"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 14, 2012

History Is Boring

I used to hate history.  My prep school teachers used to drone on and on about who did what to whom at some obscure time for some obscure reason.  I took American history because I had to and never took it again.  I did take a college biology course thanks to Mr. McIver, my Junior Year teacher who had a beautiful, young, blonde wife and who always included a class on human reproduction.  The class was not about ovaries and the vas deferens but about how to get a woman hot.  Without the sex classes and the image of Mrs. McIver in mind, however, college biology was just as boring as American history, and I quit after one semester.

I have come full circle, and now am fascinated by history.  Not all history, but periods of history which have some meaning and particular relevance to my life.  Southern history, for example, and in particular the history of slavery and Reconstruction.  I have always said that unless you understand the South you will never understand America; that the legacies of slavery and of the Reconstruction are still with us, alive and well.  Washington DC, where I live, is as racially divided a city as Johannesburg was under apartheid.  Rock Creek Park divides the western white city from the eastern black part, and a drive through the neighborhoods east of the Park is like entering another America.

One Saturday evening, after having dinner with a black American woman I had met in Morocco, I drove her home to a neighborhood deep in black Washington.  Although she was a foreign service professional, her parents still lived there, and she stayed there when recycled back through the State Department.  It was late at night and the streets, stoops and sidewalks were jammed.  People were all outside on this hot night, loud music was coming from open windows and from neighborhood bars, cars cruised up and down the avenues.  East of the Park was far removed from my neat, quiet, reserved, and protected Upper Northwest neighborhood.  It had more in common with the African quartiers of Kinshasa than with Washington, DC.

One day a number of years ago when my children were little, we had just eaten in Washington’s small Chinatown.  On the way back home I took a wrong turn, and headed through the all-black neighborhoods east of Thomas Circle instead of my usual – and much safer – route up Massachusetts Avenue and Embassy Row.  My kids, strapped in their car seats in the back, usually scrapping and fighting, were surprisingly quiet.  After about ten minutes my daughter said, “Daddy, there are no white people here”.

How did this all happen, I wondered later.  How did DC become a city that in the late Seventies was almost 80 percent black?  When did the black migration from the South occur? Was there slavery in Washington, and were the black families I saw on 9th Street the descendants of slaves or freedmen?  Most importantly, why, after 150 years was Washington just as segregated as it ever was?

Ten years later I started what is known in my family as our ‘Cracker Trips’, three-week vacations through the Deep South.  Although we travelled throughout the region, Mississippi was our favorite state.  Perhaps because it is the poorest state in the South and in the United States; or because it has the highest black population (over 36 percent), many of whom still lived in conditions which could not have been too different from those 100 years ago; or perhaps because it is the most religious, the most politically conservative, and one that still keeps traditions of the Old South alive; or because of the visual reminders of the antebellum slave economy, the vast, beautiful, white cotton fields of the Delta, it seemed the most appropriate entry into Southern history.  It has been over fifteen years since that first trip to Mississippi and I have been returning ever since.

My interest in the academic side of Southern history evolved out of the oral history of older people I met on my trips.  I sat for hours in small feed stores, antique shops, and steam-tray luncheonettes and listened to stories about ‘the way it was’.  I read journals left by old plantation owners and preserved by current owners of the restored antebellum homes in which we stayed.  I remember one in which the owner had created a balance sheet for his slaves – how much each of them cost in terms of food, shelter, clothing, and health care; and how much each of them produced.  This commonplace look at slavery – from a balance sheet – made me begin to wonder about the economic principles of the institution.  Was it a viable system which would have gone on and prospered without the Civil War? Or was it built on unsustainable principles?

Because of these personal insights, I began to read history.  My first book was Time on the Cross, one of the best studies of the economics of slavery – a work which concluded that it was indeed a viable system; and that looking at it objectively helped to see more clearly through the anecdotal history of life on a plantation.  Slaves were expensive and valuable, said the authors; and plantation owners had every incentive to protect their investment, assuring the highest rates of productivity and reproduction.

I then went on to read a very different take, that of the husband and wife Genoveses, Marxist scholars who saw slavery through the lens of class. I read books on the plantation economy in Natchez, rice plantations in the Low Country of South Carolina; studies on political economics – the political principles of Free Labor and Free Soil which were the basis for much Northern opposition to slavery. In short I read everything I could on slavery as an economic, political, and social institution.

All this, however, was not answering my question about East of the Park Washington; so I turned to Reconstruction and it was in this sorry history that I found out how the post-war policies of the Radical Republicans undid all that Lincoln had done and would have done for the South to ensure a smooth, acceptable, reintegration into the Union. It was no surprise that ex-plantation owners reacted the way they did to Northern occupation and the forcible imposition of racial equality.  The sight of newly-freed slaves cavorting in State Legislatures as elected delegates was more than they could take.  It didn’t take long for still-influential landowners to take advantage of Northern commercial interests, black ignorance, and a divided Washington, to get back much of what they had before the War.  They regained their lands, instituted tenant farming instead of slavery, passed Jim Crow laws, and reestablished old, plantation era traditions.

