Learning to Eat My Vegetables
by Michael Blue
When I was young, my mother always encouraged me to eat my vegetables. "Even if you don't like it very much, " she would say, "that broccoli has important vitamins that will help you grow into a strong, healthy adult." As a child, I didn't care about growing into a "strong, healthy adult"--I only knew that broccoli and other vegetables didn't taste nearly as good as candy or chips, and therefore I didn't want to eat them. But my mother, infinitely patient, always made sure that I ate the greens and the vegetables that my body needed.
When I was in high school, broccoli wasn't the only thing I didn't like. I also turned up my nose at history, English, math, and science, preferring to concentrate on music, girls, and staying out late. My mother insisted that neglecting my education was as detrimental to my development as my distaste for vegetables, but again I refused to listen to her.
Luckily for me (I thought at the time), my high school allowed me to slide by with only a limited exposure to history and other subjects I considered dull. Like the majority of my peers, I thus graduated from high school with almost no knowledge of world history or geography (to name just two of the areas in which my ignorance now embarrasses me.)
I hadn't realized the extent of this particular gap in my education until I came to Spain in January to study the Spanish language and culture. Once I had arrived and started classes, I began to hear about such things as the Moorish occupation of the Iberian peninsula, the Inquisition, Francisco Franco, and the Spanish civil war.
My Spanish professoras weren't surprised when I revealed my ignorance about their country's history; they had all taught American students before and were accustomed to our typical lack of world awareness. But I was appalled. I knew that my knowledge of history outside of the United States was limited, but I didn't understand how it had been possible to graduate from high school without even hearing about events as important as the Inquisition or the Spanish civil war. These topics, and most others, were far from interesting to me in high school, but I did manage, in spite of myself, to absorb at least part of the information that was presented to me. Shouldn't I at least have been exposed to information about such major events in European history, even if I was determined to try to ignore it?
As I began to query other American students, I realized that I was in no way an exception. The students who did have some understanding of Spanish history were all either avid readers of Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, or were students who had taken AP world history courses in high school, and even then they had only a vague awareness--far from an adequate understanding of the subject.
World history is a vitally important tool for understanding other cultures, politics, and current events, and ultimately our own culture and society. Americans have a reputation in the world community for being ill-informed, provincial, and egocentric consumers--a stigma, I now realize, that has not been misapplied. The one Spanish name that I could recall from my public school education was Cristoball Colon (Anglicized to Christopher Columbus, of course), and that only because of his impact on the history of our own country.
My semester in Spain is doing more than teaching me to understand and speak a new language--it's also filling in some of the gaps in my education and opening my eyes to a world of things that school never taught me.
I blame myself for my lack of patience and ambition for anything related to school when I was a teenager, but maybe my ignorant, yet very common, adolescent sentiments should have been overrided by adults who knew the importance of a broad and varied education. My mother tried hr best, supplying me with an assortment of books and articles and making me promise to read them (some I did, some I didn't), but unfortunately, my school wasn't nearly as interested in educating me.
I'm happy to say now that I am finally learning history with an open and eager mind, and I have discovered that it helps me to understand my world a little bit better than I did before.
And I eat my vegetables now, too.
NOTE: This essay was written by my son Michael in 2000 when, at age 20, he spent a semester studying in Ronda, Spain. When the semester ended on May 31, he took the opportunity to travel to a number of different countries in Europe. He finally returned home at the beginning of August, virtually transformed by his seven months abroad. Michael plans to return to Spain in the fall of 2001 for another semester of study, in the city of Santiago de Compostela. He is now a Spanish and international studies major here at KU, and plans to graduate in 2002.