Some Musings on Reparations, Teaching Civil Discourse and Collective Memory.

Blog. It has been a while. The drafts of post that linger for a year, (but not quite years yet..) because of perfectionism ceases for a moment. Forgive the lack of proofreading.

What is the trend line of my most recent thinking? One of my good friends and colleagues often says that I am interested in everything, and he doesn’t know how long I will hold onto an idea until I jump to a new passion or idea. He means this as a compliment (I think). For me, it is a muddled web most of the time. How could my interest in comparing governments connect to my fascination with Gilded Age Boston, and then the politics and history of memory and memorialization? Sitting at the lunch break for the Universities and Slavery Conference at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard is one of those moments where I start to sort out my tangled web of ideas I am mulling over…so bear with me as I jump around a bit.

My junior year independent study at St. Lawrence was on the lack of official public recognition about the French complicity in the Holocaust. This was inspired by a single comment in the Caen peace museum when one of my professors (Bruce Weiner) lauded the fact that the Caen museum actually acknowledges this component of French history. Junior year I took the topic on. Russo’s The Vichy Syndrome became a core part of the way I thought about the role of collective memory. I traveled to France thanks to a research grant to look at the way French museums talk about World War II. (Everyone was in the resistance was the main conclusion, excuse the sarcasm). My interest in this topic was not radical as I picked up a new book in the Logan airport, Sarah’s Key that had invited this topic back into consciousness.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was teaching AP Comparative Government and talking about the legacy of colonialism for developing countries (a theoretical introduction to the unit before we study Mexico and Nigeria) and I was struck yet again by questions of responsibility. What is the Western World’s responsibility in former colonies where they erased traditional leadership, supported feudal authority and then left? How do those countries “Get to Denmark” (we had just read parts of Fukyama’s Origins of the Political Order) ? I found myself again coming back to the notion of reparations, writing it on the board and asking my students if it applied here as a possible solution? What form would it take in this case, when in a statement that is astounding lack of political correctness one of the Nigerian interviewees says, “the British should come back”. The Director of the Royal African society was our next video, who talked about the profound lack of self-confidence as an important legacy of colonialism. Jury is still out on how I think about these sources….

A few weeks ago in Art History we looked at art theft, and considered the Rape of Europa. Again, reparations to Maria Altmann seep into that story of paying for past crimes as a small attempt to repair several layers of violation of a social contract. When I applied for my MALS program at Dartmouth (which I have set aside for a variety of reasons) I wanted to enter the creative writing program. I wanted to begin to experiment with the role of historical fiction in the history classroom. I was specifically curious what would happen if we made students write from the perspective of Nazis, it is much easier to empathize with the victim, but how do we help students understand the systems and modes of thinking that led to the perpetrators acting the way that they did (without become apologists)?

And now I find myself at this conference. The topic of reparations began the conversation with a keynote address this morning by Ta-Nahisi Coates. As he was queried about his “Case for Reparations” piece, he challenged Universities “to make the language of Reparations respectable”. On Monday of this week, Dr. Eddie Moore visited our school to kick off a student led unconference day on the topic of privilege. In the smaller conference setting he outlined the system of white supremacy for our students and how the “mission statement of the United States” entrenched in the constitution and Declaration of Independence was only a reality 3% of the time. When I probed him about what constituted the 3%, and what would have to happen to shift the bar for him, he said reparations; and that he believed we give too much credit for basic human treatment.

I am reminded of “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace. I am reminded of the debate about the role of media in our society and positionality, how much can the media give the public unbiased facts with which to make up their minds about society, and how much does their experience in the world always color their interpretation? What is the water we swim in right now that we don’t even recognize? Is it mass incarceration? Is it rape culture? Is it the fact that our conspicuous consumption is propped up by workers who have few rights and make less than $1 a day?

I am also struck by the challenge of turning the lens inward. How do we have this conversation without alienating people? Coates said some people will be “affirmatively ignorant” and yet the parts of his talk I found most compelling are when he ventured into different territory pondering, “would we cease to function if we had to acknowledge it was THAT bad?” Another scholar on the panel, James Campbell, later talked about PTSD and the notion that societies can collectively experience trauma. Coates said we have to do more than call the “affirmatively ignorant” people “deplorable” as Hillary did, we have to ask WHY they are deplorable?

