Charnel House to School House
This is the text of one of a keynote speech delivered
at the 2006 annual World History Association conference at California State
University, Long Beach. Thanks to the World History Association for generously
extending an invitation to share these remarks.
indulge me for a moment with a short children's poem, Robert Louis Stevenson's
"Land of Counterpane."
WHEN I was sick and
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down along the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain
The pleasant lands of counterpane.
published that poem in 1913, in A Child's Garden of Verses, a year
before Europe's leaden soldiers went out from their beds and into nightmare.
1913 is, we would like to imagine, the final moment Stevenson's poem could
conceivably have been written. After the First World War, how many writers
– other than Fascists and Stalinists, of course – could so calmly march
soldiers up a boy's bedsheets?
Bettleheim taught us, children's literature illuminates the dark closets
of a child's worst fears. If monsters lurk among the shadows, the light
reveals them to be absurd and clumsy creatures; a child of courage and faith
can slay them all. Among adults, however, the enchantment wears off. Eventually,
we discover a hideous truth: that there are some darknesses mere stories
cannot combat. Bettelheim himself committed suicide.
today do not really begin with Stevenson's verse, but with a conversation
I had with a parent at an eleventh grade teacher-parent potluck. We were
talking about a recent episode of campus McCarthyism at UCLA, in which one
enterprising young alum offered a cash award to any student who could document
the Left wing bias of the university's professoriate. The "findings" were
then to be posted on the internet, establishing, one supposes, a blacklist
of latter-day Angela Davises.
The parent, a Hungarian Jewish émigré, wondered
how students could possibly participate in such activity. Well, I said offhandedly,
it is hard for kids living sixty years after the fact, to take the Holocaust's
lessons seriously. She gave me a very sharp look and said, "What lessons?
The Holocaust doesn't "teach" anything. People were killed. It was murder."
After an uncomfortable silence, the conversation turned elsewhere.
odd how a remark like that will echo for days. Later that week, I read a
casual reference to Theodor Adorno's well-known remark that "to write poetry
after Auschwitz is barbaric." Funny, I thought: this woman was saying much
the same thing.
in fact, I understood them both quite well. Fifteen years ago, my wife and
I traveled to our grandparents' villages in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.
We did not visit crematoria or camps. But in the wreckage and abandonment
of Jewish cemeteries – a wreckage which, since the war, has continued under
the ministration of partying teens, solitary drunks, lunatic nationalists,
and the communist era's malign neglect – there was not just devastation,
but absence. Here the future was not changed, it was abolished, suffocated
under sumac and a stifling heat. Meaning and verse had both fled.
is right about the Holocaust, of course, he must be right about every genocidal
act. If there is no poetry after the slaughter of Jews and Gypsies, there
is no poetry after the Herero, the Armenians, the Tutsis. And why should
genocide be the only crime that silences us? Mass murder is merely a category
of killing, and killing a category of violence in a vast hierarchy of horror.
Every man-made famine, war-borne pestilence, faith-hungry crusade – every
witchburning, slave sale, inquisition and star chamber – every act of antiseptic
sadism designed to advance the national interest: every one of them is genocide's
second or third cousin. Even isolated crime has a rough kinship with genocide.
Rape and murder are the poor man's Auschwitz, crimes committed by people
possessed of only enough power to take one human life at a time.
is no poetry after such crimes, how can there be history? History is, after
all, poetry's twin. Poetry is the intensification of language; history is
the intensification of memory. Language and memory are really all we have:
together they comprise nearly everything we might call our humanity. It
is not surprising that genocidaires burn poems, alter histories, and murder
teachers. If you're going to claim absolute power, such atrocities are essential.
What is odd is that we quote Adorno's aphorism approvingly. "To write poetry
after Auschwitz is barbaric"? Mirko Grmek calls the erasure of history and
its language "memorycide." I do not understand why we would abet that crime.
In fact, Adorno did not mean what he is remembered
as saying. What really appalled Adorno was not poetry, but sentimentality.
