From former history teacher and professor Paul Street’s May 5 excellent musings on his question: ‘Why Study History?’ at CP.
He’d partially written it as a response to the many librul academic historians who’ve had a whole yotta fun over ‘Dunce Cap Donald’s’ abysmal knowledge of US history, and taking aim at their collective roles in enabling such ignorance. He of course skewers most high school history teachers for teaching history so boringly that they don’t even try to make a case as to why the past underpins ‘contemporary politics and recent history. As in: ‘Names, dates, prepare for the test’. What he’d discovered during his many years of teaching college history showed him this:
“Historians’ nasty name for doing that is “presentism” – the sin of not appreciating history on its own terms and for its own sake. It wasn’t just a left vs. liberal thing. It was a professional class division of labor thing.”
Street skewers Herr Trump and his backers’ call to ‘Make America Great Again’ with a laundry list of generally ‘consigned to the memory hole’ actual history of racism, Jim Crow laws, genocide, chattel slavery, child labor, death by back-alley abortions, Japanese internment camps, the murders of labor organizers by Pinkertons and militias…well, you get the drift.
Under Decoding Propaganda Street opens with:
“Done well, history helps us de-code propaganda by providing us with an informational basis with which to respond to the remarkable extent to which American rulers rely on historical narratives and claims to sell their policies and doctrines idea even in a nation famous for not knowing or caring about history. It’s helpful to know a thing or two about what the nation’s profoundly anti-democratic and aristocratic Founders [his essay at Telesur ‘Enough with the Holy Founders’ Undemocratic Constitution’] were really all about the next time you hear some politician invoke them to advance or oppose some policy or candidate in the name of democracy.”
…and a long list of things it would be ‘good to know’ about both internal and capitalist Imperial agenda.
He makes quite a case for the reasons that truthful and well-taught history is a weapon against ruling class authority:
“Done right, without ideological blinders, history is a radically democratic weapon in the struggle for social justice, ecological sustainability, and popular sovereignty.” [snip]
“(All those reasons I gave above for why history matters to the present are from an opening lecture [titled “Why Study History?”] I used to give in any and every history class I ever taught. It was a very effective talk. I was not aware of a single other history professor who ever opened like that. I imagine some did and do, but I suspect it is very rare).”
But this caught my eye, especially the portion I’ve bolded:
“[Knowing truthful history] …takes us to the developmental taproots of contemporary problems like sexism, classism, racism, imperialism, militarism, and ecocide, showing how and why all of these evolved over time out of decisions and paths taken by human beings, not the mysterious workings of some dark, all-powerful deity and/or “human nature” – or some other form of imposed destiny.”
Originally, I’d meant to offer that paragraph as a springboard to an open discussion of ‘human nature’, and I still hope to, but given that I’ve decided to focus on education for now, especially as Susan Babbitt, author of ‘Humanism and Embodiment’ added a few twists to ‘education’ in her May 8 ‘May Day Marches Against Trump: Confusion or Worse?’ at CP. What she brings to the notion of true solidarity is an eye-opening education in its own right, as well.
“May Day is about solidarity, which involves sacrifice. Che Guevara warned of a facile view: You support a cause, wishing “the victim success”, as if “cheering on the gladiators in the Roman circus”. Instead, he pointed out, solidarity is joining “the victim in victory or death.” It can’t be done without giving up something. The sacrifice part of the idea gets lost.
May Day celebrates solidarity with the oppressed. It is not “fellow feeling”. Fellow feeling is that sense of togetherness we get under a banner or a flag. Existentialists called it the “public mind”. It’s useless for solidarity with the oppressed. They are the ones invisible to the public mind.” [snip]
“It means losing an identity-conferring history, and taking on that revolutionary emotion called shame. It can’t be done comfortably. Trump is a red herring. But the May Day confusion goes deeper. Neither solidarity nor “the people” arise from fellow feeling, at least not the kind above. Guevara argued that they become possible through shared humanity, which must be discovered.
[Latin American independence leader José] Martí went so far as to name “false erudition” a major barrier to independence. He meant Europeans’ view of knowing. It was about gain: possessing knowledge. Martí wasn’t against knowledge. But being learned is more interesting, and challenging, than a headful of knowledge.
We can’t be educated, Martí proposed, without sensitivity. To be educated, to be cultured, we have to be able to feel. We have to be capable of response, of connection: human connection. It’s a bit of a lost art. But it is how people – the ones previously unknown, and unrecognized – become known.” [snip]
“Human beings are punishing ourselves. Marx did not say, as some accuse him, that in a socialist society there will be no greed and hatred. Instead, in a society better fitted to human nature, people will be less likely to build lives informed by greed and hatred.
To make everything about gain, including education, contradicts human nature. It is against our need to know. In Caracas (1999) after Hugo Chávez’ election, Fidel Castro said people suffer because of an idea: the “nicely sweetened but rotten idea” that human beings are essentially motivated by material gain.
It turns out not to be true. Studies show that only for simple, uninteresting tasks do material incentives inspire better results. Anyone who thinks about it sees it’s a silly idea. Human beings go to great lengths for activities that bring no material gain.” [snip]
“May Day marches in Havana are against a world-order that glorifies gain. Cuba’s May Day is about ideas: solidarity, among others. If such ideas could be recognized, even just as worth pursuing, we might have productive confusion: small but useful doubts about the absolute priority of gain. Not raising such questions is really the bigger danger.”
My guess is that both authors would have loved John Trudell, who’d once opined that Amerikkan education is indoctrination.