Book Rant: The Western Heritage

In honor of the AP European History exam I took last week, I thought I’d take a moment to review the textbook that taught me the material.

And by “review” I mean “scream in rage about” and by “taught me the material” I mean “sucked at teaching me the material.”

If you’ve ever had a horrible textbook, this will speak to your soul.

I read the Eighth Edition of The Western Heritage by Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, chapters 10-31, which encompass European history from 1300 to present day.

cover western heritage

First and foremost, this book has an identity crisis. Half of the time, it acts as a textbook, explaining the who/what/where/when/how of European history to those who have essentially no background knowledge. The other half of the time, it seems to be making a point of being as mean to students as possible: leaving out sentences that could have clarified motivations, referring to things by names that they had never been called before (or were when they were originally explained), and acting like it was talking to an old friend who had already studied the history for years on end. It is clear that the book had different authors, and that these authors wrote different chapters, because things would be referred to by different names and titles between chapters. Sometimes, this was a slight annoyance (such as when they alternated between writing ‘Hapsburg’ or ‘Habsburg’), but other times, it was seriously confusing (such as using about ten different words to refer to the Netherlands, and never clarifying the nuances between the terms–if there were actually any). These problems should have been fixed by some sort of editor, but it seems as if no one cared enough to read the book start to finish and realize that continuity had been sacrificed to the deity of giving students headaches.

The images and “extras” included in each chapter only made this problem worse. The Western Heritage includes lots of maps, which at first sounds like a blessing for students. That is, until the text mentions a city or region that IS NOT INCLUDED ON THE MAP. More often than not, the cities on the map were never mentioned in the text, and any geographical markers the text included were no included on the maps. Essentially, the maps served no purpose besides taking up space–a trend continued by the countless “extras” included in each chapter. The textbook includes anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen “Documents” scattered throughout a chapter. In these boxes–which take up around a half a page–quotations from people or documents being discussed are included and then discussed. I never read any of these, mainly because they didn’t add anything meaningful to the text. There were also “Art and The West” pages included between chapters, discussing specific pieces of art, and “Encountering the Past” full-page explanations of cultural phemonima (such as Dueling in Germany or Table Manners).

All of these features were just space-fillers, making sure that the textbook–that students often carry around–was twice as heavy as necessary. I wouldn’t have minded if these “extras” actually helped me understand the text, but they were distracting more than anything.

The book also features basic images–portraits of important people, pictures of posters, sketches of inventions. These images were actually useful and well-chosen; however, their placement was a joke. Honestly, pictures were sometimes included in the text a page (or more) after the person/thing had been talked about. I would be reading about something, then turn the page and start reading about a different section. Then, when I glanced at the caption for the image included on the page I was currently reading, it would be referring to the person I read about on the previous spread, sending my brain back to that section and confusing me once I refocused on the text.

In all honesty, the textbook is fairly well-written. It features complex diction and sentence structure, making it enjoyable to read on a linguistic level. Sometimes, the sentence structure made things more confusing than they had to be, but as this was my first textbook that did not feel like it was written at an elementary school level, I did honestly respect that the writers had erred on the side of complexity.

I feel like most of the problems of this textbook could have been solved if it had been read by a copy editor and an average high school student before being published. The editor could have fixed continuity issues, and the student could have pointed out the things that made the book needlessly confusing.

Of course, these problems are not contained only to this textbook. They are issues that most textbooks probably have, encouraged by a textbook industry that thinks changing the colors in a diagram warrants a new edition of their book and that focuses more on “extras” than the actual text students try to learn from. However, this is the first textbook I’ve ever actually read all the way through (usually I just read the select parts of chapters that the teacher assigns), so this is the first time these issues have really hit me in the face.

Did I learn about European history this year? Yes, more than I had ever imagined. But that was from the help of numerous review books and another textbook (shoutout to the wonderful being that is History of the Modern World), as well as The Western Heritage. I’m glad that AP Euro was hard–I wanted it to be a hard class–but I don’t see why overcoming the nonsensical nature of this textbook had to be one of my trials.

Poetry: Standardized Life

scantron

Standardized tests

Desks in straight rows

Backpacks at the front of the room

No food or drink

 

Teachers turned into flight attendants

With carefully worded,

God-awful repetitive scripts:

You may not talk while test materials are distributed

And unauthorized electronic devices are prohibited during the testing session

 

You’ve got your Test Booklet and your Answer Document

And two hours to fill

Mind-numbing right when you need your brain alert

That song you heard on the radio driving to school

Stuck in your head

Number two pencils vie for the title of dullest

With “read this passage and answer questions 7 through 12”

 

Learned the procedure

(And the answers)

In elementary school

The bar set so low some people trip.

