Tuesday, September 8, 2009

History Through New Eyes

Welcome to the new academic year. I've been away but my classes start tomorrow and I expect to be writing at least once a week. Enjoy!

"It is a great pity that every human being does not, at an early stage of his life, have to write a historical work. He would then realize that the human race is in quite a jam about truth." ~Rebecca West

After so many years in the classroom, I think I understand the students who like the study of history. It is, after all, largely narrative. Most students who love history though do not go on to higher degrees in the subject, are those who join the History Book Club, or become re-enactors of the battles of the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, or spend their free time watching the Hitler--I mean, the HISTORY channel. My bank manager, a URI graduate, always tells me about his latest reading for he had majored in history and never lost the love of it. My daughter, a law and public health graduate student loves Henry VIII and the denizens of his century. Bank managers, postal carriers, librarians, lawyers, all sorts of people in many lines of work connect and love the narratives, the stories that humans have told themselves since we were able to talk. Even George W. Bush majored in history, though that hardly recommends it.

What about the students who hate history? Who come to my class and spend half of the semester glowering at me before I finally break down their defenses to convince them that I will not inundate them with names and dates? And they DO glower.

I believe that part of the problem is the way that they have been taught history in the primary and secondary schools. Poor teachers and class size may be part of the problem but the battles over curricula, over what students must learn to graduate really twist the knot and strangle the joy of it all . While the children may be unaware of the ideological battles, they are from the result: a bland diet of de-politicized history. Like white bread, the nutrition has been stripped out and all that remains is the appearance of substance.

Listening to the debate over President Barack Obama's address to our children encouraging them to stay in school and study hard, I am reminded of the zeal with which school boards guard the things teachers are allowed to teach. One complainant was furious because the president's speech had not been sent in advanced to the country's curriculum committees for approval! Apparently her motto is, "The blander, the better." President Obama delivered the most innocuous of messages to school children and some ultraconservatives are actually keeping their children home from school so they will not be exposed to the President’s “socialist propaganda” and to teach the schools a lesson. Oy.

When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I took a colloquium with Professor Gary Nash, a famous--though conservatives would say notorious--historian of United States History. Prof. Nash is the Director of the National Center for History in the Schools which published the extremely controversial National Standards for History, Basic Edition (1996). What could Prof. Nash have done that earned him the hatred of the conservatives and caused him to be labeled a Marxist, among other things? Leaving aside for the moment that conservatives drag out the "Marxist-socialist-communist" labels at the drop of a hat whenever they disagree with someone, they accuse Prof. Nash of emphasizing the "wrong" events and people in American history:

"Well, think of an American history where George Washington, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address are barely mentioned, while the first nineteenth-century meeting of feminists at Seneca Falls and the rise of the American Federation of Labor are mentioned over eighteen times. J. P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers are not mentioned at all while Harriet Tugman [sic] appears six times. The great speeches of Daniel Webster are never mentioned but students are asked to analyze Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican convention. And then of course there are the truly great villains of American history. Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism are mentioned 19 times..." (http://www.ashbrook.org/publicat/onprin/v3n2/thompson.html)

The fact that Prof. Nash's work has been funded in large part by grants from the government really drives his critics over the wall.

Prof. Nash and his collaborators expanded the study of history in the schools to reflect a more balanced view of the government's actions, and to present a more inclusive and representative view of our history. The traditional way of teaching history presented certain famous leaders, almost all exclusively white men with the exception of Eli Whitney and George Washington Carver. For example, I remember my sixth grade history book because it was the first time I had ever seen a picture of an African American in any of my school books. The picture was of an older black man, hat in hand, head bowed, standing respectfully on the side of the road as Lincoln's funeral cortege went by. There is more to the presence of African Americans in U.S. history than old former slaves; more to Chinese American history than coolies building the railroads; and more to American women's history than Betsy Ross and Martha Washington sewing American flags.

You'd think that I'd have less sympathy for those students who don't like history but actually, I have a keen recollection of my undergraduate years, and I understand their antipathy. I did not major in history, per se. I majored in philosophy and minored in classics. Naturally, in the latter, we studied Greek and Roman history. I was drawn to philosophy by an interest in epistemology, that is, the development of human ideas. Until my last semester of college, my only other sojourn into history was a dismal experience with Chinese history (I was defeated by the emphasis on dates and the similarity of the names--Ming and Wing, etc.) It wasn't until my last semester of college when I took Jewish history, that I was enraptured by the subject.

Our professor, Dr. George Lerski, was unlike any of my other professors. A Pole, he had parachuted behind enemy lines during World War II, and he had been scarred by the memories of what he had seen. He was a real, live hero and he lived his commitment to history by taking on an unlikely challenge. Appalled by the hideous genocide of the Jews, he was determined that the world should know the history of anti-Semitism and of the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. He knew little about Jewish history but he decided to teach a class in the history of the Jews; the first time, he said, that a class in Jewish history was offered in a Catholic university. He picked the most well-known of the current histories, Abraham Leon Sachar's A History of the Jews, and told us, "We'll learn it together."

It was thrilling. Instead of a dry recitation of facts and dates, he gave us a sense of the importance of knowing history. We knew that what we were learning was important; that we could make a difference. He not only told us that it was important; he showed us, through his passionate presentation, through the filter of his memories, why it was so consequential.

One of the mantras among college students in the 1960s was that studies should be relevant. Professor Lerski’s commitment to connecting the history on the page to the Jewish people's suffering in the world captured our imaginations and provided the elusive link between book-learning and relevance that we craved. He was passionate and political though not partisan in a Democrat/Republican paradigm.

Forty years later, we are still redesigning curricula, trying to find the right balance between traditional learning, relevance, and a more enlightened 21st century approach to history. It is was Gary Nash does; what Howard Zinn did in People's History of the United States; and Gerda Lerner and a generation of women historians have done in illuminating the history of women.

Finding the relevance to our students' lives is the hard part but we must do it; we can count ourselves fortunate that academic freedom is still protected in this country. God bless the AAUP*.

*The American Association of University Professors is dedicated to the preservation of academic freedom. 

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