e s s a y r o b e r t c a s t l e
Given: teenagers are indifferent to history or, what amounts to the same, feel history is utterly useless subject matter.
Given: teenagers in high school must be taught at least one, possibly two years of history, probably American History and/or World Cultures.
Given: theoretical and conceptual discussions in high school generate little or no interest.
I start many History courses by asking two questions: “What is history?” “Why should we study history?” Students answer perfunctorily, from lack of interest and from my insistence on answers. Responses fall into several categories:
History is the totality of events that have happened up to the present moment.
History, one way or another, is manipulated (ergo, unreliable if not mostly lies).
History repeats itself.
History is necessary for humans to avoid making the same mistakes (not really an answer to the question and is usually said by those who believe this is an answer I’m looking for).
The first response represents student logic more than anything else. It seems reasonable to assume that history is the sum of all that has happened before. The history they will study happened “before.” There are no courses called “Future history.” The logic extends to the events themselves. For example: when a candidate wins the most votes, he wins the election. Sometimes the frail student is logic is so easy to crack that there’s no real sport left, as, for example, when I discuss the electoral college in the elections of 1800, 1824, 1876, and 1888. Nor have they absorbed the election of 2000 to aid their understanding of the “college which doesn’t graduate anyone,” let alone to anticipate that what they see is not what they will get.
But I must return to the original thesis and take an elliptical route. I say that only an infinitesimal number of events happening to mankind are part of history. “Elliptical” because I have invited them to misunderstand me. They believe I am saying that most things that have happened are insignificant. I am, and more: most lives have been insignificant!
I don’t clarify immediately. I prefer that they see the sharp edge of the concept I’m flinging at them. Or, at least, they think it sharp, and duck – that is, not ask any questions. Rarely do I get a chance to toss their self-esteem into a shit pile. On another day it would seem a reckless act, as if I had smacked their deadened faces (especially the dead-eyed faces of first period).
Those who embrace the “totality of events” history use it to justify not studying history. It must be a hopeless task, they reason, to try to know everything. There are too many facts. Other students are motivated by getting “good grades,” despite the hopelessness of the task, but we will not be concerned now or ever with student grades as a measure of anything (throw that onto the parent shit pile). I would rather have those who did not study.
I clarify my remarks about the relative significance of everything by pointing out that “History” derives from the Greek word for story, and that the Father of this kind of history is Herodotus. Stories tend to be dramatic and the events told to us, inside or outside the History class, would be the kind people thought worthy of remarking about. Events stand out, for many reasons, and are told and re-told. The mass of events students had assumed was history actually have been selected and refined and made significant by the fact that they were remembered above other events. Significance is chosen. History is chosen.
Narrowing history to accounts, stories, and interpretations of past events leads us neatly to the second student definition: History is manipulated. Either we are hearing the winner’s version of events (non-winners include native populations and colonized peoples especially), or the accounts are little more than public relations for the United States or Europe or Japan. Students in particular fear being manipulated, by parents, the school principal, and teachers, as well as by any source which might taint their original thoughts. Some reflexively reject anything coming their way, adopting a radical skepticism toward a society which every moment is trying to get their attention, money, love, and votes. Where history, for those who sympathize with the oppressed, appears to be part of the oppression, and the History teacher becomes the spokesperson for the oppressors.
I will not necessarily fight the students’ definition here but try to take the skepticism one step further. Isn’t everything we say or do, at some level, a form of manipulation? Few students agree. They only see the obvious bits of manipulation. I persist. Isn’t speech an attempt to construct a reality for someone else, a reality with which we want the other person to agree? If so, history is no worse or better than love, religion, business, sports, the sciences, etc. Analyzing historical events, understanding how peoples have understood reality in the past, why they thought these realities were superior to other realities, might take us a long way to becoming less easily manipulated.
By the time I get to the third definition, history repeating itself, the theoretical exercise begins to repeat on me! “History repeating itself” and “those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it” are the most fondly received ideas in history class. Students confidently ask whether I subscribe to “History repeating itself.” “No, I do not,” I say firmly. “Nor do I believe studying or knowing history prevents people from repeating the same historical mistakes.”
