© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Squinting in hindsight

Delaney (10) is on an awesome winning streak with fantastic teachers all the way back to preschool. Her current one has her all lit up about the American Revolution, and she gets off the bus every day and regales me (in the fluent Lightspeedese of an excited fourth grader) with the implications of the Intolerable Acts or Paul Revere’s provocative engraving of Occupy Boston the Boston Massacre. (That’s Revere’s propaganda piece to the left.)

So I wasn’t surprised when she came home last week with news that Ms. Monsour had asked the kids a really good question: If you were alive in the Revolution, would you have been a Patriot, a Loyalist, or a neutral?

The question comes from way up in the nosebleed section of Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s a higher-order question, one with ten times more educational potential per square inch than the leading brand. And in this case, it’s one with an obvious answer, which is not to say an accurate one: I’d have been a Patriot, of course, how dare you.

If Mrs. Burks asked me the same question when I was in fourth grade — and maybe she did, I don’t remember — I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d have said. I’d have sided with the revolutionaries. They were after all the good guys. And I wouldn’t have been a nasty slaveholder in the 1850s, I’d have helped run the Underground Railroad, duh. I certainly wouldn’t have sat silent during the Nazi atrocities in the Third Reich either. I’d have had ten Anne Franks in my attic. And so on.

The moment hindsight assigns the white and black hats, we “know” which side we’d have been on with such confidence that we rarely even think to pose the question. “Would I have been for or against Hitler? WTF??!”

This doesn’t mean slavery and genocide were somehow “okay” in the context of another time. But the question of what “I” would have done and believed as a product of that time is a different one. “I” can’t be plucked from the here and now and inserted into some long-ago there and then in any meaningful way. My values and convictions flow from my knowledge and experience, two things that would have been entirely different then. It’s a tenfold version of “If I could be 18 again, knowing what I know now…” A nice game, but in the end not all that enlightening.

“So what’d you say?”

“I was the only one who said I’d be a Loyalist. Everybody else said they’d be Patriots.”

“Ooh, interesting. Why would you have been a Loyalist?”

“Well not because I think they were right,” she said. “But the British army and navy were SO much bigger, and they had all these resources, and the colonists just had a little. I probably would have wanted to be on the winning side, and it would have looked like the colonists were going to lose. I might have also thought the colonists were like terrorists fighting against my government, you know? So yeah, I would have probably been a Loyalist.”

Raymond Taylor, my 7th grade history teacher, was the first to help me to see history as something other than a parade of inevitabilities — helping me squint my 20/20 hindsight into a blur until I felt what it must have been like to dump that tea in Boston Harbor or sign that Declaration or march against Hitler or sit at a segregated lunch counter without the benefit of a known outcome. History suddenly becomes a whole different animal, pulsing with uncertainty and populated with scriptless actors.

I’d like to think I’d have always been on the side of the now-bloody-obvious, but I doubt that. I’ve played a game with my kids for years, imagining how future generations might facepalm at us: “Just imagine, Mergadink-5,” says the mother to her 24th century child. “People in the 21st century kept animals in their homes as pets, gave them demeaning names like Goober and Mister Tickles, and walked them on leashes. And children weren’t even allowed to work! Their parents gave them money in little bits called ‘allowances.'” And so on.

That game is a nice little slice of humble pie to complicate our smug hindsights, and my kids love to generate their own examples. It’s hard to be too cocksure about your position in the past when you’re not entirely sure you’ve got the present right.

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This was written on Sunday, 05. February 2012 at 11:25 and was filed under critical thinking, My kids, Parenting, schools, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. I love this post! I have profound hope that my kids will get this excited about any academic topic.

    I’m always looking for exciting ways to spice up my math class. I try to bring in various outside topics that I hope will interest my students and I don’t know if it works.

    Maybe I should think about it in terms of what I would want my children to find exciting.

    Comment: Mr Aion – 06. February 2012 @ 1:28 pm

  2. There’s a wonderful novel (in 2 volumes) that looks at the Revolution from an unexpected – and undogmatic – point of view:

    The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation

    by M.T. Anderson

    Might be too much for Delaney, but maybe not, if she’s as bright as she seems.

    Comment: DrBob – 06. February 2012 @ 9:23 pm

  3. I’m pretty sure I’d have been a Loyalist, even if I didn’t want to be, being English.

    For URL:

    http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=6837

    “Du hast die M√∂glichkeit einen Kommentar zu hinterlassen.”

    When I did schoolboy German I’m sure that should be “Sie haben”, I guess German got less formal. Did you mean it to be in German?

    Comment: SimonW – 07. February 2012 @ 3:38 pm

  4. It wasn’t until the 9th grade when History took on new meaning for me (well, other than 8th grade when I learned that the Pilgrims didn’t emmigrate some everyone could have ‘freedom of religion’) when our first essay was to read a history book of our choice and right a paper about how the bias of the author/context of the book affected the telling of history. I randomly chose a book on the Revolution that was written from the British perspective. It debunked most of the “myth” I had learned through history classes previously and made me appreciate that every story has multiple sides….. and that every war has people who can’t believe what the other side is doing. It was one of the most profound discoveries of my life and a lesson I keep with me every day.

    Comment: downfroggy – 08. February 2012 @ 9:37 pm

  5. I can’t wait to show this post to my ten year old. He’s an ardent Loyalist and aspiring historian. His reasonings on this stance are a blend of idealism and practicality: he’s deeply bothered that the colonists would practice slavery and sees the British stance on slavery as more evolved, and, like your daughter said, the British were bigger and seemed to have a better chance. (There’s more — from treatment of Native Americans to a host of other issues, he holds we’d be better off if we’d remained under British rule.)

    I’d never even considered not being on the side of the Patriots. I’m the product of history classes that were recitations of facts and thinly veiled nationalism. I tuned out. It wasn’t until I homeschooled my kids that history came alive and revealed its slippery, messy nature. Thinking clearly with a critical mind towards history teaches us to look at present life with the same lens and hopefully encourages us to remember that some lens is always in place.

    I’m delighted to have stumbled upon your blog this morning and look forward to reading more.

    Comment: Sarah – 17. March 2012 @ 5:33 am

  6. This is all hind-sight. Even as an American in 2012, there might be a human sense to perpetuate if I was “dropped” into 1939 Germany. I think the more telling question is what one’s self is “doing” in this day and age? Can we see the next war or genocide? Can we stand up for the ethical and moral beliefs we have as humans and do something?

    Comment: ramznow – 27. March 2012 @ 3:33 pm

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