It was Auschwitz the movie, Auschwitz with violin and cello weeping into
the soundtrack, as the smoke rises up and into bathos: it was this that
Adorno found so intolerable. If all a poem can achieve is the moral superiority
to Hitler, we will remain blind to our own capacity, under different circumstances,
for the same barbarity. Nothing will change, Adorno writes, so long as we
indulge ourselves in "self-satisfied contemplation."
Of course, there is art after Auschwitz. However,
it exacts a high price, both from its creator and from its audience. Recall
Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman.
To survive Auschwitz and Dachau; Borowski did what he had to. He had no
choice – except that, perhaps, he did. And so Borowski wrote his short stories.
Then, frustrated by the new communist government? Appalled at his own complicity?
Who knows? At any event, put his head in an oven and turned on the gas.
And so it went with a long list of Europe's suicides: Primo Levi. Paul Celan.
Bruno Bettelheim. Jerzy Kozinski. Every one of them reported on the monsters
in the closet, and every one of them was slain by what he found. Their work
could be brutal. But it was not barbaric.
is difficult to write after Auschwitz isn't poetry but confession.
this sounds ridiculous. Once upon a time, diffidence, reserve and discretion
did make confession unusual. As recently as fifty years ago, John
Cheever imagined an "Enormous Radio" whose owners, a New York couple, found
they could tune into intimate conversations and vicious arguments throughout
their apartment complex. At the time, readers understood Cheever's short
story to be fiction. Now we know that Cheever was just a journalist,
on assignment to our own time. All of us own his radio and tune into memoirs
by the thousands, blotty interviews by the tens of thousands, and blogs
by the millions – fifty million at latest count. Does anyone keep a secret
anymore? Is there any life outside a confessional? Apologies to Borges:
the great project of our time is not the universal library. It is the universal
But our collective self-revelations are thin stuff,
revealing only the most venal of sins. Our confessions conjure just enough
degradation to betray a lover, ignore a child, lie to an accountant or drink,
snort, or inject our way into a brief but welcome insensibility. Real self-revelation
would reveal the capacity for far more serious crimes. Each of us is quite
capable of acting the bureaucrat, the railway official, the prison guard,
the doctor, the party member, the vigilante. And in our millions, we are
quite capable of looking the other way.
Louis Stevenson is useful here, too. Let us imagine that we are each Dr.
Jekyll. Sinking into our slumber, we become for eight hours little more
than Mr. Hyde's dreaming doppelganger. While we doze in the warm pajamas
of conscience, the monster does his vicious work. In the morning, alarmed
by bloody rumors, we lay a trap. But – surprise! – someone tips the madman
off. He gets away, and the murders continue. We hate Hyde for his crimes
and his cruelty, but we hate him even more because we know that he is, inextricably,
us. It isn't the dead who haunt the living. We, the living, haunt ourselves.
really here today to talk about classrooms and curriculum. So let us travel,
for a moment, from charnel house to school house. In the school house, teachers
and professors tell stories. In this classroom, history is a web. In that
one, pupils gape in awe – so we hope – at the expansive vistas of Big History.
Further down the hall, one room after another celebrates the current metaphor:
the longue duree; the lever of riches; the world-system, the network society.
All along the corridor, history oozes out from Pacific Ocean subduction
zones, flourishes in the fractal intricacies of Mediterranean coastline,
advances against another cycle of polar ice and thaw, survives an onslaught
of diseases and their vectors. We share with our students the harvest of
our scholarship: political histories, ethnic histories, gender histories,
histories of commodity and consumption, of imperial consolidation and disintegration,
of cultural exchange and political conflict. All these scenes are vast,
and we stand far above them.
I am speaking here of course, of world history survey
courses, the only kind most high schools offer and the only kind most college
students take. And what would Adorno say? Adorno begins his essay "Education
After Auschwitz" with this declaration:
The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again.
Its priority before any other requirement is such that I believe I need
not and should not justify it…. Every debate about the ideals of education
is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again
Auschwitz. It was the barbarism all education strives against…. [Thus] the
only education that has any sense at all is an education toward critical
Let me linger for a moment on that last line: education
that has any sense at all is an education toward critical self-reflection.
