AP History, Part II: Teaching a Real Historical Narrative

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Narratives, or stories, are very important for successful teachers. While we are still researching exactly how the brain works, we do know that learning consists of making connections between what needs to be learned and existing knowledge already stored in the brain. Therefore, telling stories, whose elements are already connected by plot, theme, and character, is a successful instructional strategy for teachers. The JeffCo 3, as Mike Rosen writes, wants the AP U.S. History curriculum “to be balanced in its presentation of the good and the bad.” The only problem with this seemingly reasonable request is that balance is exactly what AP curricula are written to do: to provide balance to the watered down pabulum that is most high school curricula. The Jeffco 3 wants to continue to overload American history with more “Gee whiz isn’t America great” fluff. They seem to think that there are only two sides to the story: 1. America is the greatest country in history or 2. America is the devil. They believe, mistakenly I think, that teenagers aren’t capable of a more nuanced view of America—a view that honors the greatness of our ideals and successes while acknowledging our failures and shortcomings.

I have more expertise and training in the history of Western Civilization than American History, so I will use it as an example of how a teacher can take a nontraditional narrative and use it to teach a balanced view of the past. One part of the story involves poop. Poop is a fun word; it is a word that encompasses both humor and disgust, is vital yet dirty, and is life-giving and life-taking at the same time. Poop jokes always get a laugh in movies or at school. Okay, so everybody doesn’t laugh, but children in particular are fascinated by everything that comes out of their bodies. And why shouldn’t they be? What do scientists, like doctors, always look for when trying to understand what’s going on inside of us? They look at urine samples, stool samples, blood samples, phlegm, and gas exchange. Kids are just natural scientists.

When we look at the history of Western Civilization, we see that most early civilizations grew up on river banks: the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates are examples. A stable food supply is crucial to building a civilization. Without surplus food in a steady supply, there is neither time nor energy to engage in the trappings of civilization. Most people understand that water makes a river important for food, but it is actually the annual flooding that is most important. Flooding brings fresh nutrients to the soil. Without flooding, one must rest the soil, rotate the right crops, or put lots of poop in the soil. Poop contains bacteria that capture nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil for the plants to use. But Western people didn’t understand this vital relationship. Asia did, which is one reason why China became so successful. They put their human waste directly into the fields. Six thousand years of putting poop into the field has made Vietnam the greatest rice producer in history and China one of the most populated.

Of course there is a dark side to using poop as fertilizer (sorry, couldn’t resist). Some of the bacteria in the poop can be deadly. Certain plagues, such as Cholera, are spread through fecal means. Certain parasites as well. Northern industrialists spent a great deal of money building outhouses in the South and educating people about their use in order to free Southern factory workers from incapacitation due to hookworm around the turn of the twentieth century. Diseases can devastate civilizations. Athens, for example, was probably weakened significantly by a virulent flu epidemic. The Catholic Church lost significant power in the Middle Ages because of its helplessness in the face of deadly diseases. Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, gets all of the headlines, but actually, Cholera and malaria played significant roles as well.

Fighting disease led to the rise of real science, which is arguably the greatest of all human inventions. Science discovered bacteria and its role in epidemics, and we have been cleaning up our act ever since. Food safety, pasteurization, and flush toilets have reduced deaths and human suffering to the point where many people have no idea what an epidemic is other than what they see in movies. Unfortunately, we may be cleaning up too well. Widespread use of antibiotics and sterilization has, it turns out, made us too clean. We now know that healthy colonies of bacteria both inside us and on us are necessary for our health. We are walking ecosystems, and when we kill off good bacteria (sort of like our Vietnam policy; i.e. burning down the village to save it), we both create more deadly bacteria through evolution and increase the unhealthy bacteria that coexist with us. It is not an accident that MRSA evolved in America’s hospitals, one of the cleanest environments anywhere. It is one sign of Americans’ poor relationship with math and science that they think that killing 99.99% of germs is a good thing. They don’t understand how quickly the remaining 0.01 % of bacteria not only regains its numbers but passes on the survivors’ resistance to our sanitation methods.

A significant number of patients with chronic GI problems have been cured by being given fecal transplants of healthy bacterial colonies. Preliminary research suggests that the cravings which destroy many diets might be driven by particular types of bacteria in our gut. Changing the ratios of these populations can increase weight loss. Studies indicate that children who grow up with cats and dogs that go outside are healthier than children who are isolated from the organisms carried by outdoor pets. But by the same token, E-coli outbreaks still take lives. A few years ago, a baby died from drinking a spinach smoothie after the spinach had been contaminated by pig poop. How incredibly sad that child should die when its parents were trying to protect its health by giving it natural food.

The point of all of this is to give readers a small sample of how a basic theme, in this case fecal material, can be used to weave a story that provides balance and insight into history. The astute reader might argue that I’m really using science as my theme and that poop is just the hook. That’s true. Teachers today have to be entertainers. Storytelling is our oldest educational tool. Good teachers use it to provide students with basic information while allowing them to think for themselves. In part 3, I’ll show how underwear can also be used as an unlikely curriculum tool.

AP History, Part III: It’s No Secret, Victoria→