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

←AP History, Part II: Teaching a Real Historical Narrative

In my final episode of narrative development in teaching history, I am turning my attention to underwear. Of course, I don’t mean underwear as it is understood today. Today’s underwear, and ladies’ in particular, is used for marketing, as outer wear, and other things. I want to deal with underwear’s original purpose: providing a washable barrier between outer wear and the skin. Without laundromats to clean outerwear, such a barrier was needed to protect the clothing. Often, this garment looked more like a slip or tunic. But what is really of interest, Exhibit A in my narrative, is the material available for its construction—leather (and not the soft kind favored by the more adventurous folks), wool (makes me itch just typing it), and linen (you know . . . the sandpaper-like napkins that grandma puts out once a year at Thanksgiving or Christmas). These were not comfort wear for anybody who is not a masochist. The super rich had access to silk from China or cotton from Egypt, but only kings and queens could afford it. And after the fall of Rome, not even royalty had access. Without the Roman army to protect them, merchants stayed close to home and only traded in local items. Long distance trade was too dangerous. People were condemned to life-long scratching, and not just from fleas.

Around the turn of the first millennium, the Catholics in Europe got their knickers in a twist over the Islamic takeover of Palestine. Large military expeditions were formed to throw the heretics out of Christ’s homeland. The Crusades were born, and centuries of fighting and animosity ensued. One of the first things the Crusaders noticed about the holy land was that it was hot. So hot that wool and leather undergarments coupled with metal armor could send a knight to heaven much quicker than he wanted. Fortunately, there were Arab merchants who were willing and able to provide much more suitable undergarments made of silk and cotton for a price. The underwear business boom began. Some Crusaders tried to cheat by killing the merchants and just taking what they wanted. But killing off your suppliers is never a successful long-term business strategy.

Eventually, the surviving warriors returned home. Like any good husband who has been gone on a long business trip, the smart knight picked up gifts for mom and the kids before setting sail for Europe. And what better gift for mom than yards of silk, cotton, and spices to cover the taste of green meat? Soon, all of the upper- and middle-class ladies were wearing comfy underwear and cooks were creating a Béarnaise sauce that made pig ears taste like filet mignon. The problem with comfortable underwear is that it doesn’t last forever (in spite of what many men think). Ten to fifteen years after Dad came home from Jerusalem, Mom need more silk and cotton. And Dad was definitely not going back. It was hot, and people there tried to kill you. So Dad sent his younger sons or the neighbor kids to fetch some more of the precious material that made Mom happy, and by extension Dad. Even back then it was, “Happy wife, happy life.”

The rules of inheritance made going to the Holy Land worth the obvious risks. The oldest son in each family got everything. Younger sons got diddly squat.  If you grew up in privilege and then were forced to either join the peasant class or become a Crusader, which would you choose? Suffice it say, so many young men started sailing south, the Crusades became less military campaign and more shopping / looting trips. To this day, Westerners do not understand why the term “Crusader” is so vilified in the Middle East. My advice for them is to go to Georgia and set up a festival honoring General Sherman. Then you might get a feel for the level of animosity Arabs have for the Crusaders.

Slowly, Europe figured out that trading with Arabs was better than fighting with them. All the trade changed the economic structure of Europe. The resulting plagues that accompanied trade killed off the feudal system, severely weakened the Catholic Church, and led to the growth of real science as mentioned in a previous installment of this discussion. The ability to get paid for doing things (making rope, sails, wagons, and harnesses) gave peasants a way out of the abject circumstances of the feudal system, which collapsed without enough serfs (pay attention, Wall Street). Furthermore, money became more important than just owning property. A middle class arose; skilled workers gained both money and prestige. Italy became a center of commerce, and some Italian named Columbus looked for a cheaper way to get silk and spices from India to Europe.

The rest is history, which can be told using more stories. In today’s episode, the narrative hook is underwear, but the theme is socio-economic structure and development. The point of all of my writing about poop and underwear is that the JeffCo 3 and school boards all over the country should let professional teachers do their jobs. I have just given two examples of how teachers can use a theme, one that is unbiased, to teach history.  Students do not learn in a vacuum. They need connections to their world. All of the research and data from the last few decades indicate that American high schools in general do a lousy job of building the connections that allow students to learn and retain what they learn. Manipulating the AP History curriculum is not going to do anything except make it harder for students to get college credit for high school classes. Whether high schools should be offering such programs is an argument for another day. If the Koch brothers (the money behind the JeffCo 3) want to remake high schools into factories that produce their version of good citizens, then they should follow the Gates Foundation’s lead. They should be upfront about it, create a foundation, and totally overhaul the way high schools are organized and run. They won’t, though, because the reality is that Americans for Prosperity doesn’t trust students OR the democratic process. And that is a loss for everyone.