RALEIGH – “Daddy, is history good?”
That was Charles Alexander, the Little Conqueror in fully irony mode, beginning a negotiation with me Tuesday night about how long he got to stay up past his normal bedtime. It had been an exciting time at the Hood household, as the boys and I cleaned up their rooms and reorganized things to adjust to the recent arrival of Alex’s new set of bunk beds.
The crowning event of the evening was the traditional scotch-taping of a map of the world over the top bunk. The solemnity of the occasion was only interrupted when Andrew Jackson, the Little General, stubbed his toe on the rocking horse and began to yell at the horse for hurting him – something that, if you think about it, was a sort of Andy Jackson thing to do.
After carrying the wounded to the hospital tent, being his own bed, I returned to Alex’s room to find him looking intently at the new map. He soon eyed Canada, which isn’t hard to do, and asked for a book about it. He had decided to write his own book on the subject and wanted reference material. And then came the question:
“Daddy, is history good?”
You have to remember that for me, the question answers itself. Of course history is “good.” History is fascinating. History is fundamental. History is the font of wisdom, the health of the republic, and the key to the future. But what would prompt Alex to blurt out such an out-of-nowhere query?
“People say that if you like science or history, you’re a nerd,” he replied.
Now, one fact that made this exchange eerie is that earlier in the day, I had discussed the issue of peer pressure and academic achievement with a reporter friend of mine. Specifically, we were talking about the phenomenon of black students being accused of “acting white” if they enjoyed school or did well in their studies. We disagreed a bit about the seriousness of the problem – I think such negative peer pressure in black communities is one of the key factors perpetuating the achievement gap despite heroic and cost efforts to close it – but what we could agree on is that this kind of teasing, while perhaps taking on special significance among African-Americans, wasn’t limited to a particular race or class.
Lots of kids are taunted for enjoying their schoolwork, for being “nerds,” and it can be a debilitating experience for some of them. Others shrug it off, of course. Perhaps most do. But the behavior is destructive enough to merit our broader attention. To some degree, kids are only taking cues from a broader society that pays too much attention to physical appearance and prowess. Consider how many people react viscerally to the name of a university printed on someone’s sweatshirt. The reaction is almost never about what actually goes at the school. It’s about the semi-pro sports team based there.
I explained to Alex that kids who said science and history were nerdy didn’t know what they were talking about. I told him that scientists get to accomplish many wonderful miracles, and that historians get to reenact great events in their heads and solve mysteries like detectives do.
Alex cheerfully went off to begin writing the next great history of the Great White North. And I went off to bed relieved but a little saddened. What about the boys or girls who come home thinking that science and history are “nerdy” and have no one to set them straight?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.