Watching on TV as hundreds of avowedly racist young men carried torches through a college campus, gave the Nazi salute, chanted anti-semitic and racist slurs, and flaunted swastikas through the streets of Charlottesville was profoundly shocking and disturbing.
This is a good time to revisit questions that nag at the backs of our minds: How does history help? What does teaching about long-ago people and events have to do with the present?
I do worry that even many of those who teach history confuse it with the past, and that sites and Facebook pages aimed at teachers focus so much on trivia. Just because something happened in the past does not make it history: History is not an attic full of colorful and quaint items to amuse us. That’s why I don’t post lots of “fun” factoids on my Facebook page, even though I expect both would make me popular. I don’t do it because, as an academic historian, that’s not what I’m about. Rather, I am interested in encouraging people to seek out context through reading, and thus to think historically.
Why? Because those who are most deeply informed about Nazism and the story of race in America are also the most appalled by what happened this weekend. The swastika is such a poisonous and dangerous symbol that it is banned in Germany: In a small footnote to Charlottesville, a drunk American tourist in Germany was beaten up this weekend after throwing the Hitler salute.
Attending a quiet protest vigil last night (unusual for me, since I’m not overly fond of protests), literally the first people I met were a German woman, and an Austrian woman who had arrived in the U.S. less than a week ago. We know, viscerally, what Nazism means. We know what it did to our countries. We know its evils. We learned because, literally, we were surrounded by that history while growing up. I do not for one moment intend to diminish the fact that nearly half a million Americans died fighting the Second World War. But Britons, Germans, and Austrians saw the war come to their doorsteps and into their homes. German and Austrian families, and even some Britons (look up Oswald Mosley) , became complicit in unspeakable evil, by actively participating, or by failing to speak up. This is a lesson that the postwar generation learned well: Nazism is something apart from normal politics. It has no equivalent on the American Left.
In Charlottesville, at issue was much more than a Civil War statue, but it was a Civil War statue that was the supposed focus of a fascist rally. We can certainly debate whether or not Confederate statues should remain, but we must consider what they mean, and that is much more than as a memorial to fallen soldiers. Indeed, these memorials were not put up until long after the Civil War. They were erected in the turn of the century South, at a time when the antebellum era was being romanticized, even as there was brutal segregation and growing violence against African-Americans.
People today who think of Jim Crow segregation too often reduce it to drinking fountains in the 1950s. That’s one of the problems with curriculum forcing us to race through important subjects. Read in depth (not just in a textbook) about the “progressive” era in America over a hundred years ago, and it all comes to disturbing life for those of us with neither personal nor family experience.
We learn of the everyday humiliations of people being told that they were unfit to sit on a bus seat, with the threat of assault or even murder if they showed the slightest resentment. Read of W. E. B. DuBois and his wife being harassed with catcalls as they walked behind the coffin of their small son in Atlanta. And if you can stomach it, or even if you can’t, read of the appalling torture-murders of black men that took place before baying crowds of men, women, and children. These are part of the vital context to the statues. I do not, I rush to add, expect anyone to describe lynchings to 5th graders. But teaching history well and meaningfully requires knowing more than we can actively teach, and modeling curiosity.
The more we overcome our fear of knowing, and the more we seek to know the truth, the harder it is to hate. I listened on the radio this morning to the emotional report of a BBC journalist who visited Amritsar, the site of the appalling 1919 massacre of hundreds of Indian men, women, and children by British troops who emptied their guns on people in a walled garden for ten straight minutes. Jason Rowlatt, the reporter, declared that he was the great-grandson of the author of the Rowlatt Act, a draconian law passed that year, aimed at Indians who protested British rule. Jason Rowlatt did not apologize on his own behalf, and I would argue, nor should he: We are not responsible for the acts of our ancestors. But we are responsible to continue to investigate the past, clear-eyed and without defensiveness, to continue to find the context for our lives today. Fighting back tears, Rowlatt did apologize on behalf of his family, and his country. Yet his family had already done their bit to bring the family history into the light: When he was young, Rowlatt’s parents took him to see the movie Gandhi, which depicts the Amritsar massacre, and told him of his great-grandfather’s shameful role in Indian history. This is how we make history matter: Through truth and reconciliation.