Slavery, in effect, lasted for another hundred years after the end of the War, for it was only in 1964-65 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that slavery really began to be dismantled.  It has been a scant 60 years since those Acts, and it is therefore not surprising that the legacy of slavery and post-slavery black segregation is alive and well; that an all-black, de facto segregation still exists in Washington. I have been long an advocate for individual responsibility – that is, for black inner city communities to finally reject victimhood and the persistent perception of white racism – but I cannot ignore the fact that these isolated, marginalized communities have a history that is traced directly back to the South.

Timothy Egan has written in the New York Times (12.14.12, History, Who Needs It?) about Americans’ ignorance of history, and wonders whether the problem is the way it is taught:

Two forces, one driven by bottom-line educators answering to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts, the other coming from the circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories, have done much to marginalize our shared narratives.

I sympathize with the latter – that is that popularizing history may cheapen and distort it, and can open the door to unsubstantiated theories – but am convinced that there have to be other ways to teach it to make it more relevant and meaningful.  I might not have taken so long to arrive at my full appreciation of Southern history if there had been a course entitled Slavery: Its Economic and Political Roots and Its Legacy Today in high school. 

Over the past few years I have become fascinated by English history – one of the subjects that made me and most of my classmates hide in the broom closet until registration for it was over.  English history seemed to us a long, interminable, boring, indecipherable, complex, and hideously arcane series of kingly rises and falls, regional spats and wars, palace coups and plots, land grabs, expropriations, unlawful taxes, and feudal misery.  I recently picked up a two-volume set on Elizabethan History and got only 100 pages in before I gave up.

At the same time I began to read Shakespeare’s Histories and it all began to make sense.  It didn’t matter, said Shakespeare, what actually happened.  Plots, coups, beheadings, and wars always happened.  It is human nature to preserve and protect what you have and expand your protective perimeter limitlessly.  Wars, depredations, and violent intrigues was what men do said Shakespeare, Marlowe, Machiavelli and much later Nietzsche.  I had learned all I needed to know.

If there had been a course in high school entitled Wars, Will, Beheadings, and Human Nature: The Rise and Fall of Empire I would have taken it; and it would not have been fifty years for me to ponder the subject and figure out what the world was really doing.

In short, I am for reforming history teaching by making it more relevant and meaningful, and thus making it more accessible.  I am not for dumbing it down, making it into some pop culture phenomenon with glitzy Hollywood biopics replacing serious scholarship; but for disaggregating the critical themes of history and giving them more life than dusty academics.

I am currently teaching a course for adults on theatre and two universities, one in Washington and the other in Mississippi. I present plays of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee; but have chosen not to discuss the plays in their entirety, but to focus on the intimate and very problematic relationships between the couples in them.  Why did Antony, a triumvir of Rome and seasoned military commander, completely fall off the rails for Cleopatra?  Why did Othello, a respected soldier and military strategist, so miss the point with Iago and Desdemona? What was going on between Maggie and Brick or George and Martha?

I have chosen these plays and chosen to focus on the love or lack thereof between the characters because their relationships are relevant today.  What man has not been jealous like Othello? Or besotted by a woman like Antony?  Who has not fought tooth and nail with a spouse?

There is nothing wrong with being selective in teaching and choosing the most relevant parts of any work.  This is not dumbing down Shakespeare, but paying tribute to his lasting and enduring genius.

Egan’s second point, that lack of history knowledge in American students is due to the removal of liberal arts from the curriculum is true, but up to a point. Governor Scott, whom he quotes, and Governor Rick Perry of Texas, both have argued for accountability in public education:

“You know, we don’t need a lot of anthropologists in this state,” the governor [Scott] said in October. “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on.”

He is absolutely correct in insisting that public education paid for by taxpayer dollars should be accountable to the voters of his state.  Public universities should be educating students to be economically productive members of society when they graduate.  Right now corporations must fill higher-level technical positions with foreigners.

Where he and Perry are incorrect is their desire to remove liberal arts entirely.  I would argue that certain subjects – like history, economics, political philosophy, and social theory – most definitely should be taught.  Not only do we the taxpayers want economically productive students graduating from public universities; we want them to be able to vote intelligently, to think objectively, and to reason.

Yes, let students go to private universities if they want to study anthropology, queer studies, or dance.  There are plenty of excellent institutions quite happy to have them, and student loans and work opportunities to help pay tuition.  Just keep Civic Education at state schools.

Egan closes with the following passage:

One of my best friends in college ripped through chemistry, engineering and advanced calculus courses. And then, degree in hand, he felt strangely uncompleted. On his own, and for a full year, he read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald and Civil War histories. He spent the next 30 years at Boeing. No doubt, he was one of the few mechanical engineers who not only was aware of Faulkner’s immortal line — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” — but also understood what it meant.

Egan’s friend did what I did – ignored history and then found it when it meant something.  He and I did this on our own in our own time.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  We might have been sped along in our journey to and through history if someone had thought to teach it in an interesting way, but so be it.  Never too late.

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