Only to select classes will I direct the second part of the statement. Again, the attempt, as before, is to outrun student skepticism. To make them breathless before a more imposing task. History, in fact, is more difficult than they would have imagined in their worst dreams. Then, again, history is no more imposing than life. Speaking of which, outside of history, in life, how often do we learn from our mistakes? Put another way, do we not recognize how heavily humans invest in a particular way of doing things, and how very difficult it is for a person to alter a course that may have started in infancy or, at least, early childhood? Why expect history to teach us anything, anything we will learn? In fact, those most attentive to historical matters, historically, have been troublemakers and people nursing grudges! In the history classroom, we assume that this past is one we can deal with or has led to a situation in the present that seems desirable. This assumption bespeaks the status quo and the Establishment. How did we get to this ideal today from times of a fumbling democracy – “democracy” as explicitly defined in American History as the maximum level of participation by the people in the process of political change? How did America develop into a world power? In essence, we view the world from an Americo-centric vantage point.
In one stroke, I have apparently agreed with a fervent minority who believe history is manipulative. Worse, I seemed to have given the majority of students a reason not to pay attention in my History classes. To deepen this impression, I add that our understanding of the past has done little or nothing to help us proceed into the future, and may have set us back. Learning the facts is one thing; applying what is learned another; and remembering the past has been a waste of time.
“You’re a History teacher,” they might respond to what I have just said, “you can’t believe that.”
More meaningful responses to historical events by students occur unexpectedly. Meaningful, in that their responses distill definite feelings toward the past that leave out theories or schemes. The class studies the usual abominations and atrocities: battles with tens of thousands of casualties; forcible conversions to one religion or another; assassinations of benevolent rulers; irrational responses to plagues; caste and class systems; ad nauseam. Inevitably, someone remarks “that was stupid” or “those people were stupid.” This teenage reflex, admittedly, cringes from anything in life remotely different to her mind from what she already knows. Yet, embodied in the “stupid” remark are qualities of mind shared by many:
–incredulity over past events and the customs of foreign cultures
–intolerance of past stupidities and wrongs
–they, the students, could never be as remotely stupid as those they consider stupid
–our era isn’t as stupid as past stupid eras.
Unarguably, many past events are stupid because the world conformed to codes that were extraordinarily unfair to blacks, women, Indians, non-western cultures, etc. Certainly, they aren’t stupidities a teacher could defend or justify, save for the rationalization that “they are products of those times.” These indefensible attitudes and actions in the past make history a tough “sell” to students. What can they, they suppose, learn from such bigoted times, as though narrow attitudes and intolerance poison all aspects of past history and culture? Didn’t George Washington have slaves? And why they should learn about Ferdinand and Isabella, who started the Inquisition and banished the Jews from Spain? Obviously, they can’t respect war makers like Napoleon and Alexander the Great, when many teachers spread the gospel that peace is the ultimate value of civilized people.
Historical stupidity alone, however, does not evoke “That was stupid.” Incestuous practices, celibacy and licentiousness, and outdated customs either automatically repel them. National ideologies or missions, such as Manifest Destiny, seems beyond my power to explain. Far be it from me to defend the dynastic marriages of the Hapsburgs. Or the Spanish monarchy’s insistence on marriages to first cousins, when it appeared Church Law prohibited such marriages, and the “fruit” of these marriages ended the Spanish Hapsburg line. Hell, it seems more than a little stupid!
No, my inclination to upset or disturb the students grows in proportion to the level of obviousness of their views and interpretations. This level rises to flood conditions when two topics are broached: war and slavery.
Who would defend either?
I wouldn’t, but students – despite insisting on being non-judgmental – function in a black- and- white world, and my attempts to explain obnoxious institutions sound like briefs justifying if not approving those institutions. War and slavery are bad. Skip the discussion. Let’s move on to less complicated moments or to something we can feel good about. Why, I wonder, do I bother to pursue the very path that stimulates their frustration and anger with the past?
Occasionally, I show Hollywood films in class. One-quarter to a third of them are not in color. It’s interesting to hear the students’ responses to characters in some of the black-and-white films. It’s as though the world depicted in the ‘Thirties and ‘Forties was ludicrous in style and emotion. Their disrespect bleeds into other of their judgments about the past. They often wonder aloud why this guy or woman would do something that, to them, seems so obviously avoidable. You have characters dying in a spooky mansion yet none of the survivors seem to stay together. Students often define the past —history— as they see the black-and-white world depicted in these films. What is contemporary, modern, is in color.
