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From Charnel House to School House

Tom Laichas

Crossroads School

 
    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.  
    Please indulge me for a moment with a short children's poem, Robert Louis Stevenson's "Land of Counterpane."

WHEN I was sick and lay a-bed,
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.
1
    Stevenson 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?

2
    As Bruno 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.

***
3
    My remarks 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. 4
    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. 5
    It is 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. 6
    And, 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. 7
    If Adorno 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. 8
    If there 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. 9
    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." 10
    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. 11
    What is difficult to write after Auschwitz isn't poetry but confession. 12
    I know 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 memoir. 13
    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. 14
    Robert 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.

***
15
    But I'm 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. 16
    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 self-reflection."  
17
    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.   18
    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."   19
    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.  20
    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?  21
    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 we loathe.  22
    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 us. 23
    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. 24
    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.   25
    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!   26
    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.   27
    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.   28
    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?  29
    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.   30
    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!  31
    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.   32
    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.   33
    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 succeeded.   34
    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.  35
    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.   36
    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.  37
    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.   38
    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.   39
    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.   40
    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 of philosophy.   41
    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 own sake.  42
    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.   43
    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.  44
    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 of Verses:

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.  
45

 

 

 
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