One of the primary reasons I enjoy history is because it helps me to gain perspective. As bad as things may seem now, there is always the distinct possibility that someone, somewhere has been through this (or worse) before. Yet humanity moves forward. Possibly after taking a step or two back, but always forward.
That is the basic premise of Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. The history here is nothing new, and for that matter, neither is the optimistic outlook. The comfort in reading Meacham’s book is in knowing I’m not delusional for thinking that 1) we are in a rough spot right now as a country, and 2) it’s going to get better, but only if We The People work to make it so.
The subtitle’s origin is Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861. With the Civil War that many felt was inevitable, Lincoln attempted to reunite the country in hopes that conflict could be avoided. He laid out his rationale for why disunion was wrong and what his vision for the country could be. In appealing to southern leadership, he ended with the following words.
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
As important as current events should be to a high school social studies teacher, I’ve found the past handful of years that I really don’t want to know what’s going on in the world. It’s much easier to hide in my figurative cave and hope that someone comes to get me when this is all over. Ignorance really is bliss.
But that’s the exact opposite of what I actually need to be doing. I need to stay informed and engaged. I need to know what’s going on in the world, even if it is disturbing or upsetting. I need to be able to speak and write knowledgeable and factually about current events, if not for myself, then for those who look to me for information. Especially because of all of the lies being thrown around as fact, real knowledge is essential.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
Disagreement is natural and is a normal course, but that doesn’t mean we have to become divided. In closing Soul of America, Meacham gave some practical tips for how all citizens of all stripes could help to reunite, reengage, and just communicate better.
- Enter the Arena
- Become politically engaged. You don’t have to spend all of your waking hours watching political news shows. Inform yourself about issues important to you, and vote accordingly.
- Resist Tribalism
- Listen to the opinions of those you disagree with. They are citizens too and probably have good reasons for believing what they do. Just listen.
- Respect Facts and Deploy Reason
- Harry Truman once said, “The dictators of the world say that if you tell a lie often enough, why, people will begin to believe it. Well, if you tell the truth often enough, they’ll believe it and go along with you.” In short, fact check.
- Find a Critical Balance
- Take both praise and criticism of politicians (and everyone, for that matter) with a grain of salt. Sometimes we have good days, and sometimes we have bad days. So does everyone else. Constructive criticism can be helpful.
- Keep History in Mind
- This one is obviously my favorite. Meacham sums up my own sentiments well. “A grasp of the past can be orienting.” Knowing what happened in the past during similar times can give us confidence in the future that things can, and if we act, they will, get better. Knowledge of the past, it is said, can also help us from repeating it’s mistakes.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a reluctant optimist. Reluctant, because being optimistic is hard sometimes.
But I believe in the ultimate goodness of humankind. Teaching, believe it or not, helps. I believe that we all want to do what we think is right. It’s just that those views of right and wrong don’t always align. Ultimately though, through all of our trials and setbacks, through all of our different perspectives, we are headed the right direction.
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”Abolitionist Minister Theodore Parker, 1853