In short: what is it I myself am capable of doing? An example. Three hundred
years ago in Salem Massachusetts, one Anthony Needham, farmer, married Ann
Potter, daughter of one of Cromwell's soldiers and granddaughter of a Coventry
weaver. Ann was a Quaker, and when she spoke too freely about her views,
the government of Massachusetts Bay put her on trial for heresy. She got
off relatively easy, which is to say that she was publicly whipped and warned
that further infractions would result in her execution. At about the same
time, her husband Anthony, a captain in the Salem militia, served in King
Philip's war, among the bloodiest in North American history. In a war marked
with horrific massacres as well as battles, suffice it to say that he participated
fully. So here are the two of them, Ann and Anthony, united in marriage.
In our moralizing way of reading history, they are victim and victimizer.
What makes them important here is that they were my own ancestors. I did
not somehow inherit their stain of sin, but they remind me that the range
of human capacities is wide, both for them and for me. I can moralize, as
I do here today. And, unless I stop myself, I am also quite capable of joining
a mob in its violence.
Of course, it is exactly moral commitment which
pulled many of us into teaching world history in the first place. Look back
at twenty years of world history manifestos arguing that world history challenges
misunderstandings dangerous in a global age, that it increases tolerance
and acceptance in a multicultural world, that it deepens and disciplines
intellectual judgment, and so on. All of them echo Immanuel Kant's conviction
that from history of all humanity we might forge "civil society which can
administer justice universally."
And, yes, at its best, teaching is a powerful moral
act. Samantha Power reminds us that the phrase "never again" is more catechism
than commitment, and produces a long list of genocides to prove it. Very
well: there are an even greater number of moments when people decided against
killing. You hear about them from time to time: a town, even a country,
which took in everyone threatened by genocidaires; a state which arrested
rather than armed its vigilante extremists, an official who, given the opportunity
to unleash a mass murder, decided against it. These instances are not rare.
Why do they occur at all? Institutional constraints? Public opinion? Moral
scruple? Here, a moment's hestitation; there, a call to conscience, and
there, again, a brief flicker of doubt. Add up enough of these together
and you can go an entire generation without shoving people into ditches
and shooting them. A moment's hesitation. A moment of conscience or of revulsion.
A teacher can plant that in a student and never know that it took root.
Yet, often, it does. And in our classrooms, every day we push horror further
off into implausibility, is a good day.
Yet teaching seems such a thin defense against that
horror. How much do students really recall? Who do we really reach? What
if world history is just a gussied up version of Esperanto, a universal
language whose speakers get enormous pleasure from transgressing linguistic
borders, but whose ambition to subvert the world's provincialisms and settle
its differences has proven so poignantly naïve?
What more can we do? First, we have to recognize
two perils. The first is the easiest to avoid: sentimentalism. We know better
than to believe that singing "Give Peace a Chance" will bring peace or that,
because we happen to admire the Dalai Lama, that we understand China's relationship
with Tibet. Pretensions to Universal Love hopelessly simplify human experience
and reduce every stranger to an object of our emotional charity. "I do not
want to preach love," wrote Adorno. "No one has the right to preach it since
the lack of love… is a lack belonging to all people without exception
as they exist today…. Moreover," he continues, "love cannot be summoned
in professionally mediated relations like that of teacher and student.…
The exhortation to love—even in its imperative form, that one should
do it … bears the compulsive, oppressive quality that counteracts the ability
to love." I might add, by the way, that the test of our moral restraint
is not how we behave towards those we love, but how we behave towards those
The second risk we run is much harder to address
because it is essential for our work: it is grand theory. Again, pardon
me for sounding ridiculous. The work that best characterizes world history
is dense with theory, starting with the assertion that there exists a human
world to theorize about. This is grand theory indeed – grand in its ambition
and grand in its execution. And it is exactly this quality that thrills
students. We offer the same pleasure that Marxists and neoclassical economists
both have always promised: that which comes of grasping the way the entire
world really works. Climate, governance, culture, war and peace: our classes
implicitly promise to tie everything together. Dan Brown's got nothing on
But what do students themselves take away from this
theory? In my experience, many of them come to believe that history is a
huge engine, lumbering ahead on its own accelerating momentum. History is
brutal but, as Andrew Carnegie once said, upward, ever upward. Swedes murdered
Germans in the 17th century. But since discovering a bland democratic socialism
they are ever so well behaved. Perhaps twenty million Chinese died in mid-19th
century calamities, and other millions in the disasters of the mid-20th.
