Learning history in the present


Women marched peacefully on Saturday to demonstrate pride and autonomy — and to let President Trump know they won’t stand for any rollback of women’s rights.

Or, women marched and destroyed property Saturday to whine about losing the election.

Or, women marched Saturday as dupes of outside forces, including radical Islam.

Which version do you believe?

I believe #1. Most of my friends were at marches Saturday — in St. Paul, in Washington, D.C., in Seattle, in Philadelphia, in Wichita, in New York — and I trust their perspective. I would have joined them if I hadn’t been sick all week, because I’m concerned about women’s rights (and human rights) under the new regime.

Like many women, I was appalled by the video last fall, revealing how Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women, and I don’t like that he wishes Time’s “Person of the Year” was still “Man of the Year.” Like many women, I’m also worried about serious policy issues like women’s health care and access to contraceptives.

But I know people who genuinely believe versions 2 and 3, based on their personal views, their news sources, and their interpretation of current events. I was, frankly, startled to read their perspectives on Facebook.

I have a completely different viewpoint, which is why this event strikes me as a perfect opportunity for a history lesson.

Last fall, at the NCSS conference, I attended a great session on how eyewitness experiences become history. Whose story gets told? Why is that story told? And what is lost?

In the session, the instructor asked us to write down on paper what we had done that morning, word for word. What we ate, where we went, who we talked to, what we had learned in other sessions.

Then he proceeded to destroy most of our stories, telling us ¼ were destroyed in a flood, ¼ were destroyed by an invasion, another ¼ were suppressed by a new government. On and on, until one or two perspectives on the day remained for posterity.

It was a fascinating way to think about history. How do we know what living through the Plague was really like? Or slavery? Or the Civil War? Or the Vietnam War? Only by the accounts of those who were there (and lived to tell). For most events in human history, very few accounts survive.

Even when thousands of accounts and eyewitnesses do survive, how can we sort through them to get at the “truth”? We don’t all see or experience things the same way. I saw the fall of the Berlin Wall as an unmitigated victory from my bleacher seats in the U.S., for example, but I met people in the former East Germany a few years ago who saw it differently, as the start to a decades-long decline for them.

So while we can agree on something as simple as when and where events happened, agreeing on what happened, who was involved, why and how — that’s nearly impossible.

The women’s march — and the differing viewpoints on it — is also a great material for government or language arts class. How do we best respond to those who see things so differently from us? How do we judge which news sources are reliable — or at least not fake? How can we talk to each other? Can we find common ground through a deliberative process, or is there no common ground anymore?

If we are going to survive as a democracy (or even a civil society), we have to find ways to talk about our different perspectives, weigh the evidence for both, figure out how to derive meaning from these shared but conflicting experiences.

That starts with us — in the classroom and in our daily lives. We need to engage our students, and we need to engage in discussions with those who disagree with us.

That’s what I learned this weekend.