Genii Weblog

A question from my 15 year old son

Sun 26 Feb 2006, 12:03 PM

by Ben Langhinrichs
My son is 15, and a tenth grader suffering through a year of AP U.S. History (affectionately, and accurately, known as A-PUSH).  He is a math genius, but not a history genius, and Shaker Heights takes its A.P. courses very seriously.  For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology in U.S. schools, A.P. courses are Advanced Placement courses, and they are supposed to be like "college courses for high schoolers".  Many schools do not really act like these are college courses, but Shaker does, and it is not uncommon for Shaker graduates to go off and find themselves quite bored with college, even very intense colleges.

In any case, my son was complaining as I drove him to school, and I reassured him that he wouldn't have to take history courses in college if he didn't want to.  He was not placated, and pointed out that he still needed four years of history in high school, and couldn't he please not take A.P. Modern European History next year.  I said it was very important, and he could do it, and all that parental clap trap, and he ignored me, and asked:
Why can't I take the History of Rock and Roll or something like that?  You know, something actually useful.
Anybody have an answer for that?

Copyright 2006 Genii Software Ltd.

What has been said:

439.1. Jamie Price
(02/27/2006 12:39 PM)

I think that would stump me too... Perhaps as an elective?

Sorry, I have nothing more useful than that.

439.2. Richard Schwartz
(02/27/2006 01:53 PM)

Go through a Socratic exercise with him. Ask him what he thinks he wants to do in college. (Be sure that he understands that you're not expecting him to commit to anything, because 15 is way too early for anyone to decide their college major, not to mention their career.) If math is part of the focus, don't ask what he thinks he wants to do with his math education. Instead, ask if he's aware of _all_ the things one can do with a math education. Use the questions to lead him to the realization that there are rather limited careers in plain old math. You can be a math professor or high school teacher, an actuary, or a cryptologist working for the NSA, and that's about it. Outside of pure math, of course, there's engineering where one applies math to physical sciences in order to design, build and fix things... but that's not the end of the story. Where are your sons interests, besides math? There are applications for mathematics in the humanities and social sciences, too. I majored in "Mathematics and the Social Sciences" at Dartmouth. It was a perfect fit for me, because my talents are in math but my interests were in social sciences. These days, I'm seeing the math that I learned in that program cropping up everywhere I look: in knowledge management, social network analysis, Bayesian spam filtering, and more. Some of the same techniques are being used in the humanities: music recognition, analysis of texts to determine true authorship, etc. And yes, mathematics can even be applied to history.

If your son is aware of the fact that the math he's good at and interested in can actually be applied to humanities and social sciences, and even then he's really not at all interested in Social Sciences in general (history, economics, sociology, psychology, political science), I would not necessarily push him to take AP European History. He should still take non-AP European History, or Ancient History, of course. Too many Americans are unaware of anything that ever happened outside our borders. But if, for example, he grudgingly admits that economics, psychology, sociology or political science might be of some interest to him -- then suggest to him that making it through AP History is good background and definitely good preparation for being able to study those subjects on a college level.

439.3. Roberto Boccadoro
(02/27/2006 03:15 PM)

Can't say much about History, except that I agree with Richard on the attitude I perceive most Americans have, they do not know much about anything that happened outside the borders. A course in European history could be a good mind-opener for your son. Speaking of mind-openers I strongly encourage you to let you son study Math. I have a University degree in pure Math and one of the things I learned there is that there are many things that are possible and are perfectly "legitimate" that are definitely beyond your normal experience. You cannot possibily visualize an integral in, say, 7 dimension and though, you can do resolve it. Studying Math I found it really opens your mind and makes you think in a different way. As a final point I have to disagree with Richard. If you study pure Math, there are tons of things you can do for a living. Look at me for example :-) I am sure almost all IT related companies would be willing to hire someone with a Math background. And this not because he can apply what he learned (integrals in 7 dimesions are not that used after all) but because of the "mindset" he will have after completing the courses.


439.4. Rob McDonagh
(02/27/2006 08:17 PM)

Does he have any interest in the religious/cultural wars going on in the US these days? Does he have any interest in the issue of whether the separation of Church and State is a good idea or a bad idea? Is he aware that the root of the US Founding Fathers' policies around the interference of church with state or vice versa lie in the centuries of chaos that we call European history? Have you considered pitching history to him as a lens through which to view the current political environment?

There are plenty of subjects that were a waste of time (for me) in high school. There is only one subject, in 20/20 hindsight, that I wish I'd spent more time on: history.

439.5. Richard Schwartz
(02/27/2006 09:50 PM)

In light of Roberto's comment, I should clarify. Of course there are tons of things a math major can do for a living. Math is excellent preparation for a career in any science or engineering discipline, and also in Law -- and a math undergraduate degree complemented with an advanced degree in these fields is a great combination. Math is also great preparation for IT work, and a graduate degree isn't necessarily a requirement, but my point is that you won't be doing math in this career. In fact, there are very few fields outside of the ones I mentioned in the previous response in which your job description will primarily call for you to directly use your pure mathematics skills. If you're not going to be in one of those very few fields, my contention is that a deep and well-rounded education in other disciplines is a really good idea, and it's not just limited to the hard sciences and engineering.