Look at them now: they've figured out how markets tick, and are moving into
the ranks of the fortunate. As for the Germans, well, they've got both markets
and democracy. Germany is the poster child for self-correcting history.
And so our students learn as they read their textbook that whatever catastrophes
humanity faces in chapter 13 are resolved by chapter 14. History is a chugging
locomotive, always on the track, always under control.
But of course History is never under control. Consider
chapter 13's hapless victims. Living within the book rather than above it,
they know that every paragraph, every sentence can careen harrowingly, horrifyingly
out of control. Each active verb kills thousands; every period
slaughters thousands more. As the passive constructions and subordinate
clauses threaten to crush them, these, our ancestors, do their best to defend
themselves. They slash at the adverbs, hack away at the definite articles.
They hope to edit the future, maybe even stop the presses – as some of the
people in earlier chapters already have done. Alas, this time they fail.
Pushed out to the margins of the page, they scrawl out in blood their last
testament: remember that it might have been different. Though neither heartless
nor unfeeling, our students are frequently indifferent to their plea. Too
often, our students imagine these people as hapless and foolish, standing
in the way of an inevitable and irrevocable future.
We ourselves, here in this auditorium, should understand
this well. We read the newspapers. We vote. Through our scholarship or teaching
or activism, perhaps, we press for some change or another. We imagine that
we might one day succeed. Yet we ourselves inhabit the thirteenth chapter
of a textbook to be written for our grandchildren's great grand children.
In this Chapter 13 of the distant future, all our beliefs, all our aspirations,
whether limned with nuance or fired by passion, are dispatched in one or
two efficient sentences. All the talk of this annual meeting – this speech,
the workshops, the debates, the dinners and the drinks – all of it is crammed
into the butt-end of a prepositional phrase. Above this hall, right now,
a reader's eyes are sliding across the sum total of every lifetime in this
room. Our commitment to change the future leaves this 23rd century student
absolutely unmoved. "You bloody fools!" she thinks. "You talk about everyone
else's "big structures, large processes and huge comparisons," but you act
as though, in your own lifetimes, a person's moral and political choices
actually mattered! Don't you read your own memos? You lost! History won!
Contingency is dead!
Yet contingency does matter. Our students
know this with absolute conviction. Their lives are filled with contingency:
A friend dies young; parents divorce acrimoniously; a sibling succumbs to
addiction, a relationship descends into abuse and recrimination. And many
of us have taught students who have survived far more searing experiences:
war, natural disaster, and genocide itself. Our students know that these
individual events set off unpredictable chains of interaction which transform,
if not the whole world, then their own piece of it. That moral decision
is located in the contingent moment is exactly what novelists bring to the
practice of history. When Pramoedya Toer writes of Dutch colonialism in
Batavia, when Abdulrahman Munif writes of Bedouins confronting petroleum
engineers for the first time, when Ngugi Wa Thiongo writes of a girl whose
world is destroyed by the corruptions of the market, when Carlos Fuentes
writes of the death-agony of an aged revolutionary hero, they are all talking
contingency, chance, and will.
As teachers, we are caught in a paradox. We want
a world history that confidently, even brashly encompasses all of human
experience. But we also want a world history that deepens moral reflection.
The very sweep of our historical imagination makes it easy for students
to assume that everything was inevitable, that those who struggled against
what happened were struggling against history itself. Faced with a history
that seems implacably to move in a particular direction, most of our students
would, not surprisingly, prefer to step out of the way. Critic Robert Hughes
is right. To see history as a force independent of human will "is to be
absolved from both pity and from guilt." Brought unchecked into the classroom,
our big structures, large processes and huge comparisons, far from provoking
moral reflection, may merely release students from any obligation for the
kind of self-reflection Adorno believes is essential for our survival.
