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Does Paul Revere Ride in Ferguson?

December 4th, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

I did an exercise in my US history classes. The exercise was to search for an article about a current event that the students were interested in and to link it to something we had learned about in our US history class (up to the Civil War). Finally they were to present their findings in a short presentation and respond to class input about the topic. The point of the exercise was to convey that considering things in a historical context helps us to make better, more informed decisions about what is happening in our community.

As expected a number of the students chose to talk about the events in Ferguson and they approached the topic from a number of different standpoints. I wanted to make sure that every point of view was articulated but I did not allow debate. The reason I didn’t allow debate was because I wanted the students to focus on understanding the issues from various points of view instead of formulating their responses.

A primary task of the historian is to try to put themselves in the shoes of the historical actors. This means doing our best to see the world from the vantage point of someone who may be incredibly different than we are. Of someone we might even intensely dislike. The purpose is not to debate, not to judge, but to understand. Much of the dysfunction in our current civil discourse arises from the fact that we look at the past to judge, rather than to understand.

Here’s an example. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. George Washington owned slaves. In today’s society we believe, rightly, that slavery is evil. Are we by that belief to judge Jefferson and Washington as evil? Or do we try to understand why people of otherwise high character (or so we suppose) were able to participate in an institution that we abhor? Much of modern discourse, historical and otherwise, arises from the first response. The value of the second is that if we can understand the historical thinking that accepted evil as normal we can recognize and prevent it now.

So if we look at history to judge, we perpetuate division. But if we look at history to understand, we can work toward justice. It was my hope to get the students to gain understanding from history.

Of course, the students were invested in the talking points arguments at first, but I tried to get them to go deeper. One of the students compared protestors in Ferguson to Confederates rebelling because they felt disrespected by an oppressive government that failed to acknowledge their rights. A few of them were able to see a link between rioting in Ferguson and the ransacking of Governor Hutchinson’s mansion in 1765, some compared the media reaction to the riots to the inflammatory writing of Samuel Adams after the Boston Massacre. And how many remember that the soldiers who fired during that event were acquitted, defended by none other than John Adams?

In the end my purpose wasn’t to settle any issues. I didn’t expect us to come away with a plan to solve the things that still divide us. Primarily it was to reinforce what I told them at the beginning of the course about the importance of understanding history for citizens of a democracy. There is no shortage of politicians seeking to take advantage of our ignorance of history. But just as important, I think, I challenged them to try to see the world through the eyes of those they disagreed with. Not so that they could come to agreement, but so that we could recognize each other’s humanity.


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