15 March 2011

Constructing Empathy

Among the many, many videos of the tragedies in Japan, one stood out for me:

the wave arrives in Kesennuma
There are a few reasons why the video above "describes" the tsunami in more effective ways than others, even the "more dramatic" helicopter perspectives of the wave engulfing vast areas, and those reasons suggest some important things about teaching and learning, especially about teaching and learning about people and events far removed by time, space, or culture.

the view from above is not human experience
The video does many things we rarely do in schools: It is un-narrated, unexplained. The only sounds are the sounds of the event. What is missing, through that lack of narration, is the shield we usually construct with our explanations - the remove that comes from being assured that "this" is not "us." It is also street level - human level. So often great events are presented via maps, or satellite views, or those helicopter scenes. Those kinds of views present "the sweep of history" but they are also 'counter-human.' No person experienced the Nazi push through Europe as Disney presented it in America's World War II propaganda films. But this scene is completely human, filmed from eye-level, and an eye-level which must scramble to stay above the rising waters. And it is 'long enough.' Only six minutes, but six minutes is an eternity in the way news is now presented. It is not clipped, or highlighted. The real time allows the event to occur in a way which forces attention.

We so often present history, or different places, as "big ideas" - even if we try to escape "the famous dead white guy" trap - but "big ideas" rarely make sense unless we have human context - and human context happens in human scale and human time.

Why would 18th Century British colonists in America rebel against their government? Because they knew nothing about democratic government? Because their lives were completely miserable in comparison with others in the world at the time?

Why would early 20th Century Russians put their faith in men like Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky? I've had a number of people argue on Twitter that life under Lenin was far worse than life under the Czar, is that true? How might we measure?

Why would contemporary people in Northern Ireland join the Provisional Irish Republican Army, or, if not join, conspire with money or silence to support that terrorist movement?

the moment when a civil rights march turns into Bloody Sunday (Domhnach na Fola)
and launches three decades of violence
Like the tsunami video, the scene above, from the film Bloody Sunday, is confusing and largely unexplained by dialogue, yet, like the tsunami video, the viewer is plunged into a moment in time, a place filled with emotion, and experienced from a human perspective.

So, this week of St. Patrick's Day, a class might read "history"...
"When the Republic of Ireland gained sovereignty in 1922, relations improved between North and South, although the Irish Republican Army (IRA), outlawed in recent years, continued the struggle to end the partition of Ireland. In 1966–1969, rioting and street fighting between Protestants and Catholics occurred in Londonderry, fomented by extremist nationalist Protestants, who feared the Catholics might attain a local majority, and by Catholics demonstrating for civil rights. These confrontations became known as “the Troubles.”

"The religious communities, Catholic and Protestant, became hostile armed camps. British troops were brought in to separate them but themselves became a target of Catholics, particularly by the IRA, which by this time had turned into a full-fledged terrorist movement. The goal of the IRA was to eject the British and unify Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic to the south. The Protestants remained tenaciously loyal to the United Kingdom, and various Protestant terrorist organizations pursued the Unionist cause through violence. Various attempts at representational government and power-sharing foundered during the 1970s, and both sides were further polarized. Direct rule from London and the presence of British troops failed to stop the violence."
Or you might watch Bloody Sunday, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Odd Man Out, and In the Name of the Father, and allow your students "in" to the fear, the questions, the complexities. If they watch Bloody Sunday, would they join PIRA? If they watch Odd Man Out, would they turn him in? In Shake Hands with the Devil, who is right? Why, in this scene from The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is language so important to both sides? And what might that suggest about everything from English Language Learning to "Black English"?

In In the Name of the Father, what choices might your students make? Can we think about President Bush's "enhanced interrogation" policies in light of this film?

