Monday, September 14, 2015

Forgetting History

So it's not 9/14, a date that carries no particular power. And after sitting in the cultural silence that follows any powerful observance, I'm reflecting again on 9/11.

Friday was a day not much different from many others. The social studies teacher whose classroom shares a door with mine was playing a documentary stitched together from footage of That Day. But teachers are already aware of what civilians are slowly realizing-- students in school, right now, have no memory of that day. My juniors were two years old. Some of my freshmen hadn't been born yet. To my students, who think of me as a thousand years old and their own elementary school years as eons ago, the September 11 attacks are as distant to most of them as the Vietnam War or World War II.

And I can't decide if that's a good thing or not.

I am seriously attached to the study of history. My student teaching kept me from minoring; the state of Pennsylvania's elevation of "social studies" over history kept me from adding it to my teaching certification. My class is shot full of it. I think human beings are absolutely hardwired to do history, to try to draw a consensus on what happened, why it happened, what it means. We do it for 9/11, for Vietnam, for the Great European War, and for the fight between Ethel and Mia last night at the restaurant.

My students deride history as the most worthless class they take, a class that has nothing to do with their present or their future. My students also like to drag out and rehearse their favorite stories of Things That Happened in Grade School.

We are hardwired to do history, and yet we also seem hardwired to forget it, if we even grasp it in the first place. I've watched my students for over three decades, certain that the world sprang into existence when they were born, unable to imagine what it will do when they die, and absolutely rocked to their core when someone does die.

We're a small place, but it happens. Accident. Disease. Suicide. The school is an entirely different place for a while, and then they spring back, stand back up and move on. Fourteen years ago, they did the same. I can't deny that the forgetting, the scabbing over, the pain's loss of immediacy and reality-- it all seems to be part of the healing.

And yet, the forgetting can seem callous. When I saw Titanic in the theater, I was braced, but it still hit me hard. Those people, crying helpless, floating in the water and slowly inevitably dying-- those were not a plot device or background color, but real people who really died that miserable, torturous death, and there we were, a theater full of people who had paid good money to eat popcorn and watch their deaths acted out for us. What the hell is that?

And the lack of historical memory, of ability to place themselves historically. We discuss works like William Bradford's account of Plymouth or Frederick Douglass's autobiography, and I inevitably have to explain, "This is a little less bland and boring if you can make yourself remember that this really happened to real people. It's not just a story."

My students have a hard time getting the horror of slavery. Many are pretty sure that racism is just when white people are really rude to black people, or call them names. They can see the pictures from the days of the Civil Rights Movement, and they can see that a lot of folks were really angry, but to get them to really see it and feel it is a challenge.

I'm reminded of all of this contemplating the slow tread of years in which we've watched 9/11 recede in the school, from something they view with somber concern, just as real as the time they fell down on the elementary school playground, to something they see just like one more movie about something that happened before the world was born.

How do I help them understand? How do I help them grasp their present reality when it's so hard to get them to really see, really feel, the foundation upon which it's built, foundation upon crumbled foundation, upon crumbled foundation, each new structure taking its unique tilt and twist and even broken instability from the ruins on which it was built? How do I get them to make sense of something like Ferguson or Dyett High or their own roots or whatever is going to erupt tomorrow?

Of all the teacher tricks I try to pull off during the year, this is the hardest, but probably also the most worthwhile, because how do you figure out how to be fully human in the world, how do you figure out how to live at the peculiar and unique intersection of roads on which you stand, unless you understand something about where those roads lead from?


  1. The destruction of history as a subject has been part of Progressive education reform all along, beginning with the rise of "social studies"as a subject to replace history about a century ago. We're at a real crossroads now, and we either decide to abandon the Progressive model in which "education" is defined as social formation and control based on the whims of governing elites, and return to the traditional concept of education as intellectual development and the creation of a real society. The former leads to Common Core and testing; the latter will return us to sanity.

    1. Oh baloney. You clearly know nothing about progressive education. Educate yourself before making a fool of yourself.

      Progressive education is all about history. Making connections from where we are now to what happened then, back and forth. It's a matter of studying particular events in depth, how they relate to each other, the causes and implications, as well as the tie-ins with other subjects. No, you won't find students memorizing disconnected lists of dates, events, people in a progressive school, and, yes, there may be events that students aren't really aware of, but they will understand the events they have studied in great detail and they have a much better grasp than traditionally educated students of what history is and why it's relevant.

      Furthermore, progressive education has nothing to do with control, except to the extent of allowing students to take control of their own lives by understanding and relying on their own experience, not the authority of adult figures.

      Seriously, do yourself a favor and read what Dewey actually wrote, not what your right-wing friends have twisted him to say.