Beanbags and Bedsheets

A blessedly former colleague of mine once trooped her class out to the Upper Field, where they filled water balloons and then threw them at each other in two teams. One team was the Redcoats; the other, the Colonists. The objective of the lesson was to get the students to understand the American Revolution.

In this lesson students did not learn about the American Revolution; they learned about water balloon fights. It is misguided to think that substituting one activity (such as war) by another (such as throwing water balloons) allows the first activity to be understood. A teacher’s intellectual default settings with respect to this kind of substitution should be “care” and “caution.” Many of us have been a part of classes in which we learned that ancient Greeks wore sheets and played games with beanbags. Some of us may remember from our school days that a “settler” is someone who bobs for apples and shoots Indians. (The lesson used to be confined to bobbing for apples.)

If we look at Henry Adams’s “The United States in 1800” for our sense of reality, we find out that the children of the Westward Expansion were more likely to drink whiskey than to bob for apples. The young Athenian citizens in Jacob Burckhardt despised work and locked their women indoors. No need to feature them in History Day Outdoors, but why as an alternative should we go to any fictitious play world for lessons in fictitious history? Care and caution could eliminate confusion and the resulting debasement of history: no longer would anyone be able to write of Lincoln that “he went to the movies and got shot.”

Maybe the former colleague recognized this kind of mistake but went ahead with the lesson in water balloons anyway. Here we must carefully examine motives and the curriculum. A history teacher may want to have a cutup day of fun at team sports, but they properly belong in physical education or on one of the days of recreation that many schools have from time to time.

The third possibility is that the teacher was knowingly offering nonsense as a rationale. Students are very good at baloney detection, and many will happily become complicit in its use, particularly if it gets them off a hook or helps them justify “free” time and an escape from rigor disguised as “creativity.” But the time is not free. It is bought at the expense of fruitful instruction, and it teaches the students that baloney works, a thing many of them have already learned too well.

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