When History’s Losers Write the Story

Photo

A statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va. CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I visited a summer camp in western Russia in July 2015. Its theme was “military patriotism,” and it involved dozens of teenagers lounging around in tents, wrestling, carving wood and making garlands. They were also taking history classes. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader who killed millions of Soviet citizens, was remembered fondly.

“Whatever your view of Stalin, you can’t deny that he was a strong leader,” a counselor told me later over steaming bowls of cabbage soup. “Stalin won the war. He made it possible for us to go to space. You can’t just throw out a person like that from history.”

Russia has not faced the darker parts of its past, something I spent a lot of time thinking about as a correspondent there. But my own country has memory problems, too. Take the Civil War. Historians tell us it was fought over slavery. But an entirely different version unspooled last month at an Applebee’s in Delaware.

“It’s too simplified to say the war was over slavery,” said Jeffrey Plummer, head of a local chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. “That’s what’s been taught in the schools, but there’s more to it.”

Selective memory, it seems, is a global phenomenon. Think of Turkey and its blank spot where the Armenian genocide should be. Or Japan with its squeamishness about its aggression and mass murder in China. It starts as a basic human impulse to take the sting out of defeat or to avoid admitting some atrocity. But it’s also a way to help cope with a difficult present. And like a growth on a tree ring, it can keep the past off-kilter until some future generation is brave enough to right it.

“In most countries you are more likely to get evasion and nationalistic versions of history than tough grappling with the darker parts of your past, and the U.S. is no exception,” said Gary Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton.

In the United States, the Civil War remains “the most divisive and unresolved experience Americans have ever had,” according to David Blight, a historian at Yale. “The Civil War is like a sleeping dragon. If you poke it hard enough, it will raise its head and breathe fire.”

That is, in part, because the loser was allowed its own interpretation. The South, facing catastrophic loss of life and mass destruction on a European scale, wrote its own history of the war. It cast itself as an underdog overwhelmed by the North’s superior numbers, but whose cause — a noble fight for states’ rights — was just. The North looked the other way. Northern elites were more interested in re-establishing economic ties than in keeping their commitments to blacks’ constitutional rights. The political will to complete Reconstruction died.

“The whole notion of honoring the Confederacy and the sacrifice that your family made became part of what we taught in the schools,” said Charles Dew, a Williams College historian whose book “Apostles of Disunion” describes the white supremacist arguments that underpinned the South’s case for leaving the Union.

To correct the record, Mr. Dew gave talks about his book in the early 2000s, as part of the National Park Service’s efforts to clarify the causes of the war. Some audiences pushed back, saying, “My family did not own slaves, so how could they have been fighting for slavery?”

“I’m not trying to denigrate your ancestors,” Mr. Dew said he told those people. “I’m trying to explain why the war came and ask everyone to consider the issue with an open mind.”

In Russia, people choked on memory. As the Soviet Union was falling, the sins of the past flooded the present. Newspapers wrote about Soviet repressions. Researchers began documenting political killings. All this, as Russians were losing their jobs, their savings, their respect in the world and their dignity. They could not afford to lose their past. So Stalin became the man who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and industrialized a peasant nation.

Germany is the exception. It took a generation, but German society faced its Nazi past and has emerged as an exemplary democratic culture. That is partly because of the extreme nature of the Nationalist Socialist regime and the devastation of the war it brought. Germans had to come to terms with the Holocaust. The Nazi regime had perhaps overcome the depression, but its increasing brutality left no redeeming qualities.

“In the United States, slavery was embedded in a constitutional regime that at least verbally offered universalizing rights,” said Charles Maier, a professor of 20th-century history at Harvard. “The German cause had no equivalent.”

But while top Nazis were put on trial right after the war, with the world watching, mainstream German society did not fully grapple with the crimes until the 1960s. There was a political shift to the left that encouraged young Germans who posed hard questions about their parents’ past. Even today, there are no major memorials to the perhaps half a million Germans who died in Allied bombing campaigns in Hamburg, Dresden and other cities, as that would be seen an assertion of equivalence.

In the years immediately after the war, Japanese society was actually ahead of German society in terms of facing its past, said Ian Buruma, author of “The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan.” Leftists then had a strong voice in the media and universities, encouraged by liberals in the American occupation, and the history being taught was starting to grapple with Japan’s wartime atrocities against other Asian peoples. But that early reckoning got bogged down in politics: The United States, together with Japanese liberals, decided the problem was Japanese militarism and gave the country a pacifist Constitution. That alienated the right, causing a rift that persists to this day.