So used to running hurdles

That they forgot how they learned to walk.

 

Once again:

Unauthorized electronic devices are prohibited during the testing session

 

It’s hard to believe them

When they tell us to be more than our grades

To look at the world beyond AP textbooks and SAT prepbooks

When our ticket out of high school

Is a scantron and a two and a half page essay

 

This is not the place for personality

Or excess knowledge

Artistic ability or stylistic writing

Please just put your periods at the end of your sentences.

And commas in the usual places,

No surprises, thanks.

 

Now is not the time to show us how you shine

Please just bubble here

Print legibly

Fit yourself into this box

Do not concern yourself with outside of it

Jump through hoops here

Here

And here.

 

And remember

Unauthorized electronic devices are prohibited during the testing session.

Author’s note: I took the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam, phonetically KAY-SEE) this week. Four hours of boring, easy questions that determine whether I get to graduate high school. And yes, I’m only a sophomore (you have five more times to try the test if you fail the first time). We weren’t allowed to do anything (even read a book or drink water) until EVERYONE in our room was done testing. The inspiration for this poem came while I was bored, tired, and really frustrated at The System, waiting for the test to be over.

150th Post: Time for a Rant (Let’s Take a Moment to Remember the Bell Curve)

This is tradition at this point. Every 50 posts, I decide to rant about something. I’ve ranted about assigning books “reading/age levels” in schools and about the misconceptions many adults have about teenagers today. I’m not trying to be ridiculously negative or anything; these posts are some of the rare moments I blog about my day-to-day life, specifically issues that I feel affect not just me, but a larger population. I’m trying to be as PC as possible, but I also want to get my point across as honestly and powerfully as I can. 


Remember the bell curve?

It looks like this:

bell curve 1

Basically, it means that if you take a sample of a population, your results will generally look like this:

bell curve 2

It can get crazy scientific:

bell curve 4

Like, what even is this?

bell curve 3

Don’t worry–this isn’t a scientific post.

Anyway–the bell curve. Some genetic traits (eg height) work out like this.

It also works with grades (in a large class).

I’m not talking about when teachers “curve” a test to force grades to fit into a bell curve (that seems barbaric, actually). I’m just saying that, statistically, a class’s overall grades will probably fall loosely onto a bell curve-esque thing. It’s the reason that the literal definition of earning a “C” is average–it’s the middle of the bell curve.

In school, we are told to shoot for A’s. This is not an inherently bad or evil goal (as some people seem to think). Getting an A is (should be) an indication that you are above average–it’s an accomplishment, and it should be strived for and rewarded.

A fundamental part of the idea of an ‘A’ letter grade is the inclusion of B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’s to fill out the rest of the spectrum. You need an average so that someone can be above it.

Recently, in my classes, I’ve been noticing that this is not how people think anymore. There seems to be a rising feeling that students are entitled to A’s–that getting an A should require nothing more than showing up and doing the minimum amount of work. In essence, being average.

*Disclaimer so that I can say this once instead of putting it in every other sentence: I’m not saying this is everyone. I’m just saying that a large majority of students I share classes with seem to have this attitude, and it offends me.*

I’m am a straight-A student in difficult classes. I’m in Honors English, Honors pre-calc, and AP European History. It is by no means the hardest course load of any of my peers, but it is enough to keep me very busy, and to truly test my abilities as a critically thinking student. I personally feel that I work harder than most of my peers and that I deserve the A’s I get.

So it pisses me off when kids routinely admit that they don’t do the work, don’t study, or procrastinate majorly on homework/studying and end up doing a half-assed job on it–and then they get annoyed when they don’t have an A in the class. They have this attitude of “I showed up to class. I put in the barest minimum of work. What more do you want from me?”

If you think I’m exaggerating this, I promise you I’m not.

*Disclaimer #2: I have attended high-ranked California public school  in a good neighborhood for my entire life. Generalizations I make are based on my experiences, as well as those of students at other schools that I talk to.*

I believe there are many reasons that this mentality has appeared.

  1. Increased pressure from parents/society to get good grades to get into good colleges. Anything less than an ‘A’ is viewed as failure by a majority of the parents of the students I have classes with, and by extension my peers. This kind of thinking has led to a shift away from the bell curve, where a C is average, to a new model where an ‘A’ encompasses any type of success with the class and any grade lower is a punishment.
  2. Low standards in elementary and middle schools. I don’t want to insult elementary or middle school teachers out there. However, there is a dramatic difference between the amount of work that is expected of students at the elementary and middle school level compared to the high school level. Essentially, the amount of work that earned an A in middle school is often much lower than that that is required to get an A in high school (even in regular classes). If people don’t realize the shift, they are left floundering in the B/C grade range, wondering why they aren’t getting A’s anymore.
  3. Tutors and after-school programs. I’ll touch more on this later, but there is a general feeling that you can quantify what amount of studying deserves what grade. People who attend tutors and afterschool programs (especially those who have attended them their whole lives as a day-care sort of thing instead of a specific effort to improve a class’s grade) tend to believe that they are superior to the class and deserve a higher grade simply because they put in more time with a “professional.” (Unfortunately, the converse is often true, as I’ve seen many instances of after-schools doing the work for the student, preventing the student from ever actually succeeding in the class. Awkward.)