We are at a dangerous crossroads in American history. How do we proceed? How can we help? These are the questions we each must ask ourselves, again and again.
The appalling events in Charlottesville this weekend, in which Nazi demonstrators took to the streets, and those who stood up to them were assaulted and murdered, put me in mind of the Battle of Cable Street (1936) It's remembered in the UK as a great anti-fascist victory. But one historian argues that it's actually a cautionary tale.
Here's the link to the 2011 article in History Today: http://www.historytoday.com/daniel-tilles/myth-cable-street
My research for The War to End War, my new program for schools on WWI, led me on an interesting tangent, musing over the impact of propaganda, "fake news", and the rest. Here's my guest blog post for The Saporta Report:
The news comes this morning, following an online global shaming, of the resignation of the mayor of a small town in Clay County, WV, who had praised a revolting internet post by the director of the local development agency in which she had described Michelle Obama as an ape. I don't have to tell you that it was right that she should resign, and right that others in the community should condemn hate. The two women should send personal letters of apology to Mrs. Obama.
But note this from the article on the resignation: "The uproar occurred as the town of about 500 residents is still trying to recover from severe flooding in late June along the nearby Elk River. Clay County also has been hit by hundreds of layoffs in the coal industry this decade."
Now let's think. Was there the same national and international publicity about the catastrophes that have crushed this little community? Will there now be calls for aid?
Of course not. And therein lies a little clue to where Trumpism came from.
A local councilwoman pleaded with us all to visit Clay County, and meet the people. Most people will not, of course, take up her invitation. But having spent a week wandering around the poverty-stricken former mining areas of Wales last year, and having recently visited a working-class bar/grill with Asian husband while passing through West Virginia, and having a lovely time, I do recommend it, and hope I can visit Clay in the next year or two. We have to start talking to each other, and at the very least, give encouragement to the quiet majority of decent people.
But suppose the people of Clay are all bigots? Of course they are. Stay with me here, please: Years ago, in Los Angeles, I visited the Simon Wiesenthal museum (named for the famed Nazi hunter) To enter, you had to choose between two doors, marked "Prejudiced" and "Not Prejudiced." But the "Not Prejudiced" door was locked. There was only one way in. The message of course, was that we are all bigots. People find that hard to accept about ourselves. Even if we don't say "I'm not prejudiced, but . . .", we think it. The museum challenged that. We are all bigots, it said, and it was right.
Now is the time to remind you that many people of color, black , Latino, and Asian, voted for Trump. Many Jews voted for Trump. Many Catholics voted for Trump. Many, many women voted for Trump. And, thanks to his deliberate goading of their prejudices, many voted out of fear and hatred, as well as economic anxiety.
Is this uniquely American? Of course not. Every country, every people has its scapegoats. I remember telling a Glasgow man in California that I was a little anxious about how my grandfather and a few other Scottish relatives would receive the news that I was marrying an Asian-American. "Oh, they wont care if he's Martian and has three heads," he said, "as long as he isn't a Catholic." (It was pretty much true, by the way).
I have known people (and not all of whom are white) who have terrible prejudices in theory, whether about race, class, or religion, but who in practice have treated others with dignity and respect. And I don't know anyone, most especially myself, who has not had cause to fight the demon of prejudice. This is something I think about a great deal. I developed a character in Don't Know Where, Don't Know When,the first of The Snipesville Chronicles, who has proven enormously popular with my readers. Mrs. Devenish, a middle-class woman in wartime Britain, is a kind, compassionate, and formidable woman with great integrity, who is resolutely anti-racist. In One Way or Another, the final book in the series, I have written at length about her one glaring form of bigotry, one that was clear from the start to the readers who were paying attention, and how she fights it in herself. [Spoiler alert] It's social class.
