A School for Understanding the News

(Answer: It's the purported 5-year goal of the current Islamic State.)

Ah yes: I'm dumb. I had forgotten!

The recent incursion of ISIS into Iraq made me, once again, recognize how blindingly uninformed I am about the fundamental stories that govern the world.

The central aim of ISIS — the acronym, if you didn't know, stood for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — was to restore the caliphate, the leadership of the international Islamic community ruled in accordance with traditional interpretations of Shari'ah law. As of June 29th, they claim success, pronouncing Caliph Ibrahim (formerly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies) the successor to the Prophet Mohammed and the leader of all Muslims. (The group has since shortened its name to the Islamic State.)

Like the rest of us, I've been listening to the radio the last couple weeks, half in shock, frankly, that the entire idea of the caliphate has (suddenly, it's foolishly seemed!) been plucked out of history books and deposited smack dab at the start of the 21st century.

I've had to remind myself of a few things. Wait, is it the Sunnis or the Shia who supported the Caliphate? And [nervous cough] which particular Islamic countries are majority Sunni, and which are majority Shia?

What's, erm, going on, again?

I'm lost. And I shouldn't be. I'm a National Merit Scholar! I graduated from an Honor's College! (I have academic degrees in History and Religious Studies, for crying out loud!)

My world-class education hasn't prepared me to understand the 21st century. 

The biologist E.O. Wilson wrote, in his recent The Social Conquest of Earth —

We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.

We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.

We're confused, that is, because we don't even begin to comprehend ourselves — and the big story of which we're a part.

We Americans — we Western moderns — are prone to imagine that the past is over. We imagine ourselves as valiantly facing the future, with our backs turned indifferently to the past.

The Greeks, I'm told, imagined things differently. They pictured humanity as facing the past — the only era we have any knowledge of — and hurtling, backwards, into the future.

Or, as William Faulkner wrote:

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

We live in the past. We're part and parcel of the whole span of human history. We see ourselves as actors in stories that are decades, centuries, and millennia old. 

And if you don't think that way, you need to recognize that the rest of the world does

The Russian government, for example, seems to be operating as if we're in the Great Powers era of the 1800s.

For Latin Americans, current politics are intimately tied up with the last few decades of often brutal repression (subsidized by Cold War Washington).

For many African Americans (full disclosure: I'm a White guy) the centuries of slavery (followed by a century of debt peonage, followed by a half century of residential red-lining…) still bear on the present.

And let's not even go into the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Well, actually, let's! To start with, it's not as simple as Judaism vs. Islam — it's more directly tied up in more recent history (specifically, the 1940s). But neither can it be separated from the deep history of Abrahamic religions — and specifically in the story of the temple that was built under the Persian King Darius the Great.

Example after example could be given — China and the Opium Wars (that the Chinese remember them vividly and we forget them utterly is not incidental to our current military situation), Japanese pride and humiliation, and the complex swirl of humanity that is India.

And Africa. Africa! Why sub-Saharan Africa is in its current state — 1/6th of the global population, but just 1/50th of global GDP — is controversial, and intimately bound up with not just the last few decades but the last few millennia. (See Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as an excellent entry into the conversation.)

The past is even encoded in our domestic present in ways we don't fathom. Generations removed from entering the United States, Jewish- and Irish-American populations still have disparate rates of all sorts of social measures: alcoholism, poverty, child abuse… (Full disclosure: I'm part Irish. My tribe doesn't do particularly well in this comparison!)

The past imprints itself on us. It's written deep into our personal DNA. (That's a metaphor — except when it's not.)

We can't evade the past. It has a way of popping up.

And yet: most contemporary schools have de-emphasized learning history, particularly in the early grades. "What does it matter?" I've heard educators ask. "They can always Google it." 

It would have been nice, I suppose, if before opting to "liberate" Iraq, American voters would have Googled the Sunni-Shia split, and the subsequent millennia-plus of fighting, and the last few decades of brutal oppression by secular governments in the Middle East.

But of course "Googling" something doesn't typically give you a rich understanding of it — the sort of understanding that is actually useful for living in the 21st century. 

To understand the day's news, you need to have a multifaceted understanding of the crucial sagas of the last decades, centuