by Timothy Lane 4/9/15
One problem that has been discussed here occasionally is the matter of teaching children subjects such as history. The ultimate in what not to do, of course, is in Prince Caspian, where the Telmarine history texts are as boring and false as it’s possible to be. The ideal is to find books that represent the opposite. Certainly those of us who appreciate history can think of many entertaining and informative books, but how many people who do not share this interest would enjoy them?
One approach is history as gossip. Esther Friesner took this attitude at a reading once, discussing the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in that fashion. (G. Gordon Liddy used the same topic in a class for his fellow prisoners once. One was delighted to note that an Italian woman like Catherine de Medici had known how to deal with her problems.)
Another approach is to use humor. This can be done by presenting actual history in an amusing fashion, as Will Cuppy did in The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. I rather liked his approach to Maria Theresa at the First Partition of Poland. Austria was allied with Poland at the time, but participated anyway. Frederick the Great had cynically noted, “She wept, but she kept on talking.” Cuppy took a similar approach. “Maria Theresa didn’t want to do it, so she took only 62,500 square miles.” (This was more than Prussia got.)[pullquote]I think some people might find them a means of learning more — if only so that they can understand the jokes.[/pullquote]
Another possibility, and the main focus of this article, is the poet and essayist Richard Armour. He wrote a whole series of books about history that presented a cracked version of history — a mixture of fact and parody. This leads to the interesting possibility of getting a reader to look up the reality behind the jokes. For example, in It All Started With Marx, he noted that at the end of World War II, “Stalin brought the Soviet Union into the war with Japan and humbled the Mikado in less than a week, and without fighting.” He also adds a footnote that they “Slaughtered the Pirates of Penzance, too.”
One of these books, It All Started With Columbus, was a bit of a childhood favorite; we had a version that reached the Kennedy administration, where, discussing JFK’s appointments compared to Eisenhower’s, he concludes, “The only suggestion of the Army was in the person of a non-com, Sergeant Shriver, who headed what was called the Peace Corpse, peace having become a dead issue.” (My current copy is updated to go into the Nixon administration.)
Armour had a lot of fun with that one, and the potential lessons aren’t confined to history. Consider his discussion of Dutch America, with this delight: “New Amsterdam was soon swarming with wealthy Dutch traitors known as poltroons. These were bluff, hearty men who smoked long pipes and loved to eat burghers.” This could provide an opportunity for teaching the differences between traitor and trader, poltroon and patron, and burgher and burger.
Armour also had fun discussing the possible names for the new country after we became independent. “Some wanted to call it merely The Nation, others preferred The New Republic. Those who believed in States’ Rights insisted on the Untied States. Those who supported Labor wanted to call it the Union.” Later, he discusses the ill-advised “Alien and Seduction Acts” — later repealed “when it was found that seduction was also practiced by native-born citizens.”
Another favorite is his explanation for the causes of World War I. Among these were: “The Balkan powder keg, which was set off by a guy named Guy Fawkes who mistook the lower part of Europe for the lower house of Parliament. . . . “A serious shortage of paper, which made a mere scrap of it worth fighting for.” He also had a couple of others, noting in a footnote that any 3 constituted the “Triple Intent”.
His coverage of the 1920s had a lot of amusement as well. There was a man named Fall sneaking oil in teapots out of the Navy’s great dome-shaped mountain. There was Harding (who came from “a small town in Ohio called Normalcy, which he was always wanting to return to.”). The scandals upset him, “and made it hard for him to digest crab meat, which led to Coolidge.” Of course, his coverage of the latter focuses heavily on his legendary silence.
I always rather liked his coverage of the Stock Market Crash. “But suddenly, on a dark day known as Black Tuesday, the stock market, which was a big building located on Wall Street, collapsed.” The accident is attributed to a panic among stock-exchange employees when someone shouted that bears were loose in the place.” (He adds a footnote noting that the Stock Market was “Near the corner of Dun and Bradstreet.”) Today, this might make some people wonder if it’s all Sarah Palin’s fault for unleashing her Mama Grizzlies.
Armour periodically included tests with humorous questions, such as wondering if King George was unhappy because he was always third, or what would have happened at Bunker Hill if the British had been suffering from pinkeye, or how wasteful it was when an Indian took only a scalp from a Pilgrim victim. There were also a number of illustrations, such as his portrayal of “one Big Shot and Two Little Shots” in discussing gangsters.
Books like these are certainly very entertaining, and I think some people might find them a means of learning more — if only so that they can understand the jokes.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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