Monday, May 17, 2010

The City on a Hill

I spent most of Saturday walking around Providence, RI with my book club looking for things related to Roger Williams, a key figure in our most recent read: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. We started out with a nice lunch at The Duck and Bunny, walked up College Hill to Brown, down to Prospect Hill Park and the Roger Williams' National Memorial, along North Main Street past RISD to Waterplace Park before heading back to the Duck and Bunny and driving home. It was a beautiful day to be outside, and I took a load of photos of Providence.

I loved this book, but mostly I loved using it as a launching pad for improvements I would love to make to the teaching of history in the American school system. Personally, I would love to not teach history until the fourth or fifth grade and then start teaching it in conjunction with geography, literature, and music so students could see how things link together giving a broader scope of world history. Dates are important, but it is better to understand that Charles II was a contemporary of Louis XIV, and this was in the time leading up to the Salem Witch Trials. Before really studying history, the kids could learn basic social studies, state capitals, the US Presidents, and the Constitution.

Too many people in this day and age use pop culture, in particular TV and movies, to teach them history, when, in many cases, the episode or film has changed historical facts to make the story more interesting. (I am looking at you, Shekhar Kapur.) Case in point: I was sitting in a Renaissance England history class once in college, and the professor asked the class about the motivation of Henry V to invade France during the Hundred Years' War. Now, I will be honest, I didn't do the reading so I didn't know the answer, but I wasn't the only one who hadn't because no one was raising their hand. When one brave soul finally did, his hesitant answer killed me: "Because the dauphin sent him tennis balls?" The professor lost it and gave a good ten minute talk about why Shakespeare was not to be relied upon for historical facts.

I learned quite a bit from Vowell, in particular, the ideological dichotomy between the Plymouth Puritans and the Massachusetts Bay colonists, but even further, the nature of the differences that drove Williams, and later Anne Hutchinson, from the colony. The fact that she explains all of this with her sardonic wit and tongue-in-cheek style made for interesting reading. I also liked that even though she was clearly frustrated with the overall attitudes and behavior of these historical figures, she made them human and accessible. She even had me cheering for that crazy Roger Williams at one point! The only general criticism of the book was that the book wasn't broken down into chapters, and I would have liked an index too. A couple members of the club ended up getting the audio book as they found Vowell's style better suited to listening than to reading.

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