when the going gets tough the tough go shopping

The book I've been reading lately is called Ignorance Is Blitz. It is a collection of wonderful mistakes that college students made on papers and exams in History 101 at colleges where the author and his friends taught. The kids made the mistakes because they slept during the lecture, were lazy, didn't study, or were just plain dumb. Read separately, or even a few at a time, these items are hysterically funny. For instance: "Death rates (from the Bubonic Plague) in many villages exceeded 100%." Taken together, though, these gems cease to be funny and scare the dickens out of me. These were written by people whose parents - or worse, taxpayers like me via subsidized loans - were paying for them to learn things. And guess what? These kids are over 18. They can vote. Our country will be in even more serious trouble if these kids ever learn enough geography to find a polling place.

One thing these kids don't know: who was Nathan Hale? Canadians, you are not excepted, because if I learned who Major Andre was, you could know about Nathan Hale. Just in case, know that Nathan Hale was a very young schoolmaster from Connecticut who joined up to fight on the side of the Americans in the Revolutionary War, had a gift for ciphers and language that came to the attention of the chain of command, and was made a spy. He was a very successful spy, until his luck ran out, and the British put him to death by hanging. He was asked if he had any last words. He said, "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." Someone present at the awful event was moved by this statement, and wrote to Nathan Hale's family (or commander, not clear) so that his sentiment would be remembered. And it has been. It used to be part of every patriotic holiday: someone would either be dressed as Nathan Hale, blue coat, tan pants and buckled shoes to march with a fife and drum corps, or would have celebrated too much and would make Nathan Hale's last speech and pass out, or would - you get the picture. The guy was a hero and a patriot to the end.

I didn't think about Nathan Hale much after 7th grade until September 11, 2001, brought him to mind again. I was walking around the area I loosely call "the neighborhood" and noted that stores were opening, the dry cleaner was taking in clothes, the nail parlor had a "Back On Friday" sign in the window. And then I passed the Banana Republic. There are many Banana Republic branches in our town, you can have a nice tour of New York going from one BR to another looking for your size. This particular BR is on the
site where a famous restaurant, née a coaching inn and tavern, stood for literally centuries. The restaurant was most recently called The Sign of The Dove, and everybody's parents remembered a romantic meal there. Now there's a large apartment building with a BR on the ground floor. Sick transit glorious Monday, I muttered to the bus that didn't stop for me, and I went back across the street for a closer look at the BR. The plaque you see at the top of this post comforted me. The spot where Nathan Hale (more than likely) met his martyrdom now hosts a middle-level chain store. First I was outraged, and then I was comforted. Business moves on, New York keeps going. The Banana Republic is still there, and so is the plaque. And the idiot who asked whether Nathan Hale was my cousin when I told this story at a dinner party, is still eligible to vote. Although he has no idea why, as a born and bred New Yorker, I always reply "Early and often" when someone asks me on Election Day if I've voted yet.

Just can't resist another quote from Ignorance Is Blitz: "The British defeated the French from 1793 to 1815, but at gastronomic cost." Hm, maybe the kid's got something.  Do I detect a teensy ray of hope for the future?


  1. Har, har. I could probably create a sequel to that book. I've saved many an exam throughout my teaching years with sadly laughable essays. My repeated favorites are always that Martin Luther (German monk of the 1500's) fought for African-American civil rights, and that Abraham Lincoln was the first black President.

    I also give a geography test at the beginning of each semester asking the students to identify as many state possible, and it never fails there is always a state of East Virginia, Pittsburg, Chicago and a land locked California every semester.
    Did I mention I teach college-age Freshman American History?

  2. Hi, Egyptomaniac! You must have the patience of a saint, or as my little book has it, an "Abyss, like Hildegard von Bingo." The little book also tells us about "Martin Luther Junior," who "achieved fame for his 'If I Had a Hammer' speech." Who has been moulding these young minds before they get to you?

  3. Awesome post! I don't know if I "should" know about Nathan Hale, but I tried the online "place all 50 states" widget and came up with a fair score. I know when I visited my cousin (who grew up in California) a few years back, I was stunned that she didn't know where her Canadian cousins lived, or that we have a different type of government, or that we don't celebrate our national holiday on the same day (forehead smack for that one). Us Canadians are no pedagogic angels either, I use to tutor and I've come across a few pan-American answers in history papers (as in, our first Prime Minister is John Adams?!?!)

  4. Hi, Closet Crisis! I think part of the "great gap" is that history/social studies used to mean a lot of memorizing: lists of names, dates, battles, constitutional provisions... I don't remember exactly when we studied the State of New York, but I do remember it has 62 counties. And each had a county seat, a form of government, a historic site, a population, and a major product or industry (that one maybe not so much any more). Learning by heart has fallen into disfavor in this century. The other cause is the general attitude that "history begins with Me." Only iron self-control has kept me from strangling young colleagues who don't remember when there were no cellphones. Yup, we had to use landlines. Like the pioneers did on the way west.

  5. Southern Belle Ph.D.September 13, 2011 at 2:48 PM

    OT: Thank you for adding the Reactions section. I really like that and plan to use it every time I visit your blog. It is a simple means of providing feedback when commentary is not really necessary. Great idea from you again!

  6. Thanks WFF! I still remember, from years a go, a friend who was in Europe telling some cousins in the US that she was on her way to Lebanon. They asked "Is that in London?"

  7. Southern Belle, thank you!

    Cris, too funny!, No wonder they couldn't find it on MapQuest.

  8. I followed you home from Pearl's place and laughed and winced. Scary times ahead...
    Brilliant post - thank you.

  9. un glas you enjoyed it, The Elephant's Child, and I hope you'll be back.


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