Whatever the reason, this mentality needs to be squashed. Yes–we all wish we could be straight-A students. But if everyone actually was one, then the title would no longer mean anything.

A would mean average. And while that would be linguistically convenient, it remains impractical in reality.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say,

I studied for this test for five hours! I deserve an A!

That’s not how the real world works.

I could study molecular biology for hours–weeks, months, years–and I would never gain more than a memorization-level understanding of it. I have resigned myself to this fact, and science is the one subject I don’t take advanced classes in, for this reason.

My school has a large population of students for whom English is a second language. Most of them have a good understanding of the language, but still struggle with high level reading, vocabulary, and essay writing. This is completely understandable. However, I really wish that some of the students who struggle to make out the dialect in The Grapes of Wrath (let alone the Old English in Shakespeare) would realize that English Honors is not the class for them.

I respect students who take an advanced class to challenge themselves. Unfortunately, most of my classes today are dominated by people taking the class because of parental or collegiate pressure, rather than any passion or skill with the subject matter. I respect you if you take an advanced class, knowing it will be a struggle but committing yourself to the workload and accepting that a B is a serious accomplishment (which is also “above average” for heaven’s sake!).

But if you take an advanced class because you want colleges to like you, and then you disrespect the class by doing the barest minimum of the work, and then you act like you should be awarded the highest grade possiblle–well, I don’t respect you at all.

The bell curve isn’t a bad thing. It’s literally natural. We need to remind ourselves that being average is not a crime and that an ‘A’ should be reserved for people who not only worked for it but succeeded at it. There is no “x hours of studying = this grade on the test” formula. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, good weeks and bad weeks. We as a society need to embrace this fact and shift our expectations away from a nation made only of straight-A students. Support students for their personal triumphs–maybe they occur in sports or art or drama instead of the classroom. A ‘B’ is not failure, neither is a ‘C’–if you want to be technical about it, a ‘D’ isn’t either. We shouldn’t give up on being as good as we can be, but we need to remember that “our best” differs for every person, and we need to put a premium on hard work rather than a final grade.

If people realize that it is okay not to have perfect grades, then hopefully this culture of entitlement will end to make way for one of respect for individual talent and commitment.

100th Post: Time for Another Rant (AKA Sh*t People Like to Tell Me about my Generation)

*For my 50th post, I ranted about my little sister being told not to read the Harry Potter books, and the general culture behind “reading levels” in schools. For post #100, I’m ranting about high school. I’m sorry if I offend anyone, but only a little. These are my pure, unorganized, sleep-deprived, pissed-off thoughts. Enjoy, or not. Feel free to comment at the end.


I am 15 years old right now. I’m a sophomore in high school. I’m white and I live a fairly comfortable, middle-ish-class life. I have a smart phone and a laptop to call my own. I like wearing “short” shorts and I’m a sucker for a Starbucks (though Coffee Bean is obviously better).

I am not an idiot.

Yes, I am a teenager. That doesn’t mean you get to walk all over me. That doesn’t mean you get to act like you know me before you’ve had a conversation with me. That doesn’t mean my life is easy.

I’m saying this because I encounter a lot of this on the internet and from the people all around me:

rant 100 pic 1

But from my point of view, high school is more like this:

Truthfully, I’m taking hard classes and doing a lot of extracurriculars.

But not as many as the person sitting next to me.

And I’m sacrificing every minute of my spare time to do more, to study harder, to impress the nameless, faceless college admittance people who will judge me based on a list of clubs and a GPA during my senior year. I’ll probably never meet these people. I’ll just be a name on a sheet to be judged against the thousands of other names-on-sheets, based on how well-rounded and dedicated we can make ourselves look in 2-D, on a sheet of paper and a carefully-worded college app.

It’s exhausting and demoralizing and I have three more years of this.

I feel like I’m trapped in a culture of impossible expectations, where you have to perfect every minute of every day and fit 25 hours into a 24 hour day and never sleep and sacrifice a goat every full moon just to get into college.

Then you get to pay for college, but that’s its own pile of impossible.