Most surprisingly in one of his final comments he said something along the lines of: “I am not an activist, I am a writer. ‘The Case for Reparations’ was part of my journey to understand the Civil war. The question about reparations is answered for me. Yes.” He then spoke of how being a writer means he needs to pursue the questions most captivating for him at that moment. I wondered about this, and while he says as a society we have a responsibility to acknowledge this plunder, but at the same time pivots away from calling himself an activist. Yet he also encouraged playwrights and artists to reconsider the images we have of the antebellum South (Gone with the Wind) and change that, to become activists of sorts. I think I can affirm that anyone should pursue the questions they find most compelling, but at the same time how do we have this conversation if people can pivot away from it? Some of the comments from the crowd asked how to we can lead the uninterested to water and “make drinking attractive”? This seems to be a central question: how to convert the ignorant to be less ignorant? (essentially the task of educators)- but on a single way of thinking that is absolute truth… which I am wary of.

Yet I am also teaching American History with the most politically engaged group of students (conservative and liberal) that I have ever worked with. Every day I wonder if I am being true to my belief in free speech and open discourse in education. I am intimately aware of the power I have to direct the way students think, and wonder how much do they parrot my ideas back at me? How much room do I leave them to disagree? How can I be balanced in an age of Donald Trump? Probably a question for another post, but I can’t help but feel the question of how to talk about this is intimately linked to how we invite civil discourse into our classrooms even at the expense of the beliefs that ground our ideas? The University of Chicago’s Statement about Free Expression seems to be the closest thing I can come to supporting, but I still do have questions about the role of power dynamics in free speech even at universities.

Sven Beckart’s is an organizer of the conference and his A Global History of Cotton (which I will admit is lingering on my bedside table beneath a pile of student essays, bookmark starting to impress the pages) inspires a new class we will offer next year, Advanced History of the West. A combination of AP US and AP Euro in a two-year course that rejects the notion of the history of America existing as a topic we can study independent of global events. Textbooks we use have been doing this for a long time, but we still require a year of “US history” to graduate- it seems a nationalistic project to our department we are excited to poke holes in. How will a study of the constitution be enhanced by genuine time to cover the Enlightenment? How will we consider the world that the African Slave Trade made in a more global context?

The lunch break is ending. Natasha Trethewey, Vincent Brown and a panel on “Slavery at Harvard” are up next..

On Storytelling

There are a few things that happen when a new acquaintance unfamiliar to the world of education learns that I am a teacher. Subsequent inquiries are frequently made about what age level and subject I teach. When I respond that I teach high school, it seems to open a neural pathway to a pool of teenage memories. Those who smile dreamily thinking of their high school sagas I often believe were popular jocks, and those who grimace seem to resent me for reminding them of the acne, cliques and heartbreak. When I mention that I teach history, they either light up and state their avowed love for the discipline or confess their lack of aptitude. Nearly everyone shares something about a history teacher. These teachers are characterized as either master storytellers or resented date-drillers. They often cite a renewed adult interest in history courtesy of a Ken Burns documentary. What strikes me most is the detail with which people of all ages remember the storyteller teacher.

See the rest of my reflection on my summer study in Scotland here. It was posted a few weeks ago on The Lamp, Holderness School’s space for sharing ideas about education and the teaching profession.

The sweeping views and cobblestone streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, provided the perfect setting for Kelsey Berry to study the many stories and narrators of history.

Why Study History?: Thoughts on the Job of a Historian for History Teachers

A junior student asked me last May, during dorm duty, “Ms. Berry–What can you do with a history degree?”

Me: (joking) “You mean, besides do what I do?”

Student: (sheepishly) “Well… yes.”

Me: (in my best saleswomen voice with the goal of admiring her foresight, but also lessening her anxiety about the college process )…

I spoke somewhat apprehensively about the skills that are developed at a liberal arts school, and in the humanities especially (and noted this was from my limited perspective/experience). We discussed how the job she will likely do, probably has not yet been created... it was definitely an unintentional plug for the liberal arts approach. Then I spoke about being interested in what you are studying, and how important that is to success.

