Especially Today, We Need to Study History

I used to teach a high school class on the history of human ideas. I noticed that the students in the class often had trouble accepting that people were ever substantially different than who they are now—that society could be very different, beliefs very different, life very different. Or if they could accept the differences, they couldn’t feel the difference. We were always what we are now. We move through the world as if what is in front of us now was always there in the past.

 

I myself wonder about this. How different would I feel about life if I had lived in Sumeria in 3500 BCE or India in 450 BCE? Even though I traveled a lot when I was younger and even lived in places very different from where I live now, I still have only a limited idea of how different the differences between cultures and times in history could be.

 

But I know that without my experiences in other cultures, and without some knowledge of history, my understanding of the world today would be severely limited. And even more, my understanding of what is possible would be limited. History is not simply a timeline of events and people. It is a panorama of possibilities and lessons about what it means to be human.

 

Yet, for several years, schools have been forced to decrease the study of history, and the humanities, in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). This is not simply an attempt to counter a decrease in interest in the sciences. The concern for developing student understanding of themselves as whole people is being replaced with a concern for meeting the expectations of employers. The New York Times reported that several Republican politicians have portrayed liberal arts education as expendable, a frivolous luxury taxpayers should not be expected to pay for.

 

In a time when many politicians and news outlets try to wrap our minds in false news, and shock us into inaction and compliance, we desperately need an understanding that these events we live through—this is all history. Situations change. There are truths. Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (and others) famously said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” or allow it to be repeated. Without studying history, my understanding not only of what once was but what might be, or of how political and social structures have changed and will continue to change, would be constricted. And, thus, my belief in and ability to engage in political action would be constricted. Without a sense of history and truth, we cannot understand what is real. We cannot influence history in a conscious, deliberate, and liberating way if we do not feel that we are part of making it.

 

So one element of the study of history in schools must include listening for the souls of those who came to this earth before us, as well as those we share the planet with now. It must include lessons in empathy and compassion, so students can psychologically place themselves, as much as is possible and appropriate, into the historical situation studied. After immersing students in studying facts about a time in history, a teacher could lead them in imaginatively picturing themselves in a specific situation in that time period, like attending the Ekklesia, or Assembly of male citizens (the Congress) in the Athens of 450 BCE, or of participating in the demonstration in 1917 in Washington, D. C. led by the National Woman’s Party, to win women the right to vote. Ninety-seven suffragists were arrested during the protest for “obstructing traffic.”

 

Teachers can ask students to pick a spot in the town or city they live in, and then research, create a timeline of how the spot looked in the past. They can decide on the dates and number of intervals to portray, maybe starting 600 years ago. This is one way to actually feel how and that change occurs.

 

Even more, ask students, on the first day of classes: What are the biggest problems you see in the world today? After sharing these, ask: which of these problems is central? In my history class, the final assessment entailed choosing one problem and following it through history, and in the different cultures we studied. They would have to describe and analyze the nature and extent of the problem, and give an overview of the beliefs and conditions (social, technological, religious, philosophical, etc.) that gave rise to it. In this way, their own questions became the heart of the class.

 

Another element of the study of history is confronting the ethical questions that abound in our lives. Factual questions in schools cannot always be disconnected from ethical ones without paying a price a society can ill afford. Questions about the science of atoms, for example, can be followed with the questions of how or if such knowledge should be used. In LACS (the school where I taught for 27 years), one teacher, Chris Sperry, taught a wonderful course called “Facing History and Ourselves,” an in-depth inquiry into the holocaust, not just through a textbook linking of dates and events, but through letters, news accounts, photos and eyewitness testimony, novels and stories, psychological studies and poetry. Students put themselves into the issues of the time period in order to understand how they would have felt and acted, and thus have a better idea how they might feel and act in today’s world.

 

Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, aims to help us do just that, to take part deliberately in shaping history, so we, together, will write a history of saving democracy from the tyranny which now imperils it. One lesson is “Do not obey in advance.” Do not believe, do not follow, do not let fear overwhelm us just because it comes from an authority.

 

And ”Defend Institutions.” Do not deceive yourself into thinking that any institution, political, social, or educational will continue to exist just because it “always” has existed. Do not imagine that what protects, feeds, listens to us now will do so in the future. There are no institutions without people supporting them.

 

Republican politicians have been working to suppress the vote and undermine the institutions of our democracy. They have been working to eliminate citizens of color from State voting roles, demanding means of identification some voters do not have, in order to make it more difficult for them to vote. They are attacking public schools, the EPA, the free press. Right now Sinclair Media, through the collusion of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, is attempting to circumvent rules protecting competition and diversity in the media. They are aiming to expand its reach into 72% of American households, mostly through getting control of local media, in order to broadcast Trump propaganda. (Congress this week will be discussing whether to keep Pai as FCC Chairman. Consider calling your Congressperson to express opposition to Pai & the expansion of Sinclair Media.) In times like these, we must defend our institutions.

 

Snyder warns us to “Beware the one party state.” “Take responsibility for the face of the world.” And “Beware paramilitaries.” Beware militarization. Beware the use of generals in the political sphere of the government. Read the book. It is short. It is one small way to take a big step.

 

It is too easy to forget that history is the story of all of us. It is a tale about relationships, not just dates, and not mysterious “historical forces.” It is a tale of human suffering caused not just by weather and environment, but by humans. And it is a tale of love, caring, insight as well as greed and delusion. It is about the whole reality of human life and how to be humane, how to recognize the humanity of all of us. And only when the teaching of history speaks to the whole reality of human life will it help students contribute to improving that life. In this time in history, our continued history depends upon how well we learn and teach these lessons.

Last Night, A Battle of Good Against Evil?

I thought I’d have a little fun. For the last two nights, my wife and I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written by J. K. Rowling, between portions of Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and checking in on the Senate’s fight over the Republican denial of health care bill.

 

It was a very surreal experience, like living in a fantasy world. McConnell became, in my mind, the powerful Auror, enforcer, Director of Magical Security for the magical world, a character named Graves (played by Colin Farrell). Graves was trying to appear like he was acting for the welfare of others. In reality, he was always pushing his own agenda, built from megalomania and a delusion of superiority, to undermine others, and make all of us Nomajs or Muggles subservient to him and his cohorts. We learn at the end that Graves was only a mask worn by the evil Grindelwald, a Dark Wizard, second only to Lord Voldemort, who hid away after nasty crimes in Europe. (Did he ever go to Russia?)

 

And then there was the Obscurus, a dark force that ran rampant destroying buildings and killing. The Obscurus was built from the energy created by the abuse, and oppression of the magical ability of Credence, an adopted son of Samantha Morton, the leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society. These “Second Salemers” were like the first, religious bigots calling for a war against all those with magic and who are “different.” Graves-Grindelwald tried to use the power of the Obscurus, of oppression, for his own ends, but it turned against him. I took the Obscurus as a warning. When a government tries to assault the magic, well-being, and humanity of so many of us, it will only lead to destruction.

 

And on Wednesday, when Mr. T. had Secretary Zinke threaten Senator Lisa Murkowski for her opposition to the Republican bill, this fit in so well with the movie and the plot, of a battle by evil against the good. It was almost too much, too blatant, but the inappropriate behavior of this President is blatant.

 

I won’t try to make too close a comparison between the movie and the real life drama in the Senate. Rowlings work has often been seen as a metaphor for different battles between “good and evil.” But I think there were heroes Wednesday and Thursday. There was Senator Lisa Murkowski, certainly, and Susan Collins. And Senator McCain, who created a great and multi-dimensional drama of his own. And the Democrats, who stayed together as a unified force. Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat from Hawaii, interrupted her cancer treatments to fly to D. C.. And all of us, who have been making calls, demonstrating on the streets or in the halls of Congress, or writing letters. I’m afraid that there will be many more battles, and we need to learn all we can from this one. In the end, it seems to me that we Nomajs are the ones with the real magic.

Coming of Age

As many people have realized, this moment is a test. Right now. Or better yet, an opportunity. Not in the sense of a test in school, or for a job, not one with a number or letter score, not one with a scorekeeper. It is a test in the sense of a coming of age ceremony, which tests and strengthens our character. We human beings have a chance to come of age. Of course, this is true every moment. Every moment is an opportunity to wake up and demonstrate who we are. But some moments, both in our lives and in history, are heightened by the knowledge of what is at stake. This is such a moment.