What is their “black-and-white” thinking? Women were oppressed in the past. European and American whites are racist. America is the greatest nation on earth (this is spoken by adults who use it as a mantra to fend off a world they fear). Wars are bad. The Church should distribute all its billions of dollars to the poor. Countries should print money so that all people will have enough to spend. Hitler was pure evil. It is as if the mental syntax rejects the slightest equivocation, and our inherited terminology – liberal, conservative, sexist, racist, etc – have become obsolete concepts that hinder the defeat of the very things those who use the terms want to see eliminated from the world.
Can you blame the student for thinking history is nothing more than stupid compared to the educated ideologue who wants to make history more than it is? Taking a cue from the students I flip their thoughts and allow them to discover her own ignorance.
“Stupid History” temporarily acts as an antidote to ideologies.
The first lesson of Stupid History deals with Thomas Jefferson and slavery. Much has been written on, and many have debated, the subject: op-ed pieces, an Atlantic Monthly cover article, the Oprah Winfrey Show. Many thinkers want to deny Jefferson his accomplishments because he owned slaves. For them, Jefferson actually epitomizes the Founding Fathers who owned slaves, or those who believed even remotely that blacks were inferior to whites. They remember that such beliefs also occur in Lincoln’s and Woodrow Wilson’s speeches and positions. The crux of the torment lies in Jefferson’s apparent inability to follow through on his Enlightened ideas of freedom, which have become snarled in the barbarity of keeping slaves and fathering children by Sally Hemings. Why indeed did he not renounce his plantation heritage?
Jefferson’s actions seem stupid because he was intelligent enough to pluck himself from his dilemma. In other words, he knew the right thing to do, and he would not do it. We would like to think that we could have done what he did not do. At the core of our wishful thinking lies the premise that it would have been easy for him to free his slaves. How easy is it to do the right thing, when that very thing strikes at the core of your society’s sense of order and decorum? Put another way, when you resist something that a society cherishes or sees as a fundamental duty, that society might issue a severe penalty or retribution. However, the race issue is, simply, too emotionally volatile for the History teacher to defend Jefferson amidst his southern plantations. So I must search for an analogy for the force of Southern society, an unfeeling, unsympathetic entity that only knows self-interest based on the slavery system.
What is the thing that our own society could not function without, that high school students must have, yet whose problems they are aware of?
I ask the students to consider a hypothetical situation, set two hundred years hence, roughly the same time that has passed since Jefferson’s era. Avoiding the apocalyptic scenario of the Greenhouse Effect, I portray a world suffering from horrible pollution. So badly has the atmosphere been poisoned, that humans now realize that the use of fossil fuels, especially those refined for gasoline, have caused the greatest damage. I note that the exhaustion of fossil fuels didn’t happen and humans were not artificially prompted to give up their vehicles, though once in a while, someone is found hiding a car or illegally riding around the countryside and sent to jail for these environmental hate crimes. In schools, learning about the twentieth century, the century of the car, students are more critical of those who owned cars than they are of nations that deployed or even used nuclear weapons. How stupid we were, especially after the 1960’s! How could we have driven cars knowing full well the poisonous consequences of our activities? How could we have rejected the flawed but energy efficient vehicles and purchase en masse SUVs? We couldn’t even bring ourselves to call cars a necessary evil.
Can we defend ourselves? Why can’t we give up cars or modify our driving habits? Would all the accomplishments in the 20th and 21st centuries be wiped out because of the pollution catastrophe in the 24th? Martin Luther King and Jonas Salk are implicated for having driven cars. Lee Ioccoca becomes the Adolf Hitler to the environment. Gandhi might be the only one who would emerge untarnished by stupid history.
In the classroom, there’s a difference between the nods of assent to my analogy and the actual understanding of it. Mostly, students are concerned about whether the material will appear in a test. I would put it in a test if I believed that parroting a response in an essay amounted to a form of understanding. I may remind them later of the Jefferson / slavery/ pollution analogy the next time I make another incursion into stupid history.
