Curious state of US history

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
All right - I admit it. This is unashamedly a "What I did in my holidays" column. But look, it's all about education. In fact, it was pretty much business as usual from the moment I stepped off the plane at Washington's Dulles Airport.

First stop was Mount Vernon and the estate of the man who gave us Brits a bloody nose back in the 1770s - General George Washington. Despite being "father" to the fledgling United States of America, Washington, like almost all Virginia planters at the time, was also a slave-owner. Cue my first bit of teaching and learning US-style - a guided tour of Mount Vernon's slave quarters.

Our leader was a young man who clearly knew his stuff. The problem was that, despite it being an overcast day, he kept his sunglasses on throughout. Bit tricky getting eye contact with the punters, I wanted to whisper into his shell-like.

Not surprisingly, the tour had attracted a big contingent of African Americans, so maybe some residual guilt led to him needing those anonymous shades to hide behind. Or there again, perhaps he was just suffering from a hangover.

He had another little annoying trait, though. He constantly fired questions at us that were so obscure that even the saddest George Washington anorak would struggle. "Anyone know how many hectares of tobacco were growing on this farm in 1774? Nope, didn't think you would. So I'd better just fill yawl in."

And then there were his "trick" questions. "Who do you think would have the best chance of escape - the slaves in the household or those out in the fields?" Those in the fields, we dutifully chorused. What dummies! "Now, how far do you think you'd get dressed as a slave? Not far. But those in the house had access to 'plain' clothes." Darn, if only we'd thought of that.

Next up came a quick trip round the home of another military man, Confederate General "Stonewall" Jackson. This was in the little town of Lexington, Virginia, high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When they talk of "the war" in places like Lexington, they invariably mean the civil war, and everywhere you see the flag of Dixie flying defiantly alongside Old Glory.

This time our guide - whose day job, she told us proudly, was to "teach school" - quickly ran into problems when it became clear that one of our number fell into the category of "professional clever dick". Having memorised every known fact about the US civil war, he clearly got his kicks from taking such tours and pointing out to those in charge where they were going wrong.

This was quite entertaining at first, but after a while you realised you actually weren't much interested in the nickname of the General's favourite horse or the shape of that fascinating birthmark on his left buttock.

Tired of delving into the bottom drawers of military bigwigs, I next decided to try something intriguingly entitled the Museum of Frontier Culture. The big idea here was "immersion" learning. Rather than just read about frontier life or stare at a few artefacts in dusty display cases, the museum's aim was to let you live it.

They had bought, transported and lovingly reconstructed three 18th-century houses from Europe - one from Germany, one from England and one from Ireland. Finally there was an American farmhouse of later vintage to demonstrate how the different styles of the immigrants' homes had been synthesised into one more suited to the New World.

You wandered around each house in turn. There was no guide as such, but in each dwelling there were people appropriately dressed to show you how the settlers lived at the time. In the German farmhouse, a man dressed as an 18th-century peasant enthusiastically played the bagpipes, which were apparently common across Europe in the 1700s.

I made an immediate note in my "teaching tips" diary: when all else fails, go to class in knickerbockers and play the bagpipes.

And so to New York, where there were fewer cows than in Virginia, but a lot more people. Here, among several more educational visits, the one that stood out was to the United Nations HQ.

Like all good teachers, the guide began by finding out a bit about us. In keeping with the place itself, we represented many nations. The guides too were drawn from a variety of countries, ours being from Japan. Her English was excellent, but try as she might to control it, she still had that Japanese tendency to confuse her "l"s with her "r"s.

This mattered little as we toured the security council and general assembly chambers, but oh what larks when we came to the UN's role in promoting free and fair elections around the world. At least "elections" was the word she intended to say.

And I thought the aim was to curb population growth, not promote it.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London college.

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