t locate Michigan on a map, name the current vice president, identify the founding document of our nation, interpret the stars and stripes on our flag, or explain the significance of the Fourth of July!
“Didn’t you learn this stuff in elementary school?” I wailed.
“Maybe,” they shrugged, but they didn’t remember. More importantly, they asserted: why should they?
I have a lot in common with these students. Like so many of them, I’m a first-generation immigrant who was raised in an Arabic-speaking Muslim household. My family fled the war and instability of its homeland in pursuit of educational and economic opportunity. My parents settled in Dearborn—an American city containing the highest concentration of Arabs outside of the Middle East—in hopes of preserving my homeland’s religious and cultural roots. And like these very students, I had walked those same halls and sat in those same seats as an adolescent! I was teaching at Woodworth Middle School, my junior-high alma mater.
Yet despite our countless comparisons, we firmly disagreed on one thing: I did not despise history nor think it “useless”. I took the subject seriously. How could I convince them to do the same?
When the time came for our first unit—the American Revolution—I had an idea. Instead of arriving to textbooks and worksheets, students found a sign on the door: “All Classes Meet in the Small Gym.”
They found me waiting there. With dodgeballs.
I did not despise history nor think it useless. How could I convince them to do the same?
“Let’s pick teams,” I said. From a class of thirty, two captains chose teammates one at a time. When each team had selected eight members, I stopped them. “You eight are the blue team. Go to that side. You eight and the rest of the class are the red team. Go to the other side.”
The teams assembled: the eight-member blue team faced a 22-member red team, heavily outnumbered.
“Let’s play dodgeball,” I said. “We all know the rules. But there is only one condition, and it applies to the red team.” I pointed to a long horizontal line on the court. “Red team, you can only throw a ball if one or both feet are on the line. If you throw from any other point on the court, you’re out.”
The game began. The red team raced to the line and fired furiously as blue team members retreated to the opposite side of the court. At first, the red team seemed highly motivated by its numbers advantage, and the game seemed like a sure win for them. But gradually, the paralyzing provision of the “line” began to take hold, and the blue team finally realized something: since they were not restricted to any formation, they could operate with greater mobility. With the right tactics, they could strike their opponents out easily, since the red team could always be found piled up in a straight line in the center of the court!
The dynamics started to shift. Blue-team members first retreated, then fired back at the huddled mass of red players in the middle, almost always striking them out. The red team’s numbers and formation—at first a decisive advantage—now exposed it to the barrage of flank attacks and hit-and-runs.
Suddenly, the blue team slid a portable hockey goal onto the court. I don’t know where it came from. I didn’t object.
The blue team ducked behind the hockey net and dragged it up to the center of the court. They fired ruthlessly from behind as the red team’s strikes sank helplessly into the net.
“They can’t do that!” the red team objected.
“There’s no rule against it,” I replied.
Within minutes, the tide had turned completely. Red-team members deserted and sat out, refusing to continue. Some begged to be allowed to join the blue team. Others fought on valiantly, only to be mercilessly bombarded. Numerous games were played, but the blue team was always the decisive winner.
The red team’s numbers and formation—at first a decisive advantage—now exposed it to the barrage of flank attacks and hit-and-runs.
The next day, students returned to the classroom hailing the previous day’s “lesson”. We convened to debrief and discuss.
“How come the blue team kept winning?” I asked.
“They didn’t have rules,” they answered. “They had more freedom. They could run and hide.”
“But the red team had more advantages! What were the advantages?”
Greater numbers. Organization. Motivation, at first.
“Before the game started, who did you think was going to win?”
They had overwhelmingly favored the red team.
“Let’s look at a map.”
A collective death-groan rang out across the classroom.
“This is the Atlantic Ocean,” I pointed out. “We are in America, here on the left. On the right side of the ocean, east of America, is the continent of Europe. Right there on the west side of Europe is a large island. That’s Great Britain: Queen, tea, London, funny accents.”
Eyes glazed over. Heads started to sink.
“In the 1700’s, the British Empire occupied much of the east coast of ‘America’. Back then, these territories were called ‘colonies’; there wasn’t any such thing as ‘America’. But eventually, the British citizens who lived here—who were called ‘Colonists’—no longer wanted to be part of the British Empire. So, they quit. They called the colonies ‘states’, came together as one, and declared the whole thing ‘the united States of America’. The British king was very upset about this, so he sent tens of thousands of military men across the Atlantic to take back the British colonies.”
A girl in the front row shot me a smoldering glare.
“The British army was the greatest military force of its time, perhaps of all time. When troops arrived, they heavily outnumbered the Colonists. The British were also very well-trained. They would form up into huge square blocks and fire row after row, pretty much annihilating everything across the battlefield. The Colonists, on the other hand, didn’t even have an army. They had never trained as soldiers. They hardly had guns and ammo. They didn’t stand a chance.”
“Let’s look at a map,” I said. A collective death-groan rang out across the classroom.
“Can we play dodgeball again,” a student squealed. Others shuffled in their seats, outraged.
“I should mention something, by the way: the British soldiers wore uniforms that were red. The Colonists wore uniforms that were blue.”
A silence fell upon the room.
“And when this ‘greatest army in the world’ reached the Colonies, it was met with a terrible surprise: it turned out that America was nothing like Great Britain.”
Some sat up. Others leaned forward.
Now they were listening.
“Because the Colonists weren’t trained militarily, they didn’t play by the rules. Rather than meeting on open field where British training proved most effective, they’d run away and hide in the forests. They’d attack at night, ambush from the hills and across rivers, fire from behind bushes and trees. They’d snipe the British in the woods, whose bright red uniforms made for easy targets. The British weren’t used to this kind of warfare. Many were killed. Others deserted. Some betrayed and joined the Colonists! Eventually, the greatest army in the world was defeated.”
In other words, I concluded, what happened in this dodgeball game at Woodworth Middle School in 2016 is precisely what happened in the Colonies in the late 1700’s.
“That is history. And that is what teachers mean when they say, ‘history repeats itself’.”