But I need a better answer to this question, “why study history?” While education is the focus of my career so far, why history education?  I have been with 30 teachers for the past week (mostly history, some English and one librarian) studying Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment. As we debate the enigmatic character of the father of both the Declaration of Independence and slave Sally Hemmings’ children (likely), we were constantly trying to reconcile competing images of a hero of the American national story. Should we care that he was a slave owner? He was a “man of his time”… but the argument goes, he was also “not a man of his times” (all men are created equal, unalienable rights etc). What is the historian’s job? What is the history teacher’s job? Is it to defend Jefferson? Apologize for Jefferson? Indict Jefferson? Are these even the right questions to be asking? (also these questions are at the heart of the AP US curriculum debate). The opinions and ideas of this group of teachers had me asking…what does it mean to be a historian? Perhaps, if I try to define the role I play in regards to Jefferson’s story, then I can ask a better question.

What is the job description of a historian? Often historians are teachers, and sometimes a teacher would identify as a historian. Are “professional” historians just those with a PhD?  What about the mental engines behind small town historical societies? But what exactly does a historian do? Study the past is the simplest description. So how do they study? It seems that the historian appropriates/adopts the methodology of other professions as they seek to study the past. What is the job description, then, of the history teacher? To facilitate burgeoning historians? To model being a historian? So then I return to my first question: what is the job description of a historian? A few ideas…

Tell stories.                      

Historians can be story tellers in the tradition of Herodotus.

Investigate the data.      

Historians can be scientists of the past, carefully measuring data with the precision of a chemist, but their scientific method is foiled by the countless  unknown variables.

Weigh the evidence.    

Historians can be lawyers, carefully weighing the available evidence to judge the past.

Listen and analyze.      

Historians can be psychologists, poring over diaries and letters with a Freudian lens judging sexuality, phobias and temperaments.

Architects of a national story.     

Historians can be politician-soldiers , “Defenders of the Faith” whatever that faith may be, if their hero is Thomas Jefferson, if their historical satan is Thomas Jefferson, some historians are in the business of defending the fairy tale given by the storytellers to young children.

Time travelers. 

Historians can yearn to be anthropologists as well, and travel back in time and live among and study their subjects, one reason for the many historical reenactments.

The verb “to reconcile” seems closest to the work I do with my students. See the Google definition below. The french word conciliare means “bring together”. How do we reconcile, or bring together the view of Jefferson as the author of words below yet also the view of him as salesmen of humans, and more contentiously, a rapist by modern standards?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Reconciliation has a positive connotation, but when a historian does it, is it a positive thing? Seeking to reconcile is an important part of the historian’s job, but we should, perhaps, clarify that it is a constant state of trying to reconcile, rather than asking students to square a circle. The hardest part of teaching history, I find, is the lack of a “right answer” for students. However, it is also my answer to “why study history”? There is no right answer, but seeking to answer, seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable, is not only a practice in critical thinking, but a constant acknowledgement of human complexity. Jefferson is the archetype of a historical paradox, a walking contradiction, and he is not unique.

Rudulph Evans’s statue of Thomas Jefferson was mounted in the Jefferson Memorial in 1947, four years after the memorial opened, Washington, D.C. Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011633648/

James Akin. “A Philosophic Cock,” Newburyport, Massachusetts, c. 1804. Hand-colored aquatint. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (140), http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefffed.html.

reconcile ˈrɛk(ə)nsʌɪl verb
verb: reconcile; 3rd person present: reconciles; past tense: reconciled; past participle:reconciled; gerund or present participle: reconciling
  1. 1.
    restore friendly relations between.
    “the king and the archbishop were publicly reconciled”
    • settle (a quarrel).
      “advice on how to reconcile the conflict”
      synonyms: reunite, bring (back) together (again), restore friendly relations between, restore harmony between, make peace between, resolve differences between, bring to terms; More

      “the news reconciled us”
      settle, resolve, patch up, sort out, smooth over, iron out, put to rights, mend, remedy, heal, cure, rectify
      “the quarrel was reconciled”
      antonyms: estrange, alienate
    • make or show to be compatible.
      “the agreement had to be reconciled with the city’s new international relations policy”
      synonyms: make compatible, harmonize, square, make harmonious,synthesize, make congruent, cause to be in agreement, cause to sit happily/easily with; More

      “it wasn’t easy trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with his career”
    • make someone accept (a disagreeable or unwelcome thing).
      “he was reconciled to leaving”
      synonyms: accept, come to accept, resign oneself to, come to terms with, learn to live with, get used to, make the best of, submit to, accommodate oneself to, adjust oneself to, become accustomed to, acclimatize oneself to; More

      grin and bear it;
      informallike it or lump it
      “the creditors had to reconcile themselves to drastic losses of income and capital”
  2. 2.
    make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.
    “it is not necessary to reconcile the cost accounts to the financial accounts”
Origin
late Middle English: from Old French reconcilier or Latin reconciliare, from Latin re- ‘back’ (also expressing intensive force) + conciliare ‘bring together’.

