My daughter is now twenty-four. She majored in philosophy and religion in college because she said she wanted to learn the fundamentals of past thinking. It was an ongoing conversation in our family as she grew up. To understand how we humans got here, it seemed very important to read what people were writing in the past.
As she and her older brother went through primary and secondary school, a new teaching pattern seemed to emerge. One year, world history was taught and the next year American history. That appeared to be a good approach. The pattern, regrettably, was that our kids and most of their friends didn’t like the approach. They said it was boring. They felt they were either skimming over the subject of world history or nitpicking at American history; the latter as a way to prepare for SAT/ACT and AP subject tests.
When my son was in high school he complained that both world history and American history were essentially repeated curricula that just required more memorization as the years went on and on. History became his least favorite subject.
The subject was getting short-sheeted. My wife and I decided to send our daughter to a private school that specialized in history. It was a financial sacrifice we felt we had to make. It resulted in my daughter loving history and philosophy and knowing a lot about what people were writing in the past, but just not the recent past. My kids’ classrooms never really reached the twentieth century. Year after year, teachers would try to wade through time and space, only to find exam time in June meant the First World War would have to get rushed and the rest of that century summarized in two weeks, more or less.
In conversations over the years, it became clear that our kids’ friends had only the vaguest grasp on what caused the Great Depression or the Second World War. The Cold War was barely vague in their minds. Our son read-up on his own and my daughter was treated to coursework on those events.
Over this past summer, I decided it would be very interesting to watch a new Netflix documentary, Wild, Wild Country, with my daughter. I thought it might not be easy to snare her, but she’s no longer a teenager and actually simply sat down to watch the documentary with me. I’d already seen it and found it very interesting and well made. Its six segments are each one an hour long, so it’s a commitment. I won’t give away too much of the content of, Wild, Wild Country, except to say it follows a move from India to Oregon, of a group of followers of a guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. It happened in the nineteen eighties. The followers came from around the world and numbered in the thousands. What started out as blissful, communal cooperation, degenerated into paranoia and violence.
I turned to my daughter, hours into it, and mumbled, “isms.” I’m not sure what she thought of my comment. We watched on, over a three day period. Later, she did say she liked the documentary. I didn’t expand on my, isms, comment, largely because I hoped she’d figure it out her own way; that she’d make any serious connections between the utopian dream of Rajneesh-ism, and the various social experiments in the last hundred years or so; some good, some harmless, some bad.
Fascism, communism, and some of their less potent brethren did an enormous amount of harm in the not so distant past. Our kids heard their parents say that over the years, and they also heard us say that the age of science made, ‘non-believers’ out of many of us. So, what do we believe in together? How do we share values and not splinter apart? Maybe it’s not very easy for individual human beings to live without belonging to a group; really belonging. Then, maybe it’s very easy for that same group identity to collide with another group. Maybe you can’t have a group identity unless there is another group; your opposition.
Not wanting to spew doom, I’d make jokes to my kids. I waited until they were in their late teens, at least.
“If we aren’t products of God, then we’re simply animals; animals who dominate the world. We’re the top predators on the planet.”
“Wow, grim, Dad. But, so, what’s your point?” Said one of my kids.
“Study history. Study psychology, anthropology. It doesn’t take much for us to get selfish and nasty.”
“Um. That’s grimmer still, Dad.”
“Just be careful what groups you join or what slogans you start using.”
My kids probably figured all that out on their own. I just wanted to give them some parental reinforcement.
Actually, I’m a half-full-glass sort of optimist. I just believe it takes time to build and maintain a civilization and very little time to destroy it. So maybe those of us living in the United States should toast ourselves with that half full glass of water. Then, we have to work together and build – guarding against the temptations of both our utopian fantasies and our vicious, selfish, predatory natures.
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