National Museum of African American History and Culture

I descended down into the lower level floors, watching the dates go back in time as we continued down three floors underground. Through the clear elevator glass, the dates 1950, 1880, 1860, 1800, 1750, 1650, 1500, 1400 acted as my guide until the elevator stopped. Immediately upon its opening I heard the voices of the oppressed, talking to us that were entering the room, describing the atrocities they experienced on the slave ships which embarked upon the Middle Passage. I wasn’t reading about it, I was there.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture undertook such a complex and difficult endeavor in capturing the African American experience for all Americans, and from my perspective, they succeeded. The entire museum is curated in such a way that does not just place these important documents, images, and artifacts in rooms to be seen, but more viscerally, to be felt. In some rooms, quotes line the glass that contextualize what is seen when looking beyond. In others, recordings of diaries read, interviews given, or actual news stories place you right there, amidst what was going on. Bricks built with the names of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves surround him. A red flag of slave auctions sits across the Bible of Nat Turner, juxtaposing the Good Word with the Bad deeds of the enslavers he rebelled against. When you walk from era to era, gaining elevation back up to the ground floor, you can look out and see the expanse of history you just went through, riddled with paradox.

This post could be 10 times as long as I am making it; there was so much to be in awe of at the museum. In hopes that you will go and see for yourself, however, I will cut it short. Go and see the NMAAHC. Go walk the floors of the African American experience, an American Experience. No matter how long you are there, you will wish you had more time.

Unit 6: Transcendentalism and Immigration

Below is my Unit vision and goals for Unit 6, which starts in January. History is so great to teach.

“Most of this year we have been looking at the successes of the American experiment. This unit, we begin to explore dissonance. In looking at Transcendentalism, students can begin to see that by having the freedoms given in the Constitution, many opinions can arise. The transcendentalists challenge the status quo of thinking as well as the actions that form out of that thinking. Here, I hope that students, too, can see that value in pushing back, challenging the status quo, and thinking for themselves (with evidence, of course!). As this unit is the first to kick off 2018, I hope it sets a good tone in critical thinking, questioning, speaking, and writing.

The Transcendentalists

The second half of the unit involves early U.S. immigration. Another area that amplifies dissonance within U.S. history, I hope that students can see and make parallels from early immigrant experiences to their own. In learning about the Irish and Italians in particular, conversations will center around questions like “What does ‘being white’ really mean?” “How can immigrants be seen as a threat?” Why can immigrants help a country?” and other thought-provoking questions. This unit will also illuminate one of our other C’s for my class: Complexity. In learning about varying viewpoints in thinking, as well as immigration, students can see that the past is a little more complicated that it is sometimes made out to be. During this unit, students will engage in Socratic seminar to further their discussion on complicated issues, students will create their own questions to push their own reasoning, and students will write extensively using primary source documents to push their understanding of the past as it were, not as we have made it to be.”

Travels With Charley

John Steinbeck is a legend. And like the best wines, he only gets better with time. His wisdom, I imagine, when his contemporaries read him, seemed more like a clever observation. It is us, his future readers, that see it for what it is, timeless wisdom. The way he can explicate his observations, both in his fiction and nonfiction, is something that most of us only wish we could come close to. Reading Steinbeck is like a perpetual lightbulb moment, where you think to yourself, “How did I not see this before?” Awe turns into reverence, reverence to introspection, and then, I guess, a little bit of defeat. “Why couldn’t I see this before?” How do I stare at the world daily, thinking I am a keen observer, only to be wowed by the observations that a man made about our country before Martin Luther King Jr. even told us of his dream.

In his book documenting a 3 month road trip around the country he and his furred companion, Charley, embarked on, Steinbeck illuminates certain aspects of America that seem to have not changed over the last almost 60 years. Travels With Charley paints the picture of a man trying to rediscover his country, and in doing so, helps us, born in a supposedly different world, understand it a little better. The Cuban Missle Crisis was still a year or two in the future, man hadn’t reached the moon, the Berlin Wall wasn’t built, yet alone torn down, computers were the size of buildings not palms, terrorism was not a household word, and of course, our president wasn’t Donald Trump; and yet, Steinbeck’s insights about our country could have been published in the last edition of The Atlantic.

Three things in particular grabbed my attention in Travels With Charley: Steinbeck’s clarity in describing our Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, our façades of life that we portray via social media, and our constant belief that there was once “The Good Ole Days,” which I suppose is the driving factor of so many red-hat wearing MAGA evangelists who disregard basic facts.