“In Japan, history became politicized,” Mr. Buruma said. “Whenever you hear a right-winger say, ‘It’s all a left-wing myth, we’re not as guilty as people are saying,’ what he’s really saying is, ‘We want to revise the Constitution and postwar order imposed by the United States.’ ”

The argument over Confederate monuments has surprised historians like Dr. Blight, who has studied the war for decades. It is a moment for public education like no other, but with risks. When history’s losers get to define the story, it can create rifts — with allies, with adversaries or even with our fellow citizens. But so can a sudden, emotional rush to rectify it. Historians say the Confederate statues should be removed slowly, with deliberation, not destroyed in the middle of the night.

“This sudden, almost rage to get rid of monuments kind of violates our instincts as historians,” he said. “Be careful, slow down. If they are taken down, let’s preserve and curate them. These are part of our historical landscape. To just destroy them is not educational.”

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Preparing Young Americans for a Complex World

Last year, the Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic commissioned a survey to assess the global literacy of American college students. Over 1,200 people participated; less than 30 percent earned a passing grade. Below are six questions they included, each of which a majority of respondents answered incorrectly. See how you, or your students or children, do. (Answers below.)

1. In which of these countries is a majority of the population Muslim?

a) South Africa

b) Armenia

c) India

d) Indonesia

2. Which language is spoken by the most people in the world as their primary language?

a) Russian

b) Mandarin Chinese

c) English

d) Arabic

3. Which country is the largest trading partner of the United States, based on the total dollar value of goods and services?

a) Canada

b) China

c) Mexico

d) Saudi Arabia

4. Approximately what percentage of the United Statesfederal budget is spent on foreign aid?

a) 1 percent

b) 5 percent

c) 12 percent

d) 30 percent

e) 40 percent

5. Which countries is the United States bound by treaty to protect if they are attacked? (select all that apply)

a) Canada

b) China

c) Japan

d) Mexico

e) North Korea

f) Russia

g) South Korea

h) Turkey

6. True or False: Over the past five years, the number of Mexicans leaving the United States and returning to Mexico has been greater than the number of Mexicans entering the United States.

Why is it so important to understand the world and the United States’ role in it today?

To begin with, the American economy is inextricably linked to the global economy. It’s estimated that one-fifth of jobs here are now tied to international trade. Moreover, many of the world’s major challenges — climate change, instability in financial markets, food and water insecurity, infectious diseases, migration, war and terrorism — are complex, interdependent and borderless. And with 40 million foreign-born residents, the United States is itself a global society with deep emotional ties to many nations and cultures. To survive and thrive, Americans have to learn how to manage greater complexity and collaborate across lines of difference.

During the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education recognized this imperative. Since 2012, its strategy has emphasized “global and cultural competency” as a core educational priority. In 2018, the Program for International Student Assessment, an international testing system that sets benchmarks for student performance in which the Department of Education participates, will add global competence as a new domain.

Nevertheless, many American schools have remained poorly prepared to deliver education in “global competence” (defined by American education leaders as “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.”) The focus on traditional achievement and test scores has narrowed the delivery of instruction at a time when students need to learn to think more broadly. In the wake of “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump (both far more popular among older voters than among the young) — and amid the global rise of nationalist movements — schools need to help students navigate the forces shaping the world they will inherit.

“What are the values, attitudes, skills and behaviors that must be cultivated if we’re going to live in a peaceful world?” asked Dana Mortenson, one of the -founders of World Savvy, an organization that has worked with thousands of teachers to integrate global competence into their lessons.

What’s needed is not just scoring well on standardized tests. “It’s an openness to new opportunities and ideas,” she added. “It’s a desire to engage. It’s self-awareness about culture and respect for different perspectives. It’s comfort with ambiguity. It’s the skill to investigate the world through questions. Empathy and humility are big pieces of all of it.”

Teaching these higher-level skills and attitudes might seem a tall order for schools that struggle with the basics. But World Savvy has seen impressive results among its partner schools, a majority of them in high-poverty areas. By raising the bar, teachers say, it becomes easier to engage students.

That’s been the experience of Carla Kelly, a special-education teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx who completed a Global Competence Certificate, a 15-month graduate-level program developed by World Savvy, the Asia Society and Teachers College at Columbia University.

“I saw that I needed to teach so that my students could contribute anywhere in the world,” Kelly said.

Kelly teaches a variety of subjects — including science, health, Spanish and life skills — in a school that has students and faculty members from 46 countries. She tries to integrate global competence concepts throughout her teaching.

