neljapäev, märts 03, 2011

from student to teacher

I taught a class of Estonian kids today, all aged 11 and 12. The bulk of the lesson focused on presidents and politics.

I started with American presidents. They knew Barack Obama, and were aware there was a president before him, George W. Bush, who was "stupid." They unanimously used this one English word to describe him.

But who came before Bush? No one knew the answer. When I finally named Bill Clinton, a few went, "Oh yeah," but the name meant essentially nothing to them. They were alarmed when I told them that the president before Clinton was also named Bush.

"You mean George W. Bush's father was also president?" they said, astonished. When I said that he served only one term, someone asked, "But what happened to him? Was he shot?" "No," I said. "People blamed him for the poor economy." And so we learned the words "economy" and "economics."

The part of the lesson that covered Estonian presidents was just as fascinating. Everyone knows their president, Toomes Hendrik Ilves. I taught them that Ilves means "lynx" in English, and a few students claimed to have seen wild lynxes in the forests. But who was president before Ilves? No one knew. Finally, I put an 'R' on the board.

"Arnold Rüütel!" someone shouted. Then I translated Rüütel -- "knight." "What's a ka-nig-et?" a girl asked. "No, it's written that way, but it's pronounced differently." "Knight?" a boy said. "You mean like Knight Rider?" "No, you fool, that's Night Rider," another boy interrupted. "No, it's Knight Rider!" And so they went back and forth arguing until I had to weigh in and say it really was Knight Rider, because David Hasselhoff was like a knight riding around in his car.

The president before Rüütel was Lennart Meri, whose family name conveniently translates as "sea." And before Meri? "P Ä T S!" they shouted. All the kids knew of Konstantin Päts, the first leader of Estonia to hold the title of president. And one even knew what his surname means in English: "loaf."

"But who was before Päts?" one student wondered aloud. "Before there were presidents, there were state elders," I said. "The one before Päts was named Tõnisson."

"Tõnisson?" a boy said. "You mean that kid in Kevade was president*?" "No," I answered. "It was a different Tõnisson who served before Päts."

"But who was in charge of Estonia between Päts and Meri?" I asked. After all, it was 52 years between Päts departure and Meri's election. Not one of them knew the names of any Soviet Estonian officials, the most significant of whom was arguably Johannes Käbin, first secretary of the Estonian Communist Party from 1950 to 1978, a good chunk of the Soviet era.

I wondered how many Estonian students have ever heard his name. Or Vaino Väljas' name, or Karl Vaino's or Nikolai Karotamm's. It's as if they never existed. But why should a group of kids who can't remember Bill Clinton care about some dusty old Soviet official? What bearing does it have on their lives? Probably none at all. I thought about this lesson as I walked home from class. Maybe next time, I'll teach them something more important.

* Kevade is a book by Oskar Luts about Estonian students attending a rural school at the turn of the 20th century that was made into a popular movie, now considered a classic, in 1969.

33 kommentaari:

plasma-jack ütles ...

Vaino Väljas; Karl Vaino. No worries though, this Vaino-thing can be a headache.

Giustino ütles ...

Martin can be a headache too. There's Martin, and then there's Märtin (and Märten), and then there are Mart and Märt. I never figured out what compels some Estonian parents to name the kid Märt and not Mart. Do they just want to be different?

Piimapukk ütles ...

I recall teaching kids of that age and always remember fondly how one of them asked why don't people all around the world speak Estonian? He added that because it was so simple and reasonable. He asked that after the class was more or less done hee-hawing and giggling over the verbs "sits" and "puts".

Gerly Villemson ütles ...

Oh, it's nothing; though saddening. One of my history teachers once shared me, his students at the same age as you mentioned, had replied to question 'Who's the Queen of the British Empire?' - Elizabeth Taylor.

Should we now laugh or cry? Don't know.

Syntax of Seaweed ütles ...

It's as if they never existed.

To be fair, these kids were born just before the turn of the millenium. And besides, they'll learn this stuff in secondary school.

Glad you had fun!

Piimapukk ütles ...

"Karl Linnas, Peep Rannas, Vaino Väljas ja Tunne on meil Kelam!" ...

oli 80ndatel selline absurdi nali. Enamik teist siin vist liiga noored, et mäletada.

nuhk ütles ...

I have to agree with "Syntax on seaweed" about the fact, that they WILL learn some of these things in secondary school and again in high school. (I still remember my history lessons like todays morning coffee.)And I'm not that suprised about the fact, that remembering Arnold Rüütel was a problem. Sadly, I think, we don't have this "lets teach another kind of important stuff to young children" attitude in our school system or society yet. By the "another kind of imortant stuff" I mean "who we are and were we come from". There are thousands of ways, how to talk about these things with children... Why not even act. But to do all that.. Well, it takes a lot of efford and willpower to squeeze it into our already effusive schoolprograms... Overall, I somehow kind of understand Your suprise about that particular situation, but I also can see where it all starts from.. Makes me a bit sad..

