What can history class offer?

A teacher’s words for his students on the last day of history class…

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash

I usually end this class with a formal speech on the last day. I like having the last word, and it gives some structure to the typical awkwardness and confusion of the last day of classes. This year feels different in so many ways, but I thought I would still write something to try to encapsulate what I hope you learned this year from your experience in this course. The truth is also that this is always a hard day for me because I love teaching so much and today I have to say good bye to you all and good bye to teaching until the fall.

I have to admit that this speech was harder to write than previous years’. Usually the words flow right out of me, but given everything happening in the world — the pandemic and distance learning, state-sanctioned violence against protesters, and the ongoing scourge of police brutality and racism — it’s hard even for adults to know what to say to kids. I hope you’ll take in these words, and I hope they’ll be helpful in making sense of everything happening right now.

History class has a lot of purposes, and although I’m just a little bit biased, to me it’s the most important of all your classes. My hope is to help you cultivate the habits of mind to understand your own experience and the experiences of others and develop the tools to build a better world. History class can also help you understand what is happening in our world right now.

I want you to go back in your mind through our year together. You may remember back in the fall when we studied European colonialism in Africa. Do you recall the stories of King Mojimba and Henry Stanley, two irreconcilable versions of the same fateful encounter on the Congo River in 1870? Both claimed that the other side attacked first. Our discussion focused on whose story was more likely to be believed. We concluded that Stanley’s version would likely go on to become the authoritative version due to his power.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Power means your version of events is the one that gets believed. The powerful “make history;” they literally create the stories that get written about what happened in the past. Power is the ability to determine what counts as the known, what counts as history. Powerlessness, then, is the experience of having someone else tell your story, or having someone doubt your story’s credibility. It means being seen as shaped by the forces of history rather than authoring it, being a secondary character instead of the protagonist. In this course we tried to look at history through the experiences of those without power, those without self-determination, and followed that thread to Rwanda, to Palestine, to the Soviet Union, to China, to those experiencing the ravages of climate change, all while keeping in mind our own relative power and privilege as Americans, as private school students.

It is incredibly hard to learn about those experiences. They are so far from what most of us experience here at this elite institution. But recent events in America have forced us to look more closely at who we are. Our own ability to live free of the weight of forces larger than ourselves was disrupted by a world-historical event; our spring together disappeared to COVID quarantine. And yet for most of us, the mild disruptions to our day-to-day lives pale in comparison to what others have experienced during the pandemic. A virus hitting a country as unequal as ours only exacerbates that inequality.

And then, with the police murder of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest, we’ve learned even more about the rotten soul of our country. It is an intensely sad, intensely overwhelming, and intensely perplexing time to be alive.

As a historian, it’s imperative that I make clear to you that none of this is new. The specific travails of this moment may feel like a great departure, but the reality is that for millions of Americans and others around the world, very few of whom get to experience a place like our school, the violence and suffering we’re seeing on our television and phone screens is nothing new. Cornelius Minor, a teacher and scholar, says that “[o]ne of white folks’ [and here we could extend it to those with power] favorite things to do is to claim that they didn’t know.” But as we’ve seen, whose knowledge counts and whose doesn’t is about power. Why don’t we know?

Protesters are currently engaged in a struggle to assert a more accurate, more expansive version of America’s history. They are trying to change what people know — and how we decide what counts as knowledge. “Black lives matter” means in part black experience matters, black knowledge matters.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

Some of you may have noticed the long quote I have on my classroom door, a snippet from an essay by the writer and historian Rebecca Solnit. In it, Solnit talks about how we use the phrase “nobody knows,” playing on the idea that when we say “nobody” knows something, we can mean either knowledge that is not known to anyone or, perhaps more accurately, knowledge known only by the people society and history have considered nobodies. In this framework, King Mojimba was a “nobody,” and his story got ignored for the version told by Stanley, a somebody. What do history’s “nobodies” know that those in power have ignored, suppressed, or forgotten? The objective of this course, guided by our school’s Quaker values, is for you to come to know and understand what these so-called “nobodies” have known and to understand the process by which what these nobodies know is ignored, suppressed, and forgotten.