Dan Spock, in his paper on historical museums, In Defense of Nostalgia, notes:
"The past, such as [people] experience it, is a deeply personal and resonant place, a great well of feeling. It exists within the brittle framework of living memory and nourished by the tributaries of storytelling, bits of reading and the mass media. It is charged with nostalgia, not merely because people inherently desire a gloss on the past, but because the past exists as a stark reminder of the relentless passage of time, of losses, and grieving, of homesickness. As humans, time reminds us of our mortality as we reflect on the changes it brings. Time forever changes our loved ones, the places we call home, the things, the narratives, the spirit that defines who we sense ourselves to be in relationship to everybody around us. Nostalgia is bittersweet, neither entirely happy nor sad, but nearly everyone experiences it; indeed it humanizes us. If you think of the old historical society as a rickety source of comfort, a levee against the sense of things slipping away, then you can understand how that hoary emblem of history might hold some value to someone who never intends to visit it.

"Though you might be glad there a place for old stuff, the presentation of it at the historical society strikes a person as arbitrary, almost indiscriminate. As Bob Dylan put it archly, “museums are cemeteries,” in this sense, cluttered memorials to the fading past. If you saw Night at the Museum 2, you no doubt were struck by the absurdity of the idea that retired exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History should go to their final resting place in storage at the Smithsonian. Tied up in this depiction, though it may be wildly inaccurate, is a real sentiment that museums exist in order to hang on to everything, whether the public sees it or not. Like it or not, this is our brand."
Similarly, the "brand" of our history, geography, and cultural lessons is a collection of disconnected, and meaningless, facts - large and small. None particularly more important than any other. Timbuktu was a great center of learning. George Washington was America's first President. Cecil Rhodes explored Africa and was (a) bad or (b) important. Michael Collins signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and this was (a) good or (b) bad. The Chinese invented paper and fireworks. Mexico is in North America. Tsunamis are large destructive waves created by earthquakes. People are hungry in parts of Sudan. Greeks gave us democracy and Romans built an empire. And on and on, without one reason for the childhood or adolescent mind to care at all.

"The past...is a deeply personal and resonant place, a great well of feeling. It exists within the brittle framework of living memory and nourished by the tributaries of storytelling, bits of reading and the mass media," Spock says, or it is if it is to come alive in any way which will be remembered with meaning. The same, I am arguing, is true for places distant in space or concept. Without the "great well of feeling" empathy - an understanding of people and their decisions - is impossible for most, and really impossible for the egocentric brains of the young. That is truly not the fault of your students, it is the fault of our teaching. Their brains are forming, if we don't help, what exactly are we doing with our days?

So I recently came across a historical presentation, via Nina K. Simon, the most advanced 'museum thinker' we have around these days. Nina thinks constantly about engagement, and analyzes how engagement works in ways essential for everyone involved in education. The presentation Nina linked to, Welcome to Pine Point, is a very different kind of history. It involves no explicit descriptions of great men or market forces or political rights, and yet, in its look at one very unusual (for most of us) type of community - the "company town" - it creates a window both to a specific past and, perhaps a way of looking at unknown places.

A different way of showing history, begin with the very small and personal
Despite what I might call "a frustrating linearity," Welcome to Pine Point is many things our textbooks and our lessons are not: It is personal, and emotional, and interactive, and ultimately, very non-judgmental of both people and events. If it pulls you in, it is not because it declares the place or events described as important, but because it creates an empathetic connection which makes you feel the import. If it leads to a discussion of bigger issues - extraction of minerals, community, environment, western Canada, it is not because that is the lesson plan, but because the ideas are engaged through human narrative.

The challenge in our classrooms is to do this - to make history, geography, culture something more than a list of dates and facts and a set of maps. No, it won't necessarily improve our students' performance on ridiculous multiple choice exams, but it will build more empathetic human beings who are much more capable of working and living in a diverse and complex world.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

dgende said...

Thank you for an excellent posting!
Your perspective on history, historical events and culture and the way it should be learned in schools is right on target!
Learning just facts is not really understanding how civilizations evolve.
Thanks also for the link to Pine Point, what a creative way to tell a story.