When Teaching About the Dark Sides of History
I spoke to a small gathering of New York City Social Studies teachers this past weekend about the various ways I work with high school students. That naturally led to some of the choices I’ve had to make in dealing with difficult subjects — how explicit to be about the tortures inflicted on runaway slaves by overseers? how much to say about the sexual abuse of slaves? whether to show the castrated bodies of the victims of lynching? whether to show the piles of skeletons from the Holocaust? I am always torn because my personal sensibility is towards restraint. I do not think it is right to shock young people with the most in-your-face gruesome images or descriptions. That itself feels abusive. And yet when you realize quite how vile we humans have been, I also feel a need to register those crimes, to mark them on the record, to make them known.
One teacher raised her hand, and said she faces exactly the same conflicts and choices in her classroom. One solution she suggested is to focus on the rescuers — setting the actual horror of slavery, the Holocaust, the deaths of the American Indians as the background, but putting the stories of those who overcame the moment and helped others first. I had two reactions — at first I wondered why I had never thought of that. Then I realized that in a way I always want to tell a larger story — how one moment of tragedy led to later change. So I am less focused on a noble or heroic person during the tragic moment and more on the flow of history and time — how a terrible event contributed to a next step in growth or change.
I am of two minds — both about her suggestion and my response. Certainly giving students a sense of agency, of possibility, is good. And people who are inspiring are, well, inspiring — their nobility sets a standard for us. They show that it is possible to choose life, choose to help, choose to resist the easy prejudices of a time and place. And yet I think we can’t jump too quickly from the crime to the saint. In order to appreciate the exceptional person we also need to know what most people did — that too is a warning we all need. And then I worry that my answer is too distant, too Olympian — sure tragedy leads to change, but what is that to those who died?
The best answer is that there is no clear answer — that we carry the weight of the past in sharing it with young people, and must constantly keep searching for the best ways to fulfil that responsibility, in fairness to the past and to our students.