Rod Dreher, in his controversial 2017 book, The Benedict Option, was the first person to expose me to the idea of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a term coined by Notre Dame sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton back in 2005. Its basic definition sees the modern church as one that highlights a do good, feel good, use god when you need him type of social club, that doesn’t take seriously the God who so clearly rejects this from Genesis to Revelation. Steinbeck, while not attaching a complex academic title to the condition, nonetheless describes it aptly early on in his trip while visiting a Sunday church service in Vermont in the fall of 1960. The dying leaves representing the dying faith that Steinbeck mostly saw in churches of that era, but not this one.  Describing a sermon that moved him toward reflection, he writes,

“It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set into motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church.”

Here Steinbeck summarizes the church in America with an accuracy that would make a millennial like me think it was coming from a modern critic like Dreher or some other burned-by-the-church, renewed-by-the-bible writer of our time. But no, Steinbeck is illuminating the feel good religion described by MTD 7 years before the long-haired hippies of the Jesus Movement started their own churches out of necessity because they made the traditional Sunday population uncomfortable.

While many are turned away from the moral standards of the Bible, Steinbeck finds comfort in them. That small church house in Vermont represented a real faith, one not swayed by the tides of the time, but one marked by the words of the Bible, made permanent through the ink of each translation and the actions of those who hold its truths dear.

Later in his trip, when he was approaching Yellowstone National Park, a place that he did not have much interest in seeing, but made a part of his path not wanting to hear the ‘How could you not have gone to Yellowstone?’ demanding question from his peers and family back in New York, Steinbeck made another insight that stopped me.

He thought about the repercussions of him not seeing Yellowstone and writes, “Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward.” Even as I write this, I realize that Steinbeck himself falls prey to this line of thought, after all, it’s a quote from a book about his travels. But nonetheless, the idea reminded me of all those times I have taken out my phone to capture a moment for my social media.

Do we really go anywhere if no one knows how amazing it was? Trees that can’t be seen or heard don’t fall. At least, that’s how we live. Apparently, 60 years ago, Steinbeck saw the same mentality in his fellow Americans; one conditioned by the need to be envied. Steinbeck foreshadowed the basis of all those apps that fill up our phones, except we beat him at his own observation. We don’t need to wait to tell afterward, we can share our travels and sights in the moment, instantly. Going anywhere isn’t really about seeing, but about being seen seeing. Steinbeck, you pried at my motives, and you found the base of my sin, pride.

While in Big Sky country, Steinbeck calls out yet another one of our faults: a longing for a perfect past that never really existed, the good ole days. He describes a People who were more wholesome, meaningful, and true, a group that his contemporaries reminded everyone lived ‘back in the day’. Wittingly, he writes, “Maybe the People are always those who used to live the generation before last.” A time when humans were great, for those alive, is always the generation that recently joined the ancients in the plight we all succumb to. We revere those in the past at a scale that surely they do not deserve.

Should we remember those before us? Yes, we must, and rejoice in the good things some did for our world. But to worship them as if they were not fallen creatures, steeped in sin as we are in the world today would be to miss the point of humanity. Steinbeck brings clarity to our own blindness when we look back at the arc of time, not fully being able see around the bend, but taking the 10 percent that we can see and remembering it as if it were 100 percent of what was. In true novelist fashion, Steinbeck uses wit and sarcasm to shed light on this truth.

Travels With Charley was a page turner. Steinbeck is a story teller. Sometimes I wonder if him and author’s like him, realize how witty they really are, or if they just write a story that they want to tell. He could have just been using the book in a diary fashion to record his observations and musings, but what was in the 55 year old book was much more than an interesting story written about a time before my own, it was a lens to see my own time. It magnified a church experience I grew up with, and that I know all too well, it removed the curtains that hides our motives in using social media, and it reminded me that humans in the past were still humans. A man and a dog went on a drive in search for America, and what they found seemed a lot like what I see today.

History: The Science of Society

Why should we find the cure for diseases?

Why should we develop technology?

Why should we seek to understand our relationship to the environment?

Why should we have a government?

At the foundation of each of these questions is the discipline of history. Understanding each of the above issues in the context of the past gives us in the present a reason to pursue those answers. Without history, there is no purpose.

I’ve heard it plenty of times that “The Sciences ask if we can do something, but the Humanities ask if we should.” But perhaps the next part of the statement should be, “Asking should questions should always precede asking can questions.” If we root our present explorations in the past failures and accomplishments, there is much to be learned.

Earlier this week, when challenging my students to think about why we should even bother learning about the American Revolution, I used the metaphor of a tree. Holding a painted picture of a tree and its roots up in front of the class, initially covering up the roots, I asked, “What do you see?” The students went on to describe the tree— its colors, shape, and size. Then asking how it got to be that way, they responded: “It grew.” But how did it grow? Where does the tree absorb water and nutrients? At last, we arrived to the purpose of the roots, and so I uncovered the bottom half of the painting— hundreds of roots. In order to fully understand what is seen above the surface, we must go beneath it. Just as we must understand the way the roots work for a tree, we must understand the roots of the society that we see. But how? Through the study of history.