The AP US History Controversy, Liberal Bias and History as the Study and Practice of Drawing Conclusions

The new AP United States history framework has prompted a lot of controversy. The media has picked it up in waves, first last summer, then in September with the sick-outs in Colorado, over the winter with the debates in Georgia, and most recently with the Oklahoma bill that has now been pulled for further review. Often the headlines describing the movement against the curriculum are laughable, employ Orwellian language, and references to North Korea and totalitarianism abound.

My AP classes were discussing the Scopes Monkey Trial and the culture wars of the 1920s (often cited as a parallel in reports on the AP US debates) while the Oklahoma debates were happening. There was a parallel between Foner’s discussion of the fundamentalists in our textbook and the technique of labeling opponents of the new framework with these volatile, extremist words. I recognized, perhaps begrudgingly, that there is a lot of support to revise the standards, just as there was a lot of support to enact Prohibition, the 1924 Immigration Act, teaching creationism etc. However my making that connection may be part of my liberal bias. Although at times the supporters of the move to revert to the old AP standards are sometimes comical in their description and clearly lack of understanding of the curriculum (I pleaded with my students that the curriculum should not make them want to join ISIS), I wondered about what they really seem to be objecting to, the “liberal takeover” of history education. Is education, especially higher education intrinsically liberal? Do the opponents of the curriculum want a nationalist curriculum? Or am I misunderstanding them? Is it liberal to consider how liberal my curriculum is? It can not be that simple. Maybe it is. I used this current event to discuss historiography, and the idea of revisionist history, but also the importance of looking for point of view in everything.

We started first with a list of quotes about the study of history, several from the approved documents list from the Oklahoma Bill.

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. –Harry S Truman (approved source)

Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! –Patrick Henry (approved source)

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. –Alexis de Tocqueville (approved source)

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. –Thomas Jefferson (approved source)

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. –Mark Twain

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. –Maya Angelou

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history. –Aldous Huxley

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. –H. G. Wells

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. –George Orwell

There is an old saying about those who forget history. I don’t remember it, but it is good. –Stephen Colbert

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) “The New Colossus” [titled “Sonnet” in notebook] 1883. Manuscript poem, bound in journal. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, New York and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (41)

Jacob August Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement–“Five Cents a Spot”, 1889, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

 

Then we looked at the composition of the sources on the Oklahoma bill. Many reports about the bill noted the lack of diversity in the sources (which my own quote list above probably wouldn’t stand up to either) nearly every article about the bill highlighted fact that the ten commandments made the list of 52 documents, the 4 documents by women, the single document (of surrender) by a native American, and the five documents from non-white men (non from non-white women). Of these 52 documents, only 2 are truly critical of the United States. What many articles and reports failed to note however, is that within the new curriculum framework, I taught 90% of these 52 documents, however I also taught many documents that showed an alternative “America”. For example, their summer work included a document-based question about American exceptionalism, which they wrote after reading Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. They read Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” but they also considered a Jacob Riis photograph. As we considered the Oklahoma Bill I had the students check off which ones they knew, highlight in different colors those sources that were written by members of a minority group, and asked them to try and come up with a primary source that might contradict or challenge each of the 52 sources. It became a review lesson as well.

I was left wondering, is the critique of with the new curriculum that the conclusion many students come to after a consideration of both sources often finds America lacking? A student last year came into class a few weeks in and said, “Ms. Berry, I like this class, but I do not like America anymore.” Georgia students protesting the legislation to limit funding to the AP had an interesting take on this “anti-America” trend in AP textbooks, “As someone who is directly affected by this class every day, I must say that statement is false. Students in Gwinnett County are taught about the positive effects the United States has had on the world since we are in elementary school.” 

In trying to understand the bill, and the impulses in American society behind it, how do I avoid the liberal bias? By naming it? Is it “liberal” to name bias, even if it is reflective?

More links:

 

“Hi, nice to meet you. I am Ms. Berry. Have we met before?”