In a unit on nutrition, for instance, students explore foods from around the world, graphing diets against life spans. “We compared diets high in starchy vegetables with places where they eat dark green or sea vegetables,” she said. The connections the students drew were powerful: They learned that people in China live longer than black people in America. They discovered that wherever the American diet was introduced, life spans declined.

In a unit on death, Kelly added an exploration of 11 funeral rites. Students learned that in Ghana, caskets are woven in the shape of objects beloved by the deceased; in South Korea, a person’s remains may be pressed into jewelry; and in Tibet, the mountaintop “sky burial” in the open allows a dead person’s soul to exit the body and be reincarnated. “I asked them to choose five rituals that would be a good fit with their values and cultures,” Kelly said. “I wanted them to make connections, to see how other cultures see life and death.”

“Every class that I’ve revised to include international representation,” she added. “I found that the students made more connections because they had a cultural anchor. And when I assessed what they retained I got content-specific vocabulary because it stuck, especially where they could see aspects of themselves and of people they knew. And the questions I got were better. I stopped getting ‘what’ questions and started getting ‘why’ questions, and ‘what if’ questions.”

At Mill Valley Middle School in California, two teachers, Rod Septka and Maggie Front, working with more affluent students, have seen this approach evoke a similar response. When the recent drought in California was daily news, they looked at how people in the state were conserving water. Then they examined how people cope with water-related problems in Bangladesh, Israel, Sudan, Bolivia, China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Peru and Syria. The students did extensive research and data gathering. One student was astonished that so many people around the world couldn’t just go into their kitchen and get water from a tap. Then the water crisis in Flint, Mich., became news, and they looked at water access in terms of wealth and race. That led a student who had been previously disengaged in school to discover her activist voice, said Front. And studying water rights brought her to a related concern: women’s rights.

“A lot of this helps the kids to understand what actions they can take toward solving world issues,” said Front. “It’s not the mission to create activism, but that tends to come out of it.”

In a culminating experience, the students, working in twos, carried five-gallon buckets of water for half a mile. They experimented with ways to do it efficiently, while minimizing spillage, and collected data about time, distance and volume to calculate how long it would take them to provide water for their family. “It was a lot harder than they thought,” said Septka. “It gave them a newfound appreciation for people who have to do things differently than we do.”

Each of these teachers described learning alongside the students, making mistakes, and improving their own global competence in the process.

For now, teacher education that is focused on this area remains at a nascent stage, says William Gaudelli, an associate professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who is a founder of the college’s Global Competence Certificate program and the author of a book titled “Global Citizenship Education: Everyday Transcendence.”

“By and large, our curriculum in the United States is a European great civilization approach — Plato to NATO — with some add-ons for cultural diversity,” he said. “But the condition we live in is fundamentally global. There’s literally nothing that’s not connected far beyond our borders. When people 100 years look back on our generation, they’re going to wonder: How did they know so much about what was going on and do so little to educate about it?”

For Mortenson, a core hurdle is moving beyond the “aversion to complexity in our education system.”

“The system was set up that way because the idea was to standardize knowledge,” she said. “That was appropriate when someone was being trained for a job they might hold for 40 or 50 years. But the world has changed in such profound ways that developing an understanding of complexity is paramount. Whatever the policy, the idea that things are simple, or black and white, and we can put a blanket on them and feel that it’s going to have the desired impact — that idea can become very dangerous.”

*Answers, with percentage of respondents who gave the correct answer.

1. d (29 percent)

2. b (49 percent)

3. a (10 percent)

4. a (12 percent)

5. a (47 percent), c (28 percent), g (34 percent), h (14 percent)

6. True (34 percent)

Black History Month In Schools – Retire or Reboot?

The Atlantic
Now in its 40th year, questions remain about the value of commemorating it in classrooms.

MELINDA D. ANDERSON FEB 22, 2016
The seed of what is now known as Black History Month was planted in the doctoral thesis of Carter G. Woodson, a noted scholar, author, and co-founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The son of former slaves, Woodson received a Ph.D. in 1912 from Harvard University, where he studied under renowned historians who minimized the importance and vitality of black history. But Woodson would not be deterred. He believed the heritage and contributions of black Americans was excluded from history, and he saw this knowledge as essential to social change.