The sciences have made this concept of looking for the roots very apparent for those in the field. After all, much of science is not simply scratching the surface of what is being done, it is digging deeper to figure out how things are working the way they are, and then potentially manipulating those findings in order to find a better way. In this way, history is the science of society. History asks the same questions scientists ask about their endeavors but on a much larger scale. How did we get here? What successes can we learn from? What failures can we avoid? Asking these questions are pathways to a successful society. Asking these questions are at the core of history.

The discipline of history is the foundation of all other disciplines. Without the context it provides, every other discipline has no purpose. May we as a society begin to revere the study of history in the same way that the STEM subjects are glorified. As the sciences are avenues to explore the things around us, may history be the science of our society, giving us purpose in those explorations.

After Eden

This week’s The New Yorker featured an article by John Lancaster entitled: “How Civilization Started: Was it even a good idea?” (Online version’s title: “The Case Against Civilization: Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors have it better?). In reviewing some anthropological, political, and historical research, with an emphasis on James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Lancaster makes the compelling argument that we should not write off the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as barbaric and less-than. History reveals that progress through time is not always progress in civilization, so this is something I can agree with.

From The New Yorker, September 18th, 2017 issue

From what I know of hunter-gatherer societies, and then confirmed in Lancaster’s article, they embraced equality and community, something that desperately lacks in the individualistic culture of the present. One connection I had not made before this article, however, is that of the glory days of the hunter-gatherer to Eden with Adam and Eve. Biblically speaking, the clearest example of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle took place in Eden, and it was not until Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that they were cast out of that lifestyle and entered into the agrarian model, ushering in the Neolithic Revolution. Lancaster helped make that connection for me, albeit, unintentionally I’m sure.

Lancaster quotes renowned ecologist and author, Jared Diamond, who called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history” to which Lancaster affirms in stating that “among historians of the era, isn’t very controversial.” Before I break down my thought process in this idea’s connection to Eden and The Fall, let me first explain how the Neolithic Revolution is traditionally explained in the history classroom. When studying ancient civilizations in the 6th grade classroom, and really all of popular history, the Neolithic Revolution is seen as a leap of progress; from the barbaric, primitive hunter-gatherers to the sedentary, successful lifestyle that would lead to “the birth of the state, and also to the creation of complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs, and an elite presiding over them.” All of these byproducts of the Neolithic Revolution are most often regarded in a positive light. To this day, these characteristics mark some of the most successful nation-states. A state= organization; hierarchy= order; division of labor= more free time. This view takes the approach that progress through time is progress in civilization; of course, it does not specify for who this progress benefits.

If we are to take the biblical story of creation and Eden seriously, however, history after The Fall can be anything but progressive. By the very terminology used, The Fall equates a regression in humanity’s relationship with her Creator; all of subsequent civilization is life that is not in physical commune with God, Creator of all. The Neolithic Revolution was God’s punishment to mankind, where

He said to Adam, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘Do not eat from it: The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field (Genesis 3:17-18).

Using the Bible as our source for understanding the transition from hunter-gatherer living in Eden to the “painful labor” of the Neolithic Revolution, Lancaster’s argument makes perfect sense. The Neolithic Revolution paved the way for modernity by creating Statehood through the taxation of grains (Scott). It would be undeniable to point out that statehood, with all of its benefits, has also led to the worst atrocities in history. Lancaster points this out when he summarizes the great German Jewish cultural critic, Walter Benjamin’s words: “every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression.”

The more a society progresses as the majority of people see it, the more opportunities there are for inequality and destruction, or sin, as we Christians know it to be. As we are surrounded by millions of babels, those monuments that show the greatness of man, may we be humbled by the fact that God’s perfect creation was designed to be experienced in the simplest of ways. No surplus, no excess; more community, more equality. As we pray for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, may we look forward to the not yet kingdom of the new earth, where we may simply be living as hunter-gatherers.

 

Facts are Limits

As most evenings end, I find myself on Twitter— scrolling through the news of the day, quotes from my favorite authors, past and present, and reading a few articles posted by the people I follow. Last night, the account @GKCDaily (G.K. Chesterton) tweeted:

“The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.”

In a world where everything is up for debate, I find great comfort in these words by Chesterton. Not all opinions are created equal, mine included. We have to have a certain standard for debate and conversation. Unfortunately, in the world we live in pathos has become the dominant form to argue in. Pathos however, is not a standard. Emotion appeals to different people differently.