Whew….I knew this was going be hard to keep up, but the expression “haven’t come up for air yet” seems apt for the first few weeks of school. I drafted a post about the night before the first day of meetings, then meetings happened and it no longer seemed honest. I drafted a post about orientation activities, and then was on a three day hike with no internet access. I drafted a post about some ideas for the first day of school, and then I did something different. I know. Lame. Excuses.

Here I am. Block 1X, Tuesdays 10:30-11:50. An 80 minute block reserved just for this little blog. Every Tuesday practice “reflective teaching”….before I get to each lunch (I, like my dog can be motivated by food).

This semester I am teaching 63 students. Nearly half of them I have taught before which poses some interesting observations about how the introductory week goes (they already know I prefer the latte to the apple) I am wary of referencing past classrooms with them too much, as it is not inclusive to the new students; yet I am excited they remember things from last year! So much of the first week is about establishing expectations, classroom norms, and the students ascertaining just exactly how they should behave. The students who have had me before go through this assessment much more quickly than those who are new to my classroom. Yet, there is something about the rebirth of a teacher and a student that happens in September that merits consideration. This is a new group. A new year. A chance to start fresh, start with, quite appropriately, a clean slate. I am a different teacher than last year. The process changes you. One more year of experience has changed me. Most notably, the intense two weeks at Klingenstein in June, and a summer of thinking about teaching even as I fell asleep, changed me.

Last year I was full steam ahead in the first week. This was based on a belief that I had so much to do, might as well dive in head first. This was problematic. I have slowed the pace a bit this year. In AP US, for example, we are taking our time to focus on the work they did in the summer. Last year, the assignment included four historical monographs, they had to pick one and compose an essay. We (the two AP US teachers) tried to use these monographs and the students knowledge throughout the year to make it relevant. Unfortunately, by the time it came to talk about Martha Ballard, the book was not fresh in their minds that were full of fear of failure in an AP, stress, wanting to prove themselves on Varsity X, disappointment over not making Varsity X, the boy/girl sitting next to them. The kids who wrote excellent essays a month earlier couldn’t access them easily.

This year we had them read Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, and answer a DBQ question about American Exceptionalism. Check it out below, or here. The Gilded Age is a complicated time, and a challenging period for students on the exam. With a chronological approach, it often falls in January. Which in New Hampshire is cold and dark, and did I mention cold? I think it is also challenging because it is the convergence of so many different themes/narratives. It is not just about industrialization, it is not just about corruption, it is not just about progressivism, populism, or monetary issues, it isn’t just about imperialism, or dealing with the legacy of the Civil War and reconstruction, it isn’t just about the beginning of a “modern-looking” America-it is about all of these things. All periods are complex, but the Gilded Age is harder to distill into clear content objectives you can count on your hand. So we thought, let’s have them focus on it in the summer and spend a week discussing it; establish some basic level of skills and introduce the expectations of the course.

Jury is still out. But I am optimistic, I can use this unit and summer work again.

It is day three of AP US. Check out the backwards planning (Understanding By Design style with a Performance Based Assessment: thank you #ksi14 ) for the unit here,. Today they discussed a set of multiple-choice questions (I wrote feverishly last night, trying to use the new AP language)  in groups, and then as a class. Through observation I was able to see their different personalities, what prior knowledge of US history they bring to the class and how well they played with others (they had to come to a group consensus). As it was a long block, they then looked at feedback on their summer essays and drafted an action plan for revision.

It seems greedy to steal a week from our already limited time together (ahem 90 class meetings to prepare them for the AP yikes), but I learned so much about them as current students (not who they were last year) from today’s observation. Tonight they are facing some short answer-style questions on the same sources, but individually.

Questions I still have:

  • Will they remember this in January? Will it be useful to them?
  • Do the few who do not have a good base of prior knowledge feel under-prepared for the class? They shouldn’t. It is early.
  • Is this (relative) sacrifice of a week worth it?

Other notes on the first few days:

  • Senior electives are fun! I had students write a “positionality” essay considering how their experiences and identity influence the way they think…my favorite papers to read all year. Check out the introduction to the prompt here. More on how this is going next week.
  • Bringing local history into my Research Methods class. I was worried students would find it boring. Got an email on Saturday night asking to see more local pictures. Too early to pronounce victory, but, cough. Victory!

Question for the Blog-o-sphere: 

How important is the first week to establish the norms, expectations of a classroom? I am introducing myself as Ms. Berry, but what does that mean in September of 2014? It is different than September 2013.