Last post I mentioned that my Rutgers students read An American Plague and Fever, 1793 this week. They loved An American Plague. I asked them to read the first paragraph of each book outloud — try it. Jim’s first paragraph is like the opening of a horror film — it ominous, you feel the miasma, the fetid attmosphere, you are led into the story by how he establishes the mood. One student said he liked it, even though he never reads non-fiction. which he defined as “facts, facts, facts.” Well, much as I like facts, that would hardly be my definition of non-fiction — which leads to this post on the wonders of the past.
A couple of days ago my 10-year-old son was in a terrible mood, storming around, picking fights, being generally as antagonistic as possible. Marina and I could not quite figure out if something happened at school or if he was just on some downward cycle of aggression and anger. Finally, he fell asleep. Next day he was fine, not sure himself what caused the storm. Then, last night, he and I were reading his 5th grade Am Hist textbook, preparing him for a quiz on the causes of the Revolution. We were having great discussions on the meaning of “liberty” at the time, and he was ever more siding with the Loyalists and King George. We got to the Tea Party followed by the Intolerable Acts. He started to say, “what are you going to do, if the Americans are so agressive…” meaning, of course the British would punish them, when suddenly he remembered who he had been two days earlier. “History Trap” I screamed, and he laughed — caught in the mirror of the past. Seeing a pattern in American History, he saw himself, knowing himself, he undestood a pattern of action and reaction in American History.
History is a magic mirror — it is everything human beings have done, and so of course it often mirrors who we are now, or, as we go along in our lives meeting our daily crises, we see reflections of ourselves in past conflicts and dramas. The problem is that we have come to believe that young people will only see themselves in the past by identifying with young people in other eras — the textbook we read often began with little “you are there” scene setters, putting a young person at some key moment. But that is not how the mirror works. You don’t only identify person to person — you identify with emotion, with trend, with experience — with what it is like to be angry at a distant parent (colonists to King George), what it is like to try to bring order to bratty, annoying kids (King George to colonists — Sasha on safety patrol, or fighiting with his brother) . History gives us a way to see patterns of human behavior far enough away to allow us, safely, to see ourselves now.
Have you had that History Trap experience — where seeing a pattern in the past shows you something about yourself now? Do tell.