So, the semester just started. The core challenges are deeper than Zoom/wi-fi connectivity and recasting lectures and exercises into “remote modalities.”
Fresh faces, etc., etc. Freshpersons this year were born in 2001 (+/-). Wow.
The Berlin Wall, Soviet Union, and Cold War were all history well before this year’s class arrived in the world. (9/11, too!) Is it any wonder that so much history seems ancient when the embedded culture of their teachers seems so disconnected? Cultural references are vastly different, and not just in terms of technology (as a user of email and Facebook, Slack and Perusall, I am only semi-ancient); Marx: Karl or Groucho?
They (and we) are hardly the first to be in this situation. I was born nine years after WWII and, if I hadn’t been a history nerd and Jewish, that cataclysm and its Holocaust would have been as distant for me as the Cold War is for the current crop.
I see the challenge of engagement as far more than rehearsing the facts, events, trends, and contingencies. Part of it is relevance and parallels: how is Putin like Hitler? How is Trump like Kaiser Wilhelm? Was Obama’s Iran policy reminiscent of Chamberlain’s appeasement? Our pandemic is still pretty paltry compared to death counts of the Spanish Flu (much less the Black Death). A more important and subtle part is mentalités. How did people think and feel and see the world?: An upper-middle class English nurse during World War I whose fiancé and brother were killed during the War; an Italian peasant during the middle ages who said he had been dealing with demons; a Japanese modernizer in the late 19th century who admired, emulated, feared and resented the power of the West.
It is the hardest part of history, worse than faded archives or argumentative colleagues. Paul Fussell, who was quite good at it, said: “Understanding the past requires pretending that you don’t know the present. It requires feeling its own pressure on your pulses without any ex post facto illumination.” Its particularly difficult in a large classroom where multitasking students are swamped with “presentness,” but we have to give it a try. The past doesn’t make much sense otherwise. What does “honor” mean to us; or “long-distance”? Not nearly the same as they did 200 years ago. We can’t understand why people acted in the way that they did without some effort at being like them.
Of course, much of being a real person today among all our friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances requires the same thing. So the ability to relate to others, to consider their mentalités, is an essential social skill. It’s one, among many, for which history can be very helpful. This term, we will see who might be interested in all this.