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..

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:


Design your own Virtual Experience: Windows or Mirrors?

Johannes Vermeer “The Astronomer” Louvre in 1668.  Notice the location of the celestial globe in relation to the window…

Norman Rockwell “Girl at Mirror” March 6, 1954. Notice the magazine looks a lot like her…

There have been so many provocative conversations over the past week at Klingenstein’s Summer Institute for Young Teachers. Whether it was in the plenary sessions with incredible speakers, or in diversity group addressing tough, but critically important issues, in the history cohort where we get to delve into the essential questions of our discipline (and some dorky videos), or around a breakfast, lunch, dinner table, or changing the tire on my car with new friends, I feel like my head is circling with probing questions all day. A conversation at the lunch table today seemed to bring so much of what we have been learning together for me, and I was led to a new understanding I thought I would share….it will take me a while to get there, but bear with me, I am a bit verbose. Yesterday, Dr. Eliza Byard spoke about the importance of having windows and mirrors in our curriculum for all members of our communities. Windows into the unknown. Windows to expose students to new knowledge. Windows to challenge students’ misconceptions of the world. But we also need mirrors. We need to see ourselves in our community, in the curriculum, in the faculty, in the staff and in the students. The many different identities we bring to the table need confirmation and acceptance. What too often happens, are that the dominant and powerful identities of white, straight, male, and wealthy can eclipse any recognition of others’ sense of “normal”.

I learned at an earlier professional development through SPHERE when I worked at the Ethel Walker School, of the importance of recognizing I am white to my students. I am by no means an expert in this research, but I have found this simple recognition, early in the school year, allowed for a more open and honest discussion of race in my classroom. I couldn’t feel guilty that I was white, and I couldn’t pretend we lived in a “color blind” society.  Now, when I introduce myself to a new class I tell the classic “what-if” used in international politics classes to describe nationalism: “who would I trust with my bags at the Paris airport?”  I introduce them to a picture of my family, then friends,  then members of my immediate communities, perhaps alumni from one of my past schools, maybe a fellow New England native, then perhaps an American. Perhaps I would have to go to the bathroom so badly I would just bolt?  Then I ask my students “would I trust that same American in New York City?” “Why would I trust them at all if they are a stranger?”, “What would be positive about this way of thinking?,” “Negative?”, Why do we operate this way?”, “Is it because an American will likely speak English?”, “Or is there something bigger at play?”

I am a bit off topic, but this intro is a way for me to examine and introduce  the various lenses which color my interpretation of the world, and the importance of recognizing they are, in fact distorting and guiding my interpretation.  I then move on to global identities. I am able to recognize verbally my identity as a member of the developed world, as white, as female and as straight. Now, I am not off the hook after I recognize these parts of my identity, but it does let students know I am open to talking about these issues, and I recognize my privilege. We then move to an introductory “get to know you” essay about how their positionality (their place in the world) impacts the way they think (epistemology), (totally copied it from this author). Ultimately this also allows me to introduce ideas of historiography, and debunk the misconception that history is a single narrative. Click here for more on white anti-racism and the negative impact of the image of a “color blind” society

In my introductory exercise I am putting up a mirror of myself and hopefully, honestly reflecting into it. When I was thinking about how I could prompt students to write better postionality essays (some were good, some talked about watching the news with their parents, and  others were very superficial) I was thinking about their virtual identities. Was there a way I could engage them with the complexity of their identities through what they put online? Their virtual identity is so important to many of them. I thought about prompting them to think about “what the web knows about them.” If they Google themselves, what groups do they obviously belong to? I would encourage them to observe their pictures, tweets, instagrams and the collective message they send to the world. This a bit of digital citizenship exercise, but I am more interested in them thinking about how this “window” to the world, might in fact actually be a mirror. THEY get to construct their worlds online by who they follow, the various media forms the read, who their friends are. They also don’t have control over their virtual worlds in terms of the software that tracks them and tailors their advertisements to their specific preferences, or what they just looked up the day before.

As I was talking about this idea, a new friend Leslie brought up, the notion of “net neutrality” and how the internet is seen as an equalizer in terms of “access to information” by virtue of seemingly “unfiltered” access to information. The conversation turned to the ways internet is filtered, from countries that do block certain sites, the parameters we set on our school’s internet (although easily bypassed by 3G), and the times when the US does have limitations/consequences of “free” internet use. Who owns the internet? What does it actually look like? Leslie directed me to the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet written by a friend of hers on the actual infrastructure of the internet. She also discussed the various reasons cable companies would like to filter our web use (to make a profit of course), and then notion of Google Fiber. (So much! You can see why my head was swimming!)

So why am I fixated on mirrors and windows? Students need these in our schools, but we also need to teach them to craft their virtual worlds not only as a deceptive mirror of the things they believe and affirm, but also windows into that big ‘ol world. Too often, they will see the internet as a window, but when they look into it, they will only see confirming ideas and faces reflecting back at them. We need to encourage them to follow news outlets that do not necessarily match up with their politics, or their countries, to follow people that they can both question and re-tweet. We need to encourage them to construct their virtual worlds in the same way we construct our classrooms, schools and communities: as both mirrors and windows. 

I just scratched the surface in the ways in which students could add complexity to their virtual worlds. Any ideas?