Now, this is a beautiful thing; however, if we use our feelings as our guide to what we believe, any sort of consensus will be impossible to achieve. Tension will constantly exist; Alt-Right will battle out Antifa; Liberals and Conservatives will demonize each other; enemies will remain enemies, dehumanized because they ‘see’ the world differently than us. Facts are the great equalizer. Regardless of your social, economic, religious, or political status, facts allow people to truly agree to disagree because then it is not about what you feel, but rather what evidence shows. Does it limit? Yes. But those limits may bring opposing people closer together.

Allowing facts to supersede our personal wants can humble us. John Adams reminded us that “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” By humbling ourselves to facts and evidence we are limited in what we can say and do, but by doing so we gain so much more.

A New School Year

Monday marked the beginning of my 4th year as a middle school history teacher. Like last year, I am teaching 8th grade United States history. I thoroughly enjoy teaching this subject and watching my students make connections to their present while we study the past.

The past two years I was fortunate enough to teach the same group of students (in both 7th and 8th grade), which means that for the first time in a couple years, and only the third time in my career, I have 135 new names to learn. I forgot how daunting this is! Today, if you popped into my class toward the end, you would have seen the students working on a map of the United States, while I walked around quizzing myself on their names— mumbling. I’m sure many of them were wondering who this crazy teacher was saying their names under his breath. Oh well. It is helping.

Last night, I gave the students their first homework assignment: SHEG’s “Snapshot Autobiography.” For this assignment, they were to highlight 4 events in their life (one of which had to be their birth), explaining what the events were and why they are significant in shaping them to be who they are today. Then, to understand that history contains different perspectives, they were to interview someone who experienced the same event in order to get their point of view. 99% of my students acknowledged that the other person’s story was different, even if only slightly. This was a perfect segue into the importance of looking for and looking at multiple perspectives in history.

Now Wednesday in the first week, I am finally getting excited about the year. To be honest, the first couple days aren’t the most exciting for me. Drilling procedures and setting up routines to make sure the class runs effectively throughout the year is by far the least exciting part of teaching for me. I’ve learned (through fire), however, that if I do not drill this stuff early on, I can never even get to the best part of teaching: learning about, thinking about, and writing about the past. Today I got a glimpse of the historical thinking I will be pushing my students to live by this year, and it was a good glimpse. Three days in, and I am starting to feel like the school year has started, and I know it is going to be a good one.

A Poem for History

History is not simply “what was”

But rather, history is “what was” plus how “what was” came to be, equals “what is,” and some say even “what will be.”

You see, just like the individual patches of a quilt don’t mean much on their own, simple dates and facts only mar the story that needs to be told.

It’s complicated.

But when you take those pieces of cloth and weave them together, you get a beautiful piece of art, a quilt with a story to behold

Look at the context.

History is a fabric woven across the centuries, and when you mend that fabric you reveal a story.

This story must be told, told to you.

Told to the diverse faces that inhabit the world; told to me.

It can not continue to be something that we all say, “Well I’ll like it when I’m old.”

It is essential.

I mean, what would the world look like without history?

Let’s see:

There would be no progress, because how can you have progress if don’t have anything to progress from?

Just as the seed forms into a sprout, which grows into a tree, which then yields fruit to eat,

Everything needs a place to begin.

On a personal level, lies would be told because there would be no evidence to prove what was true.

People would go around saying whatever came to mind, regardless of the foundation of truth that is established by the study of time.

History is essential.

Without it, It would be impossible to expect the possibility of empathy; what do I mean?

How can you appreciate others if you don’t understand them?

A mom who cares for her child knows.

She understands that tone, which means help; or that shriek that means danger.

Or when her child stares off into space, she knows the myriad of thoughts running through his mind, and in that moment, she smiles. He too, shows progress.

Or maybe at school, a kid seeks to be understood, but continues to walk past her peers in silence.

All that’s shared between them are stares, until one day a group of kids asks a simple question: Can we sit with you?

Empathy was shown.

By seeking to get to know those around us all, we learn that they share so much in common with us. They are human, too.

History takes that moment and recreates it not just for the people we see, but the people before us, the cultures that developed us into the people we have come to be.

The beauty of the relationships that develop this empathy, could never occur without history.

Think about it: it is essential.

Without history, the world would be filled with people only trying to get ahead, not taking a second to listen to the person that needs to be listened to.

Some say this is already true.

See the problem?

If people don’t listen to people with voices, then why speak?

In order to talk, you need to be heard, and in order to hear, you need to listen.

Knowing the past helps us to understand, that it’s not US vs. THEM, but its US with THEM. Sharing this land, this sea, this air we breathe, this planet we see.

At the core of all of this, it’s history.