This is not a call to tolerate discrimination. I do not ignore the realities of the connections between race and power. I hope that my life will stand as testament to my goodwill on those scores. But this reminds me that's something else I have learned from the close study of history: Seek out context before deciding. Seek to understand. Cultivate empathy. And never be afraid to challenge your own received ideas about anything. Seek new ways of looking at the world. Read, but--and I cannot stress this enough--beware of those who peddle hatred and discord and lies, because they are everywhere. Talk with people, no matter who they are. And keep listening, thinking, and above all, reading. Education is for life, in more ways than one. Most of all, let us all strive to hold ourselves to the highest possible standards of human decency, even knowing that we will, assuredly, fail.
Most historians-- not all-- tend to stay away from active involvement in politics. Sure, we have views, but we're slippery creatures, always beholden to evidence, and subject to changing our minds as new evidence comes available. That's why we prefer to wait on current events to recede into the past before we start forming arguments about them. Personally, I prefer early American history, because all my subjects are safely dead, and we have a long -term perspective, three centuries in fact, on their lives.
I cannot, however, pretend that this election did not happen. I can tell you this much: Not one professional historian of whom I am aware supported Donald Trump for president. Not one. If I am wrong, I would be delighted to stand corrected. But I don't think I am. We are not all "liberals", a word with many meanings. We are not all upper-middle-class people. We don't all think the same way--historians sometimes appear to come close to fistfights at their meetings, because ideas and evidence matter. But on Donald Trump, historians agreed. There is no point in my pretending otherwise, nor would I wish to: Historians, even those most critical of how things have been for working people, are afraid, because so much of what is happening right now is evocative of the instability and anger and policies that gave rise to fascism in 1930s Europe. Will it play out now as it did then? No idea. I hope not. It helps that fascism never got very far in Britain or America, even then. But as one of my old professors used to say, historians are great at predicting the past. The future? Not so much.
But that's enough. The most important point I want to make is that, regardless of whom you voted for, there is one point on which I think can all agree. I have attended homeschooling conventions, teachers' conferences, and spoken (and listened) to people of all political persuasions throughout the South, much of that time in rural areas. We all understand that kids need to read books. Lots of them. They need to have available to them a range of books (not just reading the same couple of authors, the same kinds of books) and to make their own choices. Understanding history is not about memorizing facts, no matter what they are, or indoctrinating kids. It is about kids reading books, and forming ever larger and more complex contexts for their own experiences. That is what education must be. It is what schooling is not. We must sweep away the bad curriculum, the excessive bureaucracy, the absolute nonsense of a moribund system, and allow teachers to encourage and enable kids to read. That is what must change. Because, honestly? That's the only thing that will fix what ails us.
Like many--if not most-- academic historians, I have long been skeptical of military history. Too often, it seems fixated with troop movements and strategy, technology and logistics,divorced from the human story that is its inevitable consequence. Yet despite my usual interest in the slightly less violent subject of popular religious culture, the causes and consequences of war fascinate me. Since the 80s, I have paid frequent visits to the Imperial War Museum in London, which places human beings at the heart of military history. Still, unfortunate encounters with military historians in real life have led me to keep the field at arm's length.
Add the word "battle" to the phrase "American Revolution" to sum up some of my recent areas of interest, and you have a formula that, it seems, only a military history buff could love.
Fact is, I am a historian of Revolutionary America, if only as a teaching field. And I am deeply concerned with how different is the academic historians' version of the Revolution from popular perceptions. On that note, I decided that it was well past time for me to try harder to connect with military events, even if only to try to tease out the human story. My recent road trip to Pennsylvania thus took me via Kings Mountain (SC), site of a significant battle that is worth its own post (coming soon), Valley Forge (not a battlefield, but certainly a site of great significance in military history and the popular imagination), and Antietam, the Civil War battlefield that saw more than 20,000 horrific casualties in a single day.
Antietam is a harrowing place to anyone with an ounce of imagination, and when you pair a visit with the pricey but worthwhile audio tour (available in the gift shop), it can be overwhelming. This was not a battle in the romanticized sense of hand to hand combat by heroic opponents: This was slaughter that anticipated the First World War. Terrified young men marched toward death, dropping in the rows in which they marched. Many were slaughtered at point-blank range in a cornfield, cut down by bullets and cannon, along with the cornstalks through which they took their final steps. And there was nothing they could do to fight back.
