Excuse me while I share what seemed, at the time, to be one of my greatest personal failures. I was completing my student teaching in a high school class in Louisiana. The subject was American History. I was lucky enough, I believed, to teach the unit on World War II. I tested on my lessons at the end of the unit. My first question covered just the basics. It was a fill-in-the blank question with six spaces:
1. Who fought whom in World War II:
Allied powers: Axis powers:
To my shock, horror, and great personal distress, it was the most-missed question on the entire test.
My first reaction was scrambling my grading to turn the planned easy freebies of six correct questions into a mitigated a single question with six different parts. My second reaction was despair. Despair at my utter failure to communicate the most basic of facts about the most consequential event in the last 100 years of American history in an American History class.
I don’t remember too much about my four-month time in that portable building teaching history to high-schoolers, but that pang still stings.
I was reminded of it because of how applicable my lessons then can be for now.
Problem and Solution Number 1
So how did it happen? Was it my lack of teaching ability? I must admit, it wasn’t stellar at the time. Was it the intelligence of my students? Maybe for a few, but not for most all. They were most all quite emphatically average. The strangest part was how students could miss that question, but still have some knowledge about the lend-lease program, rationing in the US, Rosie the Riveter, the Surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and the “A day that will live in infamy” speech.
But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. The first realization was the fault in my teaching. By no means did I neglect to tell my students that the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were the main Allied Powers who fought WWII to its conclusion (sorry France) against the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy. But I certainly didn’t believe that I needed to stress the facts about who fought whom in World War II. That’s what the History Channel, Band of Brothers, Hogan’s Heroes, Patton, and Call of Duty do.
Silly me. You are more likely to see a show on the History Channel about a pawn shop than about World War II. Call of Duty moved to “Modern Warfare” and never looked back in 2007. Band of Brothers might not have been as cool to them as it was to me. And Hogan’s Heroes? What are you? 80? And the reason I was so interested in World War II is that my grandparents fought in it. Their grandparents fought in Vietnam.
Lesson number one was this: The most fundamental facts about the most basic aspects of our culture’s common heritage, our country’s national purpose, and our history’s most significant events are not passed down naturally. If you want to live in a country with common norms, common values, and a common heritage, you must pass that “culture” along purposefully. Just because information came to me through certain media, that doesn’t mean it will continue to come to them.
Widespread public knowledge of our nation, our history, and our American values is possible, but there is no free lunch. Celebrating history and the civic morals our history built is still possible. But it must be purposeful and intentional. It doesn’t happen on its own. You may be amazed when college students don’t know who won the civil war, who the vice president is, or who America declared its independence from. But if this ignorance is so normal to you that you expect it, then you may feel even more amazed when the same type of people are clamoring to find out whatever they can about Alexander Hamilton.
Why? Because the interesting facts are there. You just have to uncover it, celebrate it, and show it off. Where else can you see an epic rap battle of history play out in the cabinet of President George Washington discussing the diplomatic and political wisdom of honoring a treaty to France that was signed with the king who was overthrown by the new state?
Cultural literacy is out there. And it’s not in a book (although, if that’s your thing, it’s there, too). Find it. Preach it. Sing it. Show it. Celebrate it.
Problem and Solution Number 2
The second reason for this educational catastrophe was completely different. I noticed something fairly strange in the answers. Only a minority of students seemed to forget about the Pacific theater and Japan, while a few others forgot about fascist Italy. Maybe it was because of the understandably strong emphasis on Hitler. But the most common mistake was, by far, Joseph Stalin. The consensus of the class was that Joseph Stalin was one of the Axis powers.
Looking back, it was easy see why. I blame it largely on one lesson in the textbook (and, of course, my total ignorance about correcting for this confusion). The lesson was titled, “The Rise of Totalitarianism in Europe.” Prominently featured in this chapter were Mussolini, Hitler, and Joseph Stalin showing the ideologies of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism.
When three bad guys with three bad ideologies are discussed, such thinking merges. These three guys are bad. These three guys fought. These three guys are the bad guys.
It didn’t matter if the meeting at Yalta was also discussed. It didn’t matter that the battle of Stalingrad happened. The question about the two fighting powers was not so much a question about Axis and Allies, it was a question about good and bad: Stalin was featured in our section on “The Rise of Totalitarianism,” right? Stalin made a deal with Hitler to divide Poland, right? Stalin waged war in a way that killed a great deal of his population, right? Stalin was a bad guy, right? The Allied powers were the good guys, right?
Wrong. Even in a fight between good and evil, you cannot break it down into a fight between good guys and bad guys. As one guy who knew a thing about Joseph Stalin once said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
What is true for the nation is also true for the individual. You may think that individuals will just naturally pick up on ideas like “you do not punish people in civil service for having religious views that are politically unpopular” or “it is wrong to kill people” or “you can’t marry your own daughter” or “forcefully shutting down the political events of those who disagree with you is not good” or “it is wrong to shoot cops” will just naturally find their way to the populous. But they don’t. (See Problem and Solution #1). And these absolutely crazy that we see said and done are being said and done by people who are, otherwise, quite emphatically average.
Sometimes “bad guys” do good things; this should not surprise us. Sometimes “good guys” do bad things; this should not give us trouble, either. Good and bad certainly exist as something other than a social construction. And the concepts of “true” and “false” are applicable not only to physical data, but to opinions and values as well. “Self-evident” is a real thing in the realm of obtaining truth.
The thing that should surprise us and cause us trouble is the trying to place people in exclusive categories of good and bad. If you do so, even your childhood heroes and beacons of decency will fail you. Even the worst man can do a good thing, even the unrighteous can be found righteous. It is quite true that even the worst person can have good in them. But even holding this laudable belief about the person assumes three other things. First, there is such a thing as evil. Second, it also exists in that person. And third, it should not be allowed to rule. Don’t give up on good and evil just because it is complicated. Such exclusive thinking can skew our view our view of the world.
You can honor people who were deeply flawed for genuine goodness. It is both right and good to do so. If nothing else, it shows deeply flawed people that they have the chance at obtaining genuine honor through genuine good.
As it is with individuals, so it is with states. Exclusive categories of individuals and history are bad. They are bad because the lack of nuance in groups reinforces the prejudices of both the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. A man may allow a strong rebuke. He will not allow a total rejection.
Praise the good.
Give credit where credit is due.
Identify the bad.
Rebuke our flaws when true.
Seek the truth.
It is waiting for discovery.
It is the myth of mob democracy.
In all things charity.
Justice then won’t be delayed.
And when good meets evil.
Never EVER be swayed.