 

In this moment in history, it is clear the Emperor has no clothes. His greed, and the greed of those other Republicans around him, his destructiveness, and total lust for power even at the expense of everyone else, even at the expense of the nation, even at the expense of the world’s environment, is there for everyone to see. Will the rest of us find ways to step up, come of age by working to save our age—and possibly the age of everyone who might come after us?

 

An example of just how little these Republicans in the center of this administration care about the well-being of others is the proposed health care legislation. The Senate bill would, according to the CBO, lead to 22 million Americans without health insurance, and thus lead to the deaths of 27,000 people annually due lack of adequate health care. It would have created economic and health insecurity for millions of Americans. The proposed repeal of Obamacare without a replacement would do even more damage to individuals and the economy as a whole. Yet they supported this and similar legislation over and over again. Why? To get a tax cut to a few thousand super rich? To say to their supporters, “look how we defeated the previous [Democratic/African-American?] President?” Certainly, none of the bills proposed by Republicans over the last four months would improve health care for a great majority of Americans.

 

Some argue that it has always been this way. By it they either mean all of human history, or all of US history. It is just more blatant now. Now, information is just more readily available. I disagree, not with the fact that the greed is more blatant now, but with the underlying assumption, that politicians or anyone in power, or every one of us, is essentially selfish, greedy, and lusts for power. That this selfish lust is just “human nature.” To believe this is to essentially give up. Look into your own heart. You will find enough selfish thoughts and feelings and motivations. But do those thoughts or feelings define you? Is that all or most of who you are? And when you feel that selfishness, what happens to your mind and emotions? Do you notice the isolation, sense of distrust, unease and fear that follow?

 

The struggle being waged this moment is not just to defeat the kleptocratic Republicans, preserve some remnants of democracy, and save our rights and environment. It is to save humankind— to save not only in the sense of physical survival, but in the sense of understanding whom we are. How we act is born in the womb of mind and heart.

 

Yes, throughout US history and possibly throughout human history (especially since the Neolithic Revolution and the invention of farming and private ownership), there have been people trying to seize power, not just for a moment, but for always. No denying that. But one of the allures of democracy is that it puts power in front of all of us (at least in theory) and says, “Go for it.” Political power is always in question because it resides “in the people,” dynamic and changing. Part of the dynamism arises from those who can’t handle that shared power and so try to end it by controlling it. However, the only way to have a relatively secure democracy is to teach people how to live with being insecure, and in living with and taking an active part, along with others, in exercising power.

 

Too many of us have been deceived into underestimating our own personal power and capacity to persist, endure, and to feel. We think the challenge is too large, the fight too long, the pain too strong. This is partly a result of the manipulation of media and events to create a sense of crisis or shock, like the “shock and awe” tactic in the invasion of Iraq. But this invasion is primarily against the American people.

 

According to Naomi Klein, in her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, this “shock tactic” is an attempt by the corporate right to take advantage of collective crises and natural disasters in order to disorient us, get us to feel so vulnerable that we will accept policies we would never have accepted otherwise. It is a sinister attempt to make us feel so vulnerable and powerless that our natural impulse to come together and help others is buried. But, as Klein says, we can and must refuse this manipulation. We can decide to use this common threat to build a movement of resistance, hope, justice and love.

 

To crudely juxtapose two disparate philosophies, that of the French existentialist philosopher J. P. Sartre, and the Buddha, humans are beings who, due to our ability to be conscious and self-reflect, define ourselves through our actions. Sartre said our “existence precedes essence.” We exist first as subjective experience, as personal conscious awareness, and then become who we are (within social and biological limits, of course) through our thoughts and actions. We are responsible for the person we come to be. And from a Buddhist perspective, one could say our essence is this very moment, this awareness. When our minds are clear, we feel how vibrant the world is, how interdependent we all are, and thus how vital and powerful our actions can be.

 

So, what will we do? What will you do? Will you speak up or take political action in a way you feel is right, maybe make phone calls to Congresspeople, sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate and educate? Feel the power of this moment and come of age? Even simple acts can be profound. Or let others shock us into surrender?

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris.