Woodson’s dedication to the research and promotion of black history has been memorialized by his actions—in 1926 he declared the second week of February Negro History Week—and his words:

If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.
Today Woodson’s brainchild is the entire month of February. First celebrated in 1976, Black History Month was the result of a growing racial pride and consciousness of black Americans and Woodson’s association pushing to expand the weekly celebration. Now a well-entrenched, nationally recognized observance, Black History Month is a commemoration that might be short in days but is increasingly long on controversy. In the last month—in examples that cross racial boundaries—the black actress and conservative commentator Stacey Dash called to eliminate Black History Month, labeling it a vestige of segregation, while Republicans in the Kansas legislature questioned if an entire month dedicated to honoring black history was “too long.”
In one corner, advocates of Black History Month argue that a special month is needed to celebrate and recognize the achievements of black Americans in a country where European history dominates historical discourse. In the other corner, critics cast doubt that Black History Month is still relevant with the gains made in race relations—a black U.S. president the most visible sign—and detractors charge it is detrimental in the long term to pigeonhole black history into a month-long observance. Somewhere caught in the middle are educators and schools.

A driving force behind Woodson setting aside time to study and reflect on black culture was his frustration that children—black and nonblack students—were deprived of learning in America’s schools about black achievements. Yet according to the NAACP, even the creator hoped the time would come when a black history week was unnecessary. Woodson was optimistic that America “would willingly recognize the contributions of black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country.” But research shows this goal is far from complete.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2014 graded all 50 states and the District of Columbia on how well their public schools taught the civil-rights era to students. Twenty states received a failing grade, and in five states—Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon, and Wyoming—civil-rights education was totally absent from state standards. Overall, the study found less teaching of the civil-rights movement in states outside the South and those with fewer black residents. The report paints an unfavorable picture of schools where a crucial event in black history is largely ignored.

“Having a month for black history compartmentalizes the issue, as if once the month is over we can turn our attention away from it again until the next year.”
As a former student in Rockville, Maryland, Zia Hassan recalls February as the time when students were encouraged, or sometimes even mandated, to read the work of black authors, which he found meaningful. His view of Black History Month is more nuanced as an adult. “I believe that having a month for black history compartmentalizes the issue, as if once the month is over we can turn our attention away from it again until the next year,” said Hassan, a fourth-grade English language-arts teacher at Truesdell Elementary School in Washington, D.C.
Explaining his teaching philosophy, Hassan said a worthwhile history curriculum is one that would have “slavery and racism ingrained within it, just as it is in American society. It would not be discussed as a side issue.” He values a month when black authors and historical figures can be studied exclusively, but Hassan believes Black History Month as observed in many schools sends a troubling message to students that “we’re allowed to grapple with [black issues] less in, say, March or April … It is important to discuss issues of race in the context of current events throughout the year, no matter the unit topic.”

The classroom Hassan describes, however, is hardly the norm. Teacher materials produced for February’s celebration of black history are often limited to the most-celebrated black Americans—Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks—with a smattering of black athletes and entertainers tossed in. Raquel Willis, a writer and racial-justice activist in Atlanta, remembers annual Black History Month school displays in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, as neither memorable nor notable. “There was always a focus on the civil-rights movement and it was as if black history stopped once Dr. King died,” Willis said. “We rarely learned about anyone new from year to year, and we also didn’t get a context of different time periods. I would’ve loved to have delved into African history, the Harlem Renaissance, black life in the 1970s, and beyond.”

The problem lies not with specialized months to commemorate marginalized groups and communities, said Willis, but with schools that fail to incorporate the full range of diversity as part of their mission. “If there is a concerted effort to approach Black History Month in new ways each year, then we can combat some of the issues of only highlighting certain movements, figures, and events,” she said. Also, learning more about black women and LGBTQ individuals in her formative years would have put her more at ease identifying as a transgender woman.

 

“It shouldn’t have taken 20 years for me to learn about Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, and Marsha P. Johnson,” said Willis. “As well, I think it’s of the utmost importance to highlight the figures of today. We tend to only highlight contemporary celebrities and politicians, ignoring that we have activists and community organizers that are still making an impact on a daily basis.”

One person who fits that description is Blake Simons, the deputy communications director for the Afrikan Black Coalition, a statewide collective of black students in California. Before Simons was a student organizer he was a high-schooler in the California Bay Area, and his memories of Black History Month are still sharp. “I was the elephant in the room, or rather the token Negro, who was supposed to represent the entire race when students had questions about black history,” said Simons, who was often on the receiving end of questions and awkward stares as the only black child in predominately white classrooms.

He said growing up it was always confusing why black history was only limited to one month. Since schools he attended never taught Simons about Woodson, “it made me feel as if my ancestors’ worth was only valuable in the shortest month of the year.” Recalling his schooling, Simons now rejects the one-dimensional portrayals of black historical figures. “Teachers often times painted Rosa Parks as only an activist who protested segregation on buses. When this is done, it erases the fact that Rosa Parks organized against sexual assault,” he said.

