Sunday, April 10, 2011

Learning History: How Way Leads on to Way

I have been thinking about how I learn history and realize that I do not follow any singular approach. This "revelation" has me thinking about how history is taught in high schools, which often is based on a strict attendance to time line. Now to be sure, I am not suggesting that I don't value chronology, as I do.  I understand chronology as one way of organizing historical events.  I just am uncertain if it makes sense to teach history through a chronological method.  More times than not, I use an associative method to interest me to learn about history. Like that lovely line from Robert Frost about how way leads on to way, much of what I know that one might categorize as history has been initiated by juxtaposing ideas.

The Human Condition (Collage about Hannah Arendt, Reilly, 3.09
Many years ago (early 1980s), I read a poem by Carolyn Forche, The Colonel. I have never forgotten this poem or how it moved me to know more about the nature of evil. Years after that (1994) I am rereading Maxine Greene's (1988) The Dialectic of Freedom, a text I will be using to teach graduate students at the New School of Social Research, and I begin to think about Hannah Arendt.  At that moment, I know of Arendt, have read about her and about her ideas, but I have not directly read any sustained text and so I read The Life of Mind --Thinking--Willing and key in on the idea of evil's agents being thoughtless.

Years after that (2008) I will write the following in an essay about teaching (Restoring points of potentiality: Sideshadowing in elementary classrooms ) that will later be published without this section:  
While thinking about sideshadowing and planning, I have also been rereading Hannah Arendt’s The Life of Mind - Thinking - Willing in which she accounts the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in 1960. Arnedt said that she thought she would be seeing a horrific man of evil in that Jerusalem courtroom.  Yet, she writes: “The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace and neither demonic nor monstrous” (1978, p. 4). In characterizing Eichmann’s only “notable behavior,” Arendt concludes, “it was not stupidity,  but thoughtlessness” (p. 4).
Arendt catalogs the devices of thoughtlessness when she writes:   “Clich├ęs, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence" (1978, p. 4).  In reading Arendt’s list of thoughtlessness devices, I thought again about Roberto.  What is Roberto learning in the moments when he is silenced? What are we teaching?  Can we afford it?
This discussion of evil and mindlessness will later inform my reading of an enacted unit of study about genocide conducted through performative pedagogy that took place in a middle school classroom and became this chapter (Sowing Seeds of Social Justice through Performative Pedagogy ).

So what does all this mean?  

I am wondering if the linear construction of a history via a time line doesn't overly simplify it, and perhaps even sanitize it, and maybe make it less interesting to students as the important thinking (placing things of relevance next to one another) is already done.  Wondering what you think.

Works Cited:
Arendt, Hannah. 1978. The life of mind--thinking--willing. NY: Ed Harvest.
Greene, Maxine. 1988. The dialectic of freedom. NY: Teachers College Press.


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