Let me back up for a moment: there are very few
of us who aspire to become latter-day Carl Sagans, insisting that our tiny
planet spins helplessly among "billions and billions" of stars, none of
which care whether we live or die. Of course we talk about genocide.
Of course we want students to engage in moral self-reflection.
Though it is sixty years since Nuremberg, of course we want justice
to prevail. But how do students see it?
Students construct their own models of reality.
Generally, we assess for knowledge, for synthesis, and for analysis. But
such assessments are unlikely to reveal a student's real worldview. The
literature on this idea, called "constructivism," is now quite extensive.
My first experience with it began when I turned six in November 1963. Eleven
days later, John Kennedy was assassinated. It was then that I learned how
the world really worked. My assumptions were tested two years later
when I was watching the Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News with mom
and dad. All of a sudden, in the middle of a report on President Johnson,
I saw it. Johnson was greeting a man in a wheelchair. It's President Kennedy!
I shouted. This declaration came as news to my parents. It's who?
they said. Where did you get that? What are you thinking? I slumped down
as deep as I could into the cushions of the couch.
But really, the evidence was obvious. Those of you
old enough to recall Kennedy's death will remember that for years afterwards,
he was not the dead President but the late President.
He hadn't been killed; he'd been mortally wounded. Just after the
JFK assassination, I'd said to my dad: what happens to a president when
he isn't president anymore? In typical Dad fashion – I'm a dad now myself
and do exactly the same thing – he came up with a plausible and yet ridiculous
answer: the new president asks the old president for help. So here's Lyndon
Johnson, leaning down to get advice from a guy who'd obviously been mortally
wounded. JFK, of course!
It didn't end there, by the way. I was ten years
old when Robert F. Kennedy was shot. I said to my sixth grade teacher: he
was killed by the same guy that killed his brother! My teacher said, with
enormous self-control, how do you figure that? I said, his name is Assassin.
Again, if you are of a certain age, you will recall that killers of public
figures in the 1960s were referred to as Assassins much more frequently
than they were called by their names. Anyway, being a good teacher, he did
not tell me I was wrong, but instead told me to look up the word "assassin"
in the dictionary. I did. The first thing I read was this: that the word
derives from a Druze cult whose members smoked hashish – hence "hashishim"
– before going on suicide missions to kill political enemies of someone
called the Old Man in the Mountain. And where was this? In the Middle East,
said the dictionary. Within a few weeks, I'd put everything together. Of
course "assassin" wasn't the name of the guy who killed Bobby Kennedy. It
was Sirhan Sirhan. And what did I know about Sirhan Sirhan? That he was
from the Middle East.
Are you with me? Lincoln, JFK, King, and now Robert
Kennedy. I knew what no other sixth grader had figured out: the United States
had big problems with the Druze.
My capacity for radically erroneous ideas is one
I share with a lot of my students. Like those students, I learned, as I
got older, to conceal my mental furniture from adults. Since my teachers
rarely forced me to test my imagined world against the real one, I largely
I think that the most erroneous, self-defeating
idea students can construct is that history is an enormous lumbering thing,
impervious to moral intervention or challenge, beyond and largely apart
from their own lives. But why shouldn't they believe this? All of us, teachers
and students alike, are embedded in the world-as-it-is. We already know
history's outcome: It is ourselves – and everything precious to us. This
puts us in immediate sympathy with Dr. Pangloss. While this may not be the
best of all possible worlds, it seems to be the most inevitable
of them. And it is certainly the only world of the many that might have
existed which could bring us into being. Yet this belief stunts the historical
and moral imagination.
If we're going to invite students to rethink their
worldviews, in the service of Adorno's or anyone else's agenda, it's not
enough simply to do a little tinkering with an existing narrative structure.