Dreaming of A New Movement

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe it really happened. I live in a hilly rural area in central New York. I look out my window. The sun is shining. The apple tree in front of my house still stands. Birds still fly. But somewhere, down the hill, maybe above the homes of neighbors I barely know, there is a cloud, a cloud I can only see out of the corners of my eyes. The cloud gets darker each time I listen to or read political news.

 

When I first moved here more than 40 years ago, my wife and I, and the group of people we moved here with, were the Hippie-radicals. We bought the land our neighbors and their gun club enjoyed as a hunting area. Maybe they thought we came here to deny them their freedom to hunt wherever they chose. There were tense moments when we had to escort armed hunters off our land. There was even a time we were threatened with being shot. Many people of color and LGBT people unfortunately know this threat much more intimately than I do.

 

But there was a movement then, a base of support. I would have been more frightened if I was alone. And there were increasingly good moments with the neighbors over the years. For example, once my wife and I got caught in a snowdrift and a woman down the road helped pull us out. And now, we know each other and are good neighbors if not friends. And this is what I hope can happen now, a movement of the majority of Americans. By majority I don’t just mean the 50% of the electorate who voted for Hillary, but those who would have voted for Bernie or just didn’t trust the system at all.

 

Mr. Trump uses his own form of terrorism, one we have seen too often in history. Acts of terror are carried out to spread fear through a populace and lead a country, especially a country claiming to be democratic, into a frightening double-bind. Anger and fear can lead a people to call for measures of revenge and protection: violent revenge not only against the specific people who carried out the attack but the religion, culture and anyone who even looks like the people who gave it life. Protection can include all kinds of measures to defend against further attacks. But as we learned from Edward Snowden and subsequent revelations, protection and revenge can lead to over-reaction and the destruction of the rights and liberties necessary to keep democracy alive. To protect democracy, we end democracy. That is terrorism’s goal. That might be Mr. Trump’s goal.

 

To eliminate the inhumanity that is ISIL requires studying and untangling the massively tangled web of beliefs, suffering and oppression that gave birth to it. To eliminate the threat that the new President represents requires the same. One aspect of ISIL is the absolute belief in the rightness of its ideology as well as its mission to destroy anyone who gets in its way or has different ideas. Mr. Trump calls for locking up or suing anyone who opposes him.

 

Spread enough fear and you can break the ties that bind us together. It can provoke people to hold on too tightly to their ideas of how things must be, degrade the value and examination of truth, and lose sight of the humanity of others. Society is held together by the most precarious of ties. It is not just buildings and institutions, but relationships, ideas, empathy and dreams. Mr. Trump spreads such fears.

 

Of course, his rhetoric has softened after the election. We don’t yet know exactly what he will do and must listen carefully to what he and other Republicans propose. But we also know that anyone who has spoken as he did in the election is not to be trusted. Even if, as some claim, his words were a tactic to gain power, such a means to power exposes, to some degree, his ends.

 

Fighting the ideas of Mr. Trump means not becoming who or what we oppose. To quote Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is too tempting to yell and assign blame, to hold too righteously to anger as our identity, and thus become like Mr. Trump. As many people have said, those of us who abhor terror and the politics of fear must fight not only against hatred but for democracy, for the rights, equity, humanity, and compassion that should characterize a government and are our best weapons against the terrorist ideology of Mr. Trump—or ISIL, for that matter.

 

One strategy we might use is for each of us to create a small, caring group dedicated to deepening our own education, developing mental and emotional awareness, and committing ourselves to act when necessary—it would help us all to find balance and limit the reach of our fears. Such groups can take the work seriously and also support us in playing and finding beauty in the world. We need to think as clearly as we can, and the greatest aid to clear thinking is energetic commitment to a deep examination of issues, combined with kindness and joy in being together, in being alive. Much of the news is depressing but that doesn’t mean we need to deny our selves or our friends joy.

 

So, I hope we find a way to improve the way we care for, support and educate each other, and not let fear drive us apart.

 

*Also: For some hope, read this article on student responses to the election of Mr. Trump.

