I thought it was a great idea. Before the end of the semester, I spoke with my students (again) about what I was doing in Finland, I’d describe the nature and reason for my project, and then solicit questions from them, questions which would be meaningful and thoughtful and provocative and which would guide many of the entries on this here blog.
That’s not exactly the way it went. I mean, I did explain what I was going to Finland to do (which prompted more than a few students to respond with, “Wait, what? You’re not coming back?” I’d been reminding them since August 19th.). I gave them more than a few ways to contact me – including my Twitter feed, which was going to be public for the duration – and then asked for questions.
I expected something like this: “Most dear teacher, in what way has Finland’s precarious position between the Soviet Union and the post-fall proxy states and the archetypically liberal northern European Scandinavian countries shapes their national climate in the 21st century?”
What I got was: “What do they think of Americans? How much do they hate us from 1-10?”
And this: “Is marijuana legal.” (With a period, not a question mark, I’d like to point out.)
And while I was a little bummed that the questions I got were not of the depth and complexity that I imagined, I realized that these questions were, well, true questions. That is, they were things that the student legitimately didn’t know. They were more foundational, fundamental, and revealing than the hyper-erudite queries I hoped for.
My students’ questions – with question marks or not – were more valuable.
Let’s take a look at a sample set:
- “Do they eat healthy food?”
- “Do they drive on the left side of the road?”
- “Are the children more adorable?”
- “What are the main sports?”
- “Do they like the snow?”
- “What is the weather like?”
Taken together – and admitting that the questions came right before finals week – the questions reveal an ignorance about Finland. It’s not that my students don’t care about giving me some questions. Quite the opposite. When I discussed my project and Finland in class, they seemed to want me to continue, to expand more on the country and its history. They just didn’t know where to start.
To illustrate, I’ll give two anecdotes, neither of them American, in fact.
The first comes from my Finnish Fulbright alumni “buddy” – a Finnish educator who helps me navigate the complexities of school visits, travel, cultural differences, and in addition is also a pretty cool guy. In conversation, he recounted a conversation someone had with a young man from Sweden. In the story, the Finn tried to explore how the Swedes felt about Finland – about how it was no longer a part of its territory but had some lasting cultural legacy, about how Swedish was the second official language and the first language of a Swedish minority, about the other way in which Finland’s history was interwoven with Sweden’s.
The Swede’s response: “I didn’t know any of that.”
The story got me thinking of postcoloniality and the former British Empire. To a great extent, much of the work of building and maintaining the Empire went unknown to those in the UK. That’s why the recent release of colonial era documents was so momentous. Much of this was, maybe willingly, unknown in the UK.
I had not previously thought of Finland as a postcolonial country (and if it is then it’s postcoloniality is markedly different from that of, say, Nigeria or South Africa) but there seems to be a thread worth pulling on there.
Domestically, I was also thinking of Morrissey’s song “America is Not the World” from his 2004 album, You Are the Quarry. Of course, Morrissey has a pretty heavy-handed ideological position and is obviously critical of American hegemony for a variety of reasons, but the general sentiment is interesting: that to a large extent, Americans are aware and informed about American issues and the rest of the world sometimes lives in gaps of knowledge.
As a lapsed history teacher, I’m interested in this gap throughout the curriculum. My colleagues can often point to weaknesses, omissions, and missing vital material throughout the American social science curriculum. (in fact, one of the advantages, some say, to the Common Core is that it requires not a predetermined set of historical facts, but just the inculcation of skills.) And I’d here stumbled onto another gap. The students knew (mostly) where Finland was on the map, knew roughly where it fit into the geopolitics of Europe, but were unable to specifically articulate its national history, character, or importance.
Which is fine. That’s my job, I guess, as the teacher.