Moving forward, Simons would like to see black history taught every day, in his view the only legitimate way to build racial and cultural understanding—and reflecting the spirit of Woodson’s words and intentions. “Black history should be celebrated every day, because all history begins with black history. When black history is not taught throughout the year, it is reinforcing anti-blackness.”

Going into the trenches with sixth-graders to study World War I at Moores Mill

Alabama.com

Mark McCarter | mmccarter@al.comBy Mark McCarter | mmccarter@al.com
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on April 16, 2015

I take a full shot straight to the chest. I’m a goner. I go face down, limp as a banquet-hall salad.

Some would say all I did was get hit with a wadded up ball of newspaper and sprawl out on a tile classroom floor.

They’d be wrong. This was enemy ammunition that got me, when I dared go to the end of a dank, rat-infested, noisy, scary, zig-zagged trench carved in the French countryside in 1917.

The temptation and the giddiness of this sixth-grade activity at Moores Mill Intermediate School would be, as teacher Jennifer Sticker acknowledges, “to tell everybody you were in a paper-wad fight. That’s not it. This is a trench-warfare simulation.”

Good enough for me.

Except that I don’t make it to the end of the battle.

The sixth-graders are studying World War I. When the teacher greets you wearing a doughboy hat and camo, as Sticker does, you know you’re in for an experience. She and Pam Dean have adjacent classrooms, teaching the same unit on World War I, as borrowed from a teacher at Hampton Cove.

Through a Teaching American History grant through the Madison County schools, Sticker and Dean have been able to travel to key places and acquire extra material. (“Think any of your readers want to donate some tablets?” Sticker asks hopefully.)

Dean even went to National World War I museum in Kansas City “and it was powerful,” particularly the entrance where visitors walk across a glass floor under which a field of red poppies, the symbol of remembrance of World War I, is growing. Says Dean, “It’s a moment to really stop and reflect.”

“The whole program is about hands-on learning, primary sources, making history come to life,” Sticker says.

“It’s changed my teaching,” Dean says. “It’s going to be as hands-on as you possibly can be. Make it come to life. Make it relevant.”

“They memorize for a test and forget it the rest of their lives,” Sticker says. “Maybe this is something they can take with them.”

Both rooms have desks jammed together in long, straight rows. Seemingly acres of black plastic sheeting cover the desks and the floors. Sticker has been especially resourceful, begging the black plastic from a construction site at her church.  Serpentine loops of aluminum foil dangle like tinsel across stretches of twine, simulating barbed wire.

Sticker has battle sounds emanating from a speaker and the din spills over us as she gives us instructions in the hallway. Each of us gets on all fours as we enter the room, the better to escape detection. She orders the boys to one trench, the girls in another and begins to share some lessons about the harsh existence of trench warfare.

That leads to a phenomenon about which sociologists and doctoral students write millions of words:

As Sticker pauses to fiddle with a stubborn computer, nearly all the boys eventually pop up like creatures in a Whack-a-Mole game and pretend to fire guns or heave bombs toward the girls’ trench.

“Hey girls,” cries one. “You can have a grenade.”

Meanwhile, nary a girl rises from their trench to fire a shot.

Sticker shows clips from the Brad Pitt movie, “Legends of the Fall” and a Charlie Chaplin short about life in the trenches. That’s not simply for entertainment purposes.  Sticker makes the point between hyperbole and fact, “just to tie in a little bit of language.”

A slide presentation illustrates how elaborate trenches could be, and discusses the various unsavory perils, like rats and trench foot, not to mention enemy weapons.

In the next room, Dean plays scenes from “Flyboys,” about the World War I fighter pilots in the air space above the trenches.

There is the subtle lesson of creativity and grammar, as well. Each of the students is assigned to write a “letter back home,” taking on the role of a soldier trying to express the difficulties yet also minimizing worry.

The class climaxes with the intensity of trench warfare simulation. We’re divided into two teams, the eight boys and 10 girls mixed this time. We’re sent to the two most distant trenches, with two sitting empty in no man’s land. We fire away.

It’s fun, it’s chaotic and noisy. And, no, it can never simulate the horrors of what those trenches must have been like a century ago for the soldiers on both sides of the war. But this piques the imagination more than a chapter in a book.

I never had my chance to write a letter home. But if I did, I’d probably put something in there that the best, most relevant education is in showing and doing, not just telling.

About the series: Columnist Mark McCarter goes “back to school” in this 13-week series, visiting and participating in classes from kindergarten through 12th grade, examining extraordinary educational opportunities for area students. Next week: He faces off against seventh-grade chess experts at Liberty Middle School in Madison. Reach Mark at mmccarter@al.com