At this moment, it can feel hard to be upbeat about the future, but when I think of you all in this world, I feel more optimism. That is partly because of how many of you have not let the quarantine dim your spirit. You may not think of it in these terms, but when we stopped going to school and kept ourselves isolated and removed, we were all participating in an act of solidarity and selflessness. Amidst your understandable sadness about missing your spring-time activities, I hope you took pride in the fact that our collective quarantining was — and will likely continue to be — essential for helping flatten the curve and minimize the spread of the virus. My hope is that this act of solidarity, in conjunction with the scale of these protests rooted in anti-racism, will help your generation understand what solidarity looks like.

This moment in history is hard to understand in part because of its complexity. Some years back, a student shared with me that his takeaway from this course was the paradox that as he learned more about a topic or issue, he actually found himself with more questions and more unknowns. He had thought learning more would make things clearer, but in fact, as you learn more, you often find yourself with more questions and a deeper appreciation for how things are connected to one another. Zeynep Tufekci noted that in failing to wrap our heads around the scale of the pandemic, we “failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism.” Another way of saying that, which will be familiar to you from our earliest discussions this year, is “beware of the danger of a single story.” Things are always more complex than we realize, and there are always multiple narratives and deep, complex cause-and-effect stories underlying nearly everything. History class has hopefully shown you how intricate and messy cause-and-effect relationships really are.

And then, of course, there is the lesson about power and stories, too. Power wants to flatten and simplify, to make things easy for people, to give a simple, reductive explanation, but the historians I hope you’ve become know that everything is complex and nothing is easy. You need to resist simple explanations of complex developments; instead, my hope is that this course has helped you learn to tolerate and even embrace complexity, that you have developed the cognitive armor to resist oversimplification.

This complexity extends to everything, including ourselves as individuals. One of the problems with our world today is that we see ourselves as isolated, independent entities, individuals floating along, untethered to each other. But as Solnit notes in her writing on disasters and calamities and what they reveal about human nature, in this kind of shared experience, “we suddenly all have something in common. Some of the real and some of the arbitrary walls between us fall away.”

What do we owe each other? How do we learn to live together? These are the questions at the heart of a democratic society and at the heart of history class. We are living in a disaster right now, actually a complex set of interlocking disasters. Perhaps we will discover what all have in common. This is yet another gift of history class: the discovery of what’s common across humans in every place, in every era.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

I want to leave you with one other concept that I think may be useful for understanding what the world needs of you. There is a theory in philosophy and psychology about “moral circles.” Basically, “the circle is the imaginary boundary we draw around those we consider worthy of moral consideration” and those we exclude from moral consideration. Another goal of history class is to help you expand your moral circle, to treat others, particularly those with different experiences as you, as “worthy of moral consideration.” Our unit on climate change, for instance, asked whether we can consider those most vulnerable to climate change as part of our own moral calculus. It also asked us to add future generations to our moral circles. And the protest movements are asking all of us, no matter our identity, to expand our moral circle to include the victims of systemic violence and racism, to understand their stories, to want to know what “nobodies” know instead of just saying nobody knows. It’s one thing to say you care; it’s another to include others in your moral universe, to join your liberation to others’, to understand that no one is free until everyone is free.

Indeed, the fundamental question of our time is how widely can we cast our moral circles; history shows us that America’s moral circle development is largely unfinished. We still struggle to see each other as fully human and we treat only some people’s knowledge as fact, only some people’s experiences as valid.

Can you take what you’ve learned in history class this year and use it to understand what nobodies know?

I hope what I’ve shared with you here today — and our experience together in this course — has resonated, perhaps given you some language and vocabulary and a framework for understanding what’s going on in the world. Listen to the words of the protesters: “a better world is possible.” That will be true if you all make it so. And you will make it so if you can enlarge your moral circle, understand deep cause-and-effect relationships, and not shy away from embracing complexity.

“Every disaster shakes loose the old order,” Solnit writes. “The sudden catastrophe changes the rules and demands new and different responses, but what those will be are the subject of a battle.” You will leave here and participate in this battle for the future, and I can only hope we’ve armed you well.

Written by

Teacher+ writer. Tweets @jonathansgold

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store