We can't just add a drop of moralism into each unit and imagine that students
will rethink their assumptions. We have to arrange for students to explore
history not just as it was, but as it might have been. What got me thinking
along these lines was philosopher John Rawls' Theory of Justice.
Rawls revives in his work an old project: to elaborate a universal idea
of justice, and to explore its implications for organizing political life.
At the beginning of his essay, Rawls asks that we imagine a just world.
There are just two rules: First, once we have created this world, we must
live in it. Second, we will not know our own identity within this world
until we live in it. In short, our act of creation takes place
behind what Rawls famously calls a "veil of ignorance." We may be born into
our new world rich or poor, sick or healthy, woman or man. Regardless, we
will have to live within the rules we have established. If we imagine justice
from behind the veil, Rawls argues, we are less likely to engineer the justice
which will serve us in our present circumstances and more likely to imagine
a just society which will serve us in all circumstances – and which,
therefore, will serve all human beings.
We and our students will benefit from donning such
a veil in our own work. We can explore historical events as though their
outcomes were unknown, as though they can still be changed. We know how
to do this: many of us already employ debate, historical simulation, and
counter-factual analysis in our work. In combination, these techniques help
students test history's malleability. Through them, students discover that
while history may seem solid and unchangeable, the membrane of time is actually
permeable to human will.
I also agree with Gerald Graff, who argues in his
essays on teaching that it's important to share with students the reasoning
behind our curriculum designs. Why do we periodize history in this way rather
than in some other way? How does our curriculum reflect our assumptions
about interactions among local, regional, and global histories? Does history
work differently at the smallest and largest scales of analysis? Having
laid bare our designs, we must also offer alternatives. We must say: I chose
to do it this way, but there are other ways of seeing the problem. This
too liberates history from the straightjacket of inevitability.
And always we ask: how much difference can one human
being make? We do not have to restore Thomas Carlysle's heroes to history.
But we can recognize that our imagination and enthusiasm have birthed a
narrative so vast that, for some students, it has eclipsed the importance
of human agency.
And so, I think that Adorno is right: the most important
question in our work is how to help students deepen their moral self-reflection
and then, if it is necessary, act upon what they learn.
I break ranks with Adorno on one issue only. Adorno
argues that Auschwitz – or, more generally, human rights – is the only
important question we should address. If that's true, then we should not
teach history at all. We should return to the idea that history is a branch
But this is wrong. The need for moral self-reflection
does not replace the need for understanding and analysis of the human condition
generally. Rather each enriches the other. But there is yet another reason
we teach history: history gives us and our students intense intellectual
pleasure. Whatever else humanity may be, ours is a species which loves to
solve riddles and puzzles. In short, I believe in teaching history for its
In fact, with all respect to Adorno, sheer joy may
be the best reason to teach. Even before genocidal regimes attack people,
they attack joy. In Orwell's 1984, Air Strip One's Central Committee
could have arrested Winston and Julia any time it liked. But the trap wasn't
sprung until the two subversives were making love. Exercising power when
it would most intrude on human joy: that was precisely the point.
To teach history for its own sake, because it brings
us pleasure, is no mere indulgence. It asserts our freedom. Serbian musician
Boris Kovac begins his "Last Balkan Tango" with this invocation: "Just imagine
that there is only one starry night left til the end of the world. What
would we do?" If the victims of all the world's barbarities could suddenly
return to life, I doubt very much that they would devote all the hours restored
to them solely to debate how and why they died. They would, I imagine, want
to sing, to speak, to dance, to love for the sheer pleasure and passion
of life. They can't, but we can. When history turns bleak, the opportunities
to embrace life for its own sake dwindle. We have to hold fiercely to those
opportunities while we have them. Teach against Auschwitz? Yes. And also,
teach for joy.
But we have to temper joy with the certain knowledge
of our weaknesses: our own will to power, our craving for security, for
security at any cost. In short, we have to confront and master our shadow
selves. And so, allow me to close with a last poem from Stevenson's Garden
I HAVE a little shadow that goes in and
out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there's none of him at all.
He hasn't got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he's a coward you can see;
I'd think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!
One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.