Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Depressing Nature of History

From a midterm I just gave:

"Everytime I leave this class I feel like drinking. Not because I find it boring but because the content is so depressing."

I suppose there is a way to teach American history that is all happy and fun. But that would be ignoring the intersection of race and violence that I believe is necessary for understanding of American history.

Let's face it, history is depressing. If you want to go talk about how cool Billy the Kid is, well, whatever. But who cares? What would some glorification of Billy the Kid or George Washington or Thomas Edison or whoever really tell us about American history. It is depressing. History is the chronicle of human follies. It's not as if we couldn't make better decisions. But we consistently don't. We didn't have to invade Iraq, but we did. We could have allowed the ship of Jewish children escaping Nazi Germany into the country, but we didn't. We could have enacted real racial equality during the 1960s, but instead we elected Richard Nixon. No one on the blogosphere understands this as well as Axis of Evel Knievel. If you don't read his daily excoriations of human history, you should.

Of course, it is not just about the United States. Let's face it, history is a bummer. On the other hand, there are valuable lessons we can learn. I hate it (and I mean freaking hate it) when my students say that history repeats itself. This is, of course, absurd. But their is real value for modern society in studying history. For me, that comes from figuring out the antecedents for our current problems. Why is this country so racist? Why is it so violent? Why can't we accept abortion as a basic right for women? Why have we worked over the environment like Larry Holmes fighting Gerry Cooney? There are answers and that is what I stress to my students.

Also, it's really nice when students get it. It makes me feel very happy. Even if they want to drink every time they deal with me.