Nor do they have to wait very long for this. Inevitably, we study a war – the Hundred Years War (most stupid only because it lasted 116 years), the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon himself gets many stupid calls, but so does the Reign of Terror for cutting off heads), World War I, or the Punic Wars. There are very few things the students would go to war for. Certainly, there are even fewer things to die for. In that vein, kamikaze pilots are certainly more stupid than Napoleon. Likewise, few would ever want to be bossed around by a pharaoh, caesar, czar, or kaiser, and many students believe that no nation or empire has the right to rule over another people. Then, again, given the inertia of middle-class existence, it sometimes seems difficult for them to imagine why anyone in the past did anything except sit around and enjoy life. Hell, why can’t everyone let everyone else alone?
Their responses here generally irritate me, if only because they seem blind to the belligerence manifested sometimes in their own behavior. Do they understand how little they really get along among themselves? Do they realize how much their own culture is reviled in other parts of the world, so much so that some people would die to see us suffer? (The recent terrorist attack on the World Trade Center dumbfounded everyone precisely because it was a suicide attack – gee, do they hate us that much? – and I’m sure in a few generations the attack will be viewed by students as stupid). “Saving human lives,” “avoiding suffering,” and “thinking about the children first” are three principles to which most students subscribe. These are simply inarguable – they love the feeling of being impregnable to the teacher (or any adult) who lives in a world of expediency. Being for “peace,” for example, means being against the forces which might take one’s life involuntarily, especially since there are few causes to die for! Besides, who would be passionate enough to throw away one’s life, especially for causes that appear to have no chance of winning, or are simply unfathomable?
I feel compelled, finally, to take a strong pro-war stance.
You can have all your stupid wars, I tell the students, but there is one that was inarguably necessary. I turn to the American Civil War. No options were available in the 1860s. No matter what Lincoln’s original intent was for saving the union, slavery had to end. But wouldn’t slavery have ended eventually? Wasn’t the southern economy doomed? (Charles Beard’s history textbook back in the 1920s propounded this.) Was it worth over five hundred thousand lives and the innumerable casualties?
Yes. Slavery had to end.
Were there any signs of the South’s economy changing? Given that there were fifteen slave states, this meant that a Union of sixty states would have been needed to pass a constitutional amendment. If anything, the South was becoming more psychotic over the slavery issue in the 1850s than it had been thirty years before.
Slavery was not going to end without a war.
I hastily inform the students that, yes, this is an interpretation, not a fact, but it’s an interpretation I feel quite assured about passing along to them. I reiterate that it was as necessary a war as had ever been fought – forget about the religious or philosophical niceties about a “just” or “unjust” war. Lincoln, who knew better than anyone else, knew that only a war would end slavery. He was genius enough to maneuver the South into firing the first shot. As Garry Wills wrote: “Lincoln defined what the Civil War would be for most Americans.”
As the Civil War was necessary for America, so were the Crusades for western civilization. Recently, in the age of multiculturalism, the Crusades have taken their lumps. In a secular age, religious wars look particularly stupid (even the peace-spouting John Paul II has apologized for them). Besides, with jihads being called from every corner of the Middle East and the subsequent condemnations of those calls by Christians and Muslims alike, defending the Catholic holy wars would seem particularly stupid. And the Crusades originally were meant to bolster Church power, as well as to take a few frustrated barons out of the medieval European picture. The long-term effects, however, caused increase in trade and, unintentionally, a surge in monarchical power that directly led to the decrease of Church power. No amount of apologizing or self-criticism will undo the incredible luxuries, comforts, and first amendment liberties we endure today. The Crusades forced Europe to make vital contacts outside of western civilization. It’s inconceivable that Europe would have grown out of feudalism so quickly without its holy wars. You cannot have the luxury of condemning the Crusades and having no Crusades as well.
Curiously, the apparently high regard many students and parents have for their own time, the present day, contradicts the other main currents nurturing their concept of the world: namely, the world is a mess and values if not institutions and morals are in absolute disarray and confusion. In a very peculiar way, we are witnessing a feat of intellectual magic. Not only do we feel superior to the past but also to the present. Few people are genuinely respected except some obvious names: the Pope, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, and the Dalai Lama. Those fragments of the past that are respected enter the same present-day pantheon as all other obvious ones. History transforms into a playground of conflicting cultural ideologies that offer new plans and standards every ten years.
There seems nothing left for a teacher but to battle what seems obvious to students and discover what is not so obvious in the classroom. Perhaps the occasional student utterances will stimulate some tangible history instruction and turn stupid history back on itself. Then, hope for the best.
Robert Castle’s “From Desperation to Salvation” appeared in Vol. 6, No. 3.