Teaching history in a school is often a contested business boiling down to the question what kind of history students should learn about. The usefulness of history in strengthening national identities and loyalties has been well-known for centuries and the present day does not make an exception to this. Too often politicians and well-meaning commissions are eager to draft a canon of national history which every pupil should learn and which would help to raise patriotic and obedient citizens. Leaving aside the subjective nature of historical knowledge or these ideologically informed trespasses to schoolrooms, teaching history – or pretty much any other subject – poses challenges because teaching builds on the use of language. And language is certainly a tricky business. Pupils may draw very different conclusions when a teacher tells them that an important canal called Erie Canal was opened to traffic in 1825 in upstate New York, America. Important? What exactly does the teacher mean with that? At least in my pre-teen mind importance in this case translated into something being not just significant (another tricky word), but also being big.
Happily I travelled through middle school, high school in two different countries, as well as university carrying along a totally flawed image of the Erie Canal as a multi-lane superhighway of ships. The image was shattered only three years ago when I actually stood along the famous canal. In fairness sake, Mr. Footnote shared my inflated understanding about the size of this famous (tricky word, again) canal and since he went to school in his native Netherlands, the use of descriptive words in class rooms and schoolbooks in three different countries did nothing to help us put the canal into right proportion. It took a road trip to Syracuse to do that.
So, there we were, driving towards Syracuse, when we saw a sign to the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park and decided to stop to see this historic landmark. After parking the car, we looked around in confusion: all we saw was a well-maintained picnic area, an information board, and a narrow water way with a gravel path running along it.
It took a moment from us to realize that this moderate duct was really the Erie Canal, the mightily important canal that enabled America to grow into a superpower. This last might be a slight simplification of history, but the point is that when our history teachers explained to us how important the canal had been to America, we interpreted this so that a waterway that was this significant had to be gigantic. Really, like enormous. Later on, I googled more images of the Canal and realized that we had stopped along the narrower part of the canal, yet the pictures I found from the internet were still modest in comparison to my imaginary Erie Canal.
Obviously our school books did not have a picture of the canal and to compensate the lack of visual images I constructed an image of the Erie Canal using references that were familiar to me. As I grew up along the muddy Vantaa river, it was the natural measuring point for me.
Vantaa is not, well, like the Danube or Rhine. It was never described as wide or big. Hence, the conclusion was that an important canal had to be many times wider than the Vantaa River. I grew up happily without troubling myself with the size of the Erie Canal. In truth’s name, why should have I done that when there were much more important things in life, like horses, parties, Patrick Swayze, and, later on, I was occupied with choosing a university, field of study, and a possible career. In the middle of all this, the Erie Canal rarely crossed my mind. The history lessons of American history dashed back from the abyss of my deep surface memory only when I was strolling along the canal and wondering how I had so completely misunderstood the size of the canal.
The simplest words can be given so many different meanings and the intertextual baggage further dictates the perception of even the most quotidian concepts such as big, small, important, and significant. Often it is precisely the meanings given to the most familiar adjectives that cause the greatest confusion. The subjectivity of language poses a mighty challenge to teachers and to those who produce educational materials for schools. The growing use of visual material in history teaching hopefully saves school kids from picturing the Erie Canal as a six-lane waterway, but as teaching remains largely an act of verbal communication, the risk for misunderstandings can never be fully eradicated. How could it when there are so many ways to understand the sentence “Erie Canal was important.”