439.6. Alan Bell
(02/28/2006 06:23 AM)

history is brown questions, rock & roll is pink questions.

Personally I try to stick to the green ones.

439.7. Roberto Boccadoro
(02/28/2006 08:37 AM)

Well, the comment at 4 just reinforces my perception on how US people see the rest of the world. Calling "centuries of chaos" the European history (Greek culture, the Roman Empire, and so on) is definitely wrong. Maybe Rob is focusing on the "dark ages" only, but this is far from covering all the history. What if I were to say your history is basically the story of a bunch of newcomers from UK that slaughter natives ? Would you like it ?


439.8. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/28/2006 08:45 AM)

Hold on, everybody. I seem to have triggered a reaction quite different than I expected. My son made an amusing comment. I believe strongly in history as a subject, and particularly enjoyed European History in high school and college, and certainly hope he takes enough to get a feel for the world, but he can major in whatever the heck he wants, be it math or philosophy or economics. He can even major in Computer Science if he likes, although I wouldn't. I majored in Latin American Studies, and that has certainly held me back, right?

Anyway, let's not get into tossing invectives around. Europe has a long history of strife and war and brutality... much like North America, South America, Africa, Australia and Asia. They all also have a long history of culture, progress and inspiring personalities. Since Shaker Heights doesn't offer a course in Antartic History, any history course worth its salt is going to show both sides, and I wouldn't want him taking a history course that did not.

439.9. Rob McDonagh
(02/28/2006 10:21 AM)

Roberto, I was referring, in general, to the (religious, primarily) wars that followed the Protestant Reformation. I thought the context made that clear, so I apologize for not being more explicit. The Thirty Years War (and the policy of "cuius regio eius religio") and the way the British crown flipped between Catholicism and the Church of England, in combination with the Enlightenment, as I'm sure you know, was a major factor in the formation of church and state policy in the fledgling US government. Americans who do not understand that era in European history do not understand their own history, and this is an all too common failing among my fellow citizens.

You're free to describe US history in any terms you like. I do not consider the terms you used as an example to be offensive at all, and in fact many Americans frequently use similar terms to describe our country's history. Comparing US history (exceedingly chaotic, but only a few centuries long and within one country) with European history (vastly longer and certainly quite chaotic while involving many countries) is difficult at best and wasn't the intent of my comment. I was simply trying to think of a way make history interesting to an American teenager.

439.10. Gregg Eldred
(02/28/2006 12:09 PM)

For "History of Rock and Roll," he'll find himself in a music class. :-) The problem with classic history is probably that the teacher is teaching facts/figures. If the teacher were to put things into context, it would be much better. I have found, lately, that I am enjoying history more (maybe it's because I am getting *ahem* older). For example, I just helped my son (in 5th grade) with his Alexander Graham Bell report. Did you know that Bell invented the means to transmit sound using light? What we now use in fiber optics, he did back in the 1800's. That is COOL! Your son may need to have history taught in a meaningful manner.

Enough of my ramblings.

439.11. Jens
(28.02.2006 13:23)

Gregg, sure you are right, but consider the fact, that the "meaningful mannder" for Ben's son is the wrong manner for his neighbour. So this is a never ending problem

439.12. Roberto Boccadoro
(03/01/2006 01:43 AM)


I would not define American history in the way I did in my posting; that was definitely a provocative statement. I probably misunderstood your posting and thought you were generalizing rather than referring to a specific period, which I know and I agree with your points. Apologies if I offended someone.

Ben, I believe me and Rob are not tossing invectives around, let's say we use a strong language :-) We have now made our points of view clearear and there was no offense intended by anyone.


439.13. Patrick Trapp
(03/06/2006 07:44 AM)

One of the great regrets of my education is not the fact that I didn't take history -- it was that the history that was available to me was extremely limited in scope. By the time I got to college, I was on another track and didn't seriously consider it until I needed a change of pace.

That change of pace was a course on European History, and it tailed in so well with my math classes because it gave context to what the great mathematicians of that time were living through. In one two week period, my history class, two (relatively) advanced math classes, and a literature course were all talking about the same period of time, giving me four perspectives of the same century or two. It was a great deal of fun at the time.

Enough of my rambling. My intended point was that much of the basis for the math that your son enjoys or will encounter in the next few years comes from a specific culture and time. That European History class he's dreading might be a fascinating course, if he can see it in context of its influence on his beloved math.

439.14. Ben Langhinrichs
(03/06/2006 07:54 AM)

Patrick - Good point. I should think about ways to make that connection clearer to him. Thanks!