Political Speech

Last week, I wrote about using essential moral questions to teach students how to be aware of the suffering which can result from lies and inauthentic speech. Today, even though the midterm US elections are over, I’d like to speak about political speech. I think most teachers recognize that it is our duty to educate students to be responsible citizens. One aspect of acting as a responsible citizen is taking part in democratic decision-making. To vote, you need to not only be informed on the candidates and issues, but to critically examine those issues. What are different ways to discuss politics and examine political speech in the classroom?

 

Some teachers think that in a public school, politics, like religion, should not be discussed. They are afraid that, since teachers have their own political views, these views will inevitably make their way into the classroom. One proposed solution is that teachers honestly state their political party affiliation, if any. I totally agree with honesty, but I don’t think this solves the problem. A teacher or any person is not a Democrat, Republican, Independent or otherwise. The views they hold are just views they held in the past and might hold in the present, and can change like anything else. The Declaration of Independence says that all people (men) are created equal in terms of inalienable political rights, but all viewpoints are not equal. They need to be examined independently of the people who hold them. They can be true or false, confused or clear. Of course, most issues have no one right answer and some issues are just too complex to fully understand what is the best solution. What do you do then? For one thing, recognize the limits of your understanding.

 

We all know that political discussions easily become intractable debates or intellectual wars. Instead of looking to increase their understanding, many look for ways to win the war. So, I will re-state my question: What are different ways to discuss and examine political speech in a manner that encourages openness, aims at increasing understanding, respects and critically examines diverse viewpoints?

 

If you like debates, ask students to take on a viewpoint they previously disagreed with. For another, teach a vocabulary of critical reasoning. Teach inductive and deductive reasoning and arguments by analogy.  Teach about fallacies of reasoning and how to spot them. Analyze: What is a fact and how is it different from an opinion or theory? I know that many teachers argue that teaching logic does not necessarily transfer to clear critical thinking. But in my experience, it is helpful. It can work with social-emotional learning to focus the students on the matter at hand. If students learn to spot fallacies not only in the speech of politicians, classmates but themselves, they will have an additional tool of self-control.

 

I would also teach mindful awareness, so students can recognize when they are beginning to feel threatened or anxious and then can act to lessen that anxiety and increase the clarity of their thought process.  Ask students early in the year, after already having some practice with mindfulness: What are the sensations that  arise when you feel threatened or anxious about someone else’s viewpoint? Or you hear a fact that opposes one of your own? What do you feel? Where? Just take a moment to close your eyes and just feel the sensations. Just notice. There’s nothing you have to do. Is your breath calm or agitated, slow or fast, or maybe something in-between? Just feel yourself breathe in. Then breathe out, and let the breath go, let the tension go, and let your body settle down. Just breathe in and out. Let your focus return to the breath. Now, was there a moment that you felt calmer? Are there places where you’re feeling more relaxed? What does it feel like when you’re relaxed and quiet? When you’re open in how you feel and look at the world? Can you imagine listening with a sense of inner peace to someone who you disagree with? Just sit with the sense that you could hear someone speaking a viewpoint that you disagree with, and you hear it calmly, fully, without feeling threatened. Afterwards, ask students to share the sensations they identified of feeling threatened, and then of feeling relaxed. In this way, they learn from others how to more fully identify their sensations and more easily be able to let them go.

 

I recommend actually bringing into class speeches by politicians (maybe with no names attached) and have students analyze them using the following questions:

  1. Is the argument valid? Does the position taken by the speaker follow logically or naturally from the statements or facts offered as supportive evidence? Is the reasoning a form of a formal or informal fallacy?
  2. Is the argument sound, meaning based on evidence that is reliably verified and truthful as well as valid? Research, and not just with online fact-check sites but sources with diverse viewpoints, the facts and statements offered as supportive evidence. Are the supposed facts really facts?
  3. What are the implications of the position and the intent of the speaker?
    1. Intent: Is the statement consistent with other and previous statements? Is the speaker changing his or her position with each audience? Is there evidence that donors are paying the politician to take a position?
    2. Implications: How will the position affect the planet? Poor people? People in the Middle Class? The integrity of the community? What are the ethical dimensions of the viewpoint? Does this position increase or decrease suffering and social and economic inequity?

 

The citizens of the US and of many nations today are not only very divided but confused about many issues. There is too much information that is highly relevant, even crucial to the lives of most people, which is misunderstood. It is our job as teachers to do what we can to improve that situation.