Teaching History to a Digital Generation

Posted on Tuesday, 6th September 2011 @ 01:41 AM by Text Size A | A | A

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The test results are in, and they’re damning. We’ve raised a generation of children who think the Magna Carta is a condom for braggarts.

Our usual reaction to that ignorance is blithe contempt, a dreary, “kids today” sigh that makes us feel better about being old at the price of sounding ancient.

But if we don’t find a way to teach the digital generation our history, they’re doomed to repeat it. And nobody deserves that fate.

We baby boomers liked to think we started history when we came on the scene, as if all time to that point was merely prologue for our Big Entrance.

But if we think we crowned history, the current generation has no historical consciousness at all. And it’s not because the kids are stupid. It’s because we haven’t taught them properly.

We can’t teach them because we speak two different languages. We speak analog with our throats, they speak digital with their thumbs. If we don’t want our civilization’s collective memory to vanish, we’re going to have to translate.

Any effective translator must use terms the translatee understands. This generation understands blogs, texts and tweets.

Let’s say we want to teach the kids about Columbus. We can’t use books; kids don’t know what they are. We can’t use doggerel like “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” The kids will think that’s a song from “Finding Nemo.” If we want to tell Columbus’s story, we need to put it in a tweet.

“Chris1492 @NinaPintaSantaMaria. Didn’t sail off end of World! Still looking for the gold. Shout out to Isabella! Epic win, girl! #EarthIsRound.”

Tweeting our way back in time, we find Julius Cesar, fresh from his campaign in Gaul.

“JulesTheFirst @EmperorToBe.com. I came, I saw, I pwned.”

Advanced students could study The Federalist tweets @HamiltonMadisonJay.gov. Those interested in gothic studies will find kindred spirits in Colonial America: “Ride needed to BurningWitch in Salem. Will kick in for oats.”

Some historical events are too complex for 140 characters; a tweet won’t do. But a blog will.

INSIDE NEWTON’S NOODLE: Sir Isaac Newton’s blog.

July 20, 1666

“Smoking hot today, so I’m hiding under this tree, snagging some Z’s, when a apple bonks off my head. Naturally I think it’s Leibniz who threw it, because he’s still steamed about me taking credit for inventing calculus.

“But then I suddenly realize, OMG, that apple fell on me! Whatever goes up, must come down! I just discovered gravity, my peeps! I RULE!”

Comment from Kepler3: “WTG, Izzie. Always knew you had it in you.”

Comment from Leibniz: “Makes perfect sense, Newton. Who’d you steal that idea off of?”

Reply from Newton: “Don’t be hatin, Gottfried.”

Reply from Leibniz: “You’re a Nazi.”

Creative translation can put any historical subject in a context the digital generation will understand.

The French Revolution as the clash of enlightenment with the divine right of kings? Uber boring. Tell them that The French Revolution was history’s first flash mob. That they’ll get. If you want to explain the guillotine, ROFL should work.

Our children understand modern entrepreneurship; it built their virtual world. We can teach them that it was no different in classical times. Papyrusbook, ancient Rome’s social network, was financed by advertising for Sicilian Pharmacies, where you could buy Fenugreek without a prescription.

It is important for the digital generation to know they’re not the first to use slang to convey information in code. It started thousands of years ago, as this inscription found in Pompeii attests.

“I luv Clytemnestra and I want II have VI with her.”

If the kids ask you what Pompeii was, look sad and flush the toilet.

With human history now glowing on the screens of the digital kids, we can take them further back, into the mists of the before time, when the very first texts appeared.

Yes, children, before there were modern humans, there were Neanderthals. They looked like extras from the Planet of the Apes. We have found some of their texts on cave walls in France.

“Gr8 eats @ Og’s Mastodon rave tonight:-)”

And, tragically, just before they disappeared forever:

“Wassup with all these skinny n00bs?”

Once we’ve passed on our cultural heritage to the digital generation, we must insure they don’t contract baby boomer’s disease—terminal smugness. If your students get to acting all superior, remind them how ignorant and deprived they’ll look to future generations, who’ll be horrified they had to cope with organic heads, before Apple came out with the iBrain.

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