And on top of that, I’m a high schooler. I’m “supposed” to be dating and having friends and going to football games. Now is when I’m supposed to learn not just encyclopedias worth of information, but also how to be a social, semi-mature adult.

Because clearly the portion of your life that asks you to learn to deal with no sleep, hormones, new social orders, homework, and extracurriculars is “easy.”

If you spend your entire life studying, you’re shamed for “not having a life” or for being a “try hard”–not just from your peers, but also the random teachers, parents, and adults that decide to give you their personal opinion on your life.

Then there is the countering view of teenagers many adults have, in which all of us ages 13 to 18 only care about boy friends and texting and not chipping a nail. We are antisocial for the heck of it, rude to authority, and probably on drugs.

You see the problem?

Interacting with adults is probably the most frustrating part of my life right now. I really try to engage people in conversation, and I genuinely like having discussions with adults.

Until this happens:

  • I mention that school is stressful/tiring/intense or any of the other millions of adjectives I could think of and they try to tell me high school either “isn’t hard” or “isn’t a big deal” or that I “don’t need to try so hard” or that I shouldn’t “stress myself out so much” or that I should try “working smart, not hard”–Basically that it’s all in my head, or at least all my own fault that my life is stressful. And not that in glorifying colleges like Harvard and Yale they are perpetuating a society that demands this of me.
  • I try to engage in a mature conversation about something going on in the world and the adult either A) stops listening and just plain starts talking to someone else, B) barely pays attention to me and obviously thinks I’m an idiot–Because I’m just a teenager (drugs and Starbucks, remember?), and I could never understand what is going on outside the world of Forever XXI sales or hot guys (Even though I’m on freaking speech and debate, people! This is my thing!)

I work hard by default. I care a lot about my grades, and a lot less about how my school does in a football game or what filters people use on Instagram. My life is my choice, yes, but also the byproduct of a society that demands 110% of me every day without giving me any credit for surviving it.

This is the message high school students hear (with helpful translations for adults, or people from other countries with different systems):

If you want to get into college, you need to take as many AP (advanced placement–AKA college level classes) as possible, get A’s in the class and 5’s on the AP exam (a big test in May that tests you on everything you learned in your AP class, graded from 1-5, you need a 3 or higher to get the college credit, 5 is the best possible, and basically impossible). You need to have hundreds of hours of community service, have leadership positions in as many clubs as possible, and be well-rounded, so try learning a sport and an instrument and another language, if you can fit it into your schedule.

High schoolers hear this everywhere: from teachers, school meetings, the internet, word-of-mouth, even parents.

But parents are under some delusion that the above requirements are easy.

Things I’ve been told by my family, or other adults in my life:

  • In the US, it’s really easy to get into college. (What US do you live in?)
  • You don’t need to be perfect, you can just go to a UC. (Just?! WTF people? They are some of the best colleges in the country!!!!)
  • You stress yourself out too much about school. (Oh, maybe because it’s STRESSFUL?)
  • I’m sure you don’t need to spend that much time on a weekend working on homework. (My vain efforts to get ahead on the weekends so that I can breathe during the week should never be scorned.)

I’m so tired of it. And all my friends are given similar “pep talks” by adults.

THEY AREN’T ENCOURAGING, PEOPLE!

I don’t want to demonize adults. I have some great ones in my life.

But seriously, my life is stressful. Can I please be allowed to talk about it? So many times, an adult will ask me how school is going, and then as soon as I try to actually engage them in a conversation about what is going on in my life (usually up-coming tests, frustrating teachers, or big projects) they shut me down, deciding it’s a good time to remind me that all the stress is in my head or that I’m working myself to hard. Like, thanks, I’ll try to remember that, along with 100+ facts about the Protestant Reformation for the test I have tomorrow.

And yeah, I pretty much only talk about school. But my life is school. I see my friends at school. All my clubs are at school. Almost every funny thing that happens to me happens at school.

I enjoy school, even though it’s a little Stockholm’s Syndrome-y. Yeah, I have a lot on my plate–but I also have a big appetite. I want to talk about school, and have someone listen.

So if you’re an adult out there, and you want to help your kid or your niece or your student survive high school? Don’t tell us it’s easy. Let us rant, get it all out. If we decide to try to talk to you, embrace it, please.

And don’t you dare blame us for making our lives hard if you would like your kids to go to a good college. That’s not fair.

Stop assuming I’m shallow because I was born fifteen years ago. Stop calling my generation the worst generation in the history of life, when some one us (A LOT of us) are actually trying really freakin’ hard to overcome your expectations.

Stop telling me the hardest thing I’ve ever been asked to do is easy.

I’ll play your game, but at least admit that there is a game going on.