By sheer chance, while at Antietam, I stumbled into a talk by historian Dr. Carol Reardon, along with Tim Vossler, her co-author of Antietam: A Field Guide . I decided to listen because I was intrigued by the fact that Carol is a professional historian, at Penn State, and because, quite honestly, she's a woman in a field that's overwhelmingly made up of men. As if reading my mind (and she had no idea who I was at that point) she gave a spirited defense of military history in the face of criticism from academic historians, and of how it is expanding to cover everyone affected by war. It was a terrific talk, and I have bought the book. As soon as I am done with my current obsession (the Third Reich, of all things, and particularly the work of the marvelously wise and readable Richard J. Evans), I will read and review.
What's with all this sudden interest in war on my part? That would be telling. But let's just say that I'm reading, experiencing, and thinking in anticipation of my next book, even as the last volume of The Snipesville Chronicles is at the printer . . .
An unexpected treat when I went to the movies in Atlanta to see Denial, the engrossing new film about the libel case that British Holocaust denier David Irving brought against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. After the movie, the real Dr. Lipstadt (who teaches at Emory) held a Q&A with the audience. You can just about make her out in my awful photo below, but that's her also on the screen with Rachel Weisz, who portrayed her in Denial. The movie was great, but this isn't a movie review as such, and I want you to see it, so no spoilers here. Just know that it's a film you won't forget. The Q and A was even better, and it is a pity that it's not humanly possible for Dr. Lipstadt to be on hand for every showing.
What I have found striking about this case (and I am reading the books about it as fast as I can) is how alarmingly timely it is, and how urgently we need to revisit what constitutes history education. Most people are getting our views from either media sources--mainstream or not-- that feed us what we want to hear (and yes, I include myself in this, to my eternal shame), or, worse, from internet babble.
We absolutely have to make the case for "slow learning", if you'll forgive the phrase, for students' reading books--lots of them--and for initially engaging young children in history in such a way that they will want to read more for themselves. What that is going to require is for historians to take a far more prominent role in developing curriculum, bringing their understanding of history as much more than "must know" factoids. It's hard to see the hand of historians in state and national curricula, and the anecdotal evidence I've found suggests that they're either brought onto committees as window-dressing, or aren't numerous--or assertive-- enough. Agree or disagree, historians who have been involved in the process of developing curriculum are warmly invited to share their experiences with me, privately if need be.
What's at stake? Education itself, which in all but a handful of elite institutions (K12 and college) is in danger of being reduced to vocational training. Democracy, which cannot thrive among a citizenry that is abandoning rationality and empiricism. Democracy, as Churchill observed, is the worst form of government, except for all the others. The Holocaust was the product of one of those "others".
Signing books at a local fall festival in Atlanta, I was asked (yet again) if my books are historically accurate. I weaseled out of that in my usual way, boasting of my doctorate in history. Believe me, he wouldn't have wanted to listen to the alternative: a lengthy lecture.
The truth is, the books aren't inaccurate. They are my best representation of life in the past, under the circumstances--I'm writing for readers as young as nine, so some subjects are glossed over, others ignored. I'm writing outside my primary area of expertise (early American popular religious culture). And because my novels are fiction, and time-travel at that, I have some latitude.
That said, most of what happens in the novels happened to someone. And if I don't have evidence that something happened, but it's reasonable to surmise from the historical record that it could have happened, then I sometimes include it. To give an example from Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (Snipesville 1): Some child evacuees were used as exploited labor in World War II Britain. Some evacuees were black. But was a black evacuee ever exploited by his or her host family? Was a billeting officer ever guilty of trafficking kids, as I depict? I don't know. That's what makes it fiction.