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

You would experience something similar in Germany. The history lessons are often focused on things like industrialisation, imperialism and the time between 1933 and 1945 and so on.
I guess in the French curriculum is always a part of what to must know about the own national history. Comparably more than in Germany. You got even a concept to draw the map of France. Never seen this in Germany.

stockholm slender ütles ...

What does "vaino" mean in Estonian? - in Finnish it's "persecution", but probably something completely different down south...

Giustino ütles ...

I forgot that one of the students told me that Reagan was a "jerk" and that the Moon Landing was staged. I didn't know how to respond to either.

Kullerkupp ütles ...

To stockholm slender:
The word "vaino" means either "grassland" (vain, vainu, -> vaino) or the stem of word "hostile" (vaenulik, vaenuline, -> vainoline). Both variants are in dialectal form and not used nowadays.

bunsen_lamp ütles ...

There is a Finnish name that cognates: Väinö

Kristopher ütles ...

Mart sounds like a convenience store. "Quik, Mart, get going -- and bring us some beer."

Piimapukk ütles ...

Anu is a naughty name. In English, I mean.

Eppppp ütles ...

We have a motivational speaker/author called Peep Vain.
My uncle's name is Tiit.
And my name is Epp. :) E-p-p.

Markkus ütles ...

There are also such Estonian names as Aino ( I know) and Uno (you know)...

stockholm slender ütles ...

Cheers! I thought it might be related to "vainio" - a kind of an unspecified term for different kinds of fields. Väinö sounds very unlike Vaino in my vowel harmonic ears...

Merike ütles ...

No disrespect but why would an 11 or 12 year old child remember a president from a couple of years time? Especially the one from a foreign country (no matter how large or important) They have no personal experience with that time and are too small to be expected to have comprehensive history knowledge. Teaching presidents at that age is too much too early. Any presidents, state elders, or communist party leaders. It should rather be left to years when something else comes out of this knowledge beside labelling previous presidents as stupid or demented according to popular opinion.

Sharon ütles ...

I'm with Merike. For an 11 year old, if they can remember the first president and the current president, they're doing okay.

Giustino ütles ...

I wasn't shocked by their 'ignorance' of American presidents. I was more amused that what is within my living memory is now unknown and irrelevant to them. To me, Clinton is recent. But they've never even heard of him.

When I was 12, I knew Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. But American society in the 1980s and 90s was obsessed with the 1960s and 70s. How many TV shows and movies were made about Vietnam? How many programs managed to mix the JFK assassination into them?

And the issue with Estonian leaders, is why do they know the dictator of the 1934-1940 years so well? Päts' portrait is in every school building on the wall. All other leaders have been forgotten. That has to do with Estonian historiography.

stockholm slender ütles ...

It is a sensitive subject, especially after the antics of our crazed amateur historian-cum-conspiracy theorist Turtola, but I do think that Päts did not distinguish himself in the awful summer of 1940. It was a perfectly rational calculation up to that point, but when it became obvious that the time had run out, he had still plenty of chances to denounce the Soviet betrayal of the treaty. Of course, even without his protests it was self-evident that there was nothing legitimate in the Soviet actions - but what exactly did he win by effectively going along with every further step?

Martasmimi ütles ...

Justin said:
I wasn't shocked by their 'ignorance' of American presidents. I was more amused that what is within my living memory is now unknown and irrelevant to them. To me, Clinton is recent. But they've never even heard of him

* but remember you were an American, and you went to school here.
Marta knows very little of our US Holidays and History because she goes to school in Viljandi.
The fact that they know any of our US Presidents is complementary.

Merike ütles ...

Estonian 11-year-olds don't need to know previous American presidents. Educated adults should know some more important ones. But should Estonian 11-year-olds know Soviet time Estonian leaders? Most (if not all) were puppet politicians. So the question really should be about Soviet leaders; and those, along with some Estonian Soviet party leaders, are taught later at school.
Päts was the first president of Estonia and him being a dictator is also taught in high school history but not really brought up
as the most important characteristic of him. American first president was kind of important too :)))

I started school in Estonia in 1986 and we were immediately started propagana on Lenin. That I remember, but then times changed and it all faded away. If the times hadn't changed, I'm pretty sure I had known all our "great Soviet fathers" by the age of 11 or 12.
But maybe children today don't get bombarded with so much heroic political/historical propaganda. Or just have more choice to avoid it. Switch to another channel if another series on JFK assassination starts on History Channel.
Fashinable history periods change.

Meelis ütles ...

"why do they know the dictator of the 1934-1940 years so well?"
Päts was not dictator during 1934-1940, but authoritarian leader. Quite moderate authoritarian leader.

Giustino ütles ...

It is a sensitive subject, especially after the antics of our crazed amateur historian-cum-conspiracy theorist Turtola, but I do think that Päts did not distinguish himself in the awful summer of 1940.

Päts was basically under house arrest in Kadriorg. Like the "June Communists" who voted to join the USSR, he was threatened into fulfilling the Soviet agenda. (I mean, they did take the vote with army and navy personnel in the chamber).

Smetonas in Lithuania did flee and denounce the Soviet actions, but in the end they worked around that. The Soviets set their policies and they carried them out. And they were murderers. Anyone who had lived through the October Revolution was aware of what kind of people were running Russia.

Giustino ütles ...

Speaking of America, I had to explain to my daughter who Jackie Robinson was and why he was important. And then she asked, "But why couldn't blacks play baseball?" I didn't know what to say.

Piimapukk ütles ...

This generation does not need to remember anything other than the passwords to their rate.ee and facebook accounts. Everything else can be googled.

Here's a good article on this generational memory loss.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/04/AR2011030402772.html

viimneliivlane ütles ...

At the risk of being confused with being an amateur historian, I'd like to cite Helgi-Alice Päts´s memoirs published in Vikerkaar I believe in 1989. She said they were at their näidis-talu (model farm)in Kose when the ominous big black car pulled up and some men got out and talked to the President privately, after which he announced to his family that they had to pack up immediately and go along with these men in their big black car. So according to Päts´s daughter-in-law they were taken to Russia from Kose, not Kadriorg. I wouldn´t pick this point except for the fact that reputable historians have to compare facts before they make decisions about what really happened. I tend to go with Helgi-Alice´s account. She was the respected daughter of the respected pastor Jaan Lattik. If soviet-trained historians want to present contradicting evidence then they should be warned that they may not have the same credibility. Helgi-Alice´s surviving son Mati is now a practising patent lawyer but was a toddler at the time and to my knowledge has not written his memoirs.

viimneliivlane ütles ...

In my next life I may hope to study political science in more depth. In this life I know that American schoolchildren are taught very early that they can grow up to be President. They are also taught the names of outstanding Presidents.

This is not necessarily a bad thing as in the formative years of a person´s life hero worship sets in whether they´re ready for it or not - what you say, David Hasselhof over Clint Eastwood?

When is a young person ready to make judgements whether George Washington was a better and more effective president than Ronald Reagan? We don´t have a pat answer to that, but we do expect people of voting age to be able to make distinctions that they are satisfied with.

So, just to throw this thought out, if Lenin were campaigning in Estonia in the next presidential election, would first-time voters be ready to listen to his campaign speeches with any degree of discernment?

viimneliivlane ütles ...

In my next life I may hope to study political science in more depth. In this life I know that American schoolchildren are taught very early that they can grow up to be President. They are also taught the names of outstanding Presidents.

This is not necessarily a bad thing as in the formative years of a person´s life hero worship sets in whether they´re ready for it or not - what you say, David Hasselhof over Clint Eastwood?

When is a young person ready to make judgements whether George Washington was a better and more effective president than Ronald Reagan? We don´t have a pat answer to that, but we do expect people of voting age to be able to make distinctions that they are satisfied with.

So, just to throw this thought out, if Lenin were campaigning in Estonia in the next presidential election, would first-time voters be ready to listen to his campaign speeches with any degree of discernment?

lohekala ütles ...

I'm afraid our dear blogger was following a wrong path, when he tried to put Käbin, Vaino etc in the same line with the likes of Päts and Meri.

For the correct list of Estonian heads of state please see: http://www.president.ee/en/republic-of-estonia/heads-of-state/index.html

A little hint: they include men like Uluots and Warma, for example.

Giustino ütles ...

According to Päewaleht, Päts was at his mansion in Oru (near Toila) prior to the arrival of Zhdanov. There is a note that says he returned to Tallinn from Oru to meet with the Soviet emissary. I am unsure of where he stayed from mid June until his deportation (late July). He was definitely in Tallinn at that time (his photo was taken with the Soviet ambassador following the "elections" in mid July, for instance). I have read that he signed everything that was presented to him. I have no reason to dispute his daughter's account that they were in Kose when they were deported.

Giustino ütles ...

I'm afraid our dear blogger was following a wrong path, when he tried to put Käbin, Vaino etc in the same line with the likes of Päts and Meri.

For the correct list of Estonian heads of state please see: http://www.president.ee/en/republic-of-estonia/heads-of-state/index.html

A little hint: they include men like Uluots and Warma, for example.


Uluots became prime minister in October 1939, right after they agreed to the bases pact. I still don't understand why he was suddenly named PM and Eenpalu stepped down. There were also elections held at that time, and the reorganization of the government happened just a few days before the vote.