Another reason I can't be 100% accurate in my novels because, basically, there's so much historians do not know, or that we don't agree upon. Look Ahead, Look Back draws on my memory of the thin sources available for the period, including some drawn from backwoods South Carolina in the 18th century. Is the book then inaccurate? With empathy and imagination and broad knowledge of what sources exist, I did my best, and so far, I've had no complaints from the historians who have read it. The word "accuracy" makes me nervous, all the same. Short of becoming a time-traveler myself, I'm limited by the sources, but liberated by being a novelist. I freely admit that what I write is what journalist and Roots author Alex Haley called faction.
I've been thinking about this since the release of the movie Denial (2016), about the libel case by British writer David Irving against Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt, who had accused him of denying the Holocaust. The case turned on establishing that, indeed, the systematic murders of 11 million people under the Nazis did take place. The movie is based on Lipstadt's book on the subject, but I'm reading another book on the case, written by an expert witness for the defense, Cambridge historian Richard Evans.
Evans's book, Lying About Hitler, will, I hope, help me deal better with that frequent question about accuracy. Historians know how complicated an answer is required when someone asks, "Is it accurate?" But fundamentally, the answer for a work of history should always be yes--with lots of qualifications and nuance, sure--but yes. It may be to the best of our knowledge, and according to the historical record, but it must not deliberately misrepresent the body of available evidence. For my works of fiction, despite the time travel, I also do the best job I possibly can to ensure that what I write is not at odds with the evidence we have. I'm not held to the same exacting standards as I am in writing history, nor can I be--but I do try to get it right. This might also help explain why it has taken me ten years to complete The Snipesville Chronicles series. I am also starting to include notes in each book. Would you be interested in my providing further commentary on the web as time permits? Is there anything in the books that you would like me to discuss?
Such an interesting post by Russ Walsh (although I'm still processing the nine million dollars for research he mentions . . . ) Perhaps part of the problem is that when kids are reading in a highly-structured environment that emphasizes passing tests and "achieving" and "excellence", it sucks the joy out of the exercise?
There's also the same problem that I see with history curriculum, which is that we seem determined to reduce every part of education to a technical exercise, described in painful detail in lesson plans, which translates in the case of reading to a single-minded focus on phonics. I was intrigued by the idea of teachers' setting the stage for a book, introducing the story so that kids have a chance to build context. That's what historians do, even for each other (all books, chapters,and essays start with a story) and what teaching history is ultimately about: the building of context through story.
"I regret not taking more history in college," the doctor of infectious diseases confessed to me. "I was afraid of it. I was good at math. It had right and wrong answers. History was all gray areas. But now I'm fascinated by it."
To anyone who thinks of history as facts and dates, and as a subject both dull and easy, this may come as a surprise. Surely someone who ended up as a specialist physician is a smart cookie? She might have been bored by history classes, but surely not intimidated?
Yet she was. History requires creative thought, consideration and reconsideration of evidence, and an acceptance that we can seldom be certain of anything. And for some students, smart though they are, this is frightening.
Not that all STEM students shy away from the humanities. Engineers were among my best college students. I suspect this was because they tend to be broadly curious, and that their curiosity cannot be contained within the walls of STEM: When I asked one of my engineers what the attraction was, he said that it was that history dealt with colorful, unpredictable people.
STEM and the humanities are not as far apart as many people assume. As we endure the throes of a STEM fixation in public education, I find myself marveling that people making decisions about curriculum are too often themselves insufficiently educated, and that they don't understand that history is essential to understanding science. Indeed, the very first book I was assigned in grad school, in a course on the 20th century U.S., was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which demolished the idea that science is pure and objective. And we cannot understand any scientific subject without grasping that it has a history.
Unlike the good doctor, not all young people have a passion for advanced science and mathematics (and the world would be a pretty dull and possibly scary place if they all did). Not all young people have an aptitude for advanced history, either. But all children deserve to have the opportunity to develop intellectual curiosity, to find their passions without being railroaded, and to learn early about the gray areas. When elementary school children may be exposed to social studies (of which history is only one part) as little as once a week, and are subjected to stultifying curriculum when they are, we are shutting down parts of their brains that we ought to be developing, no matter what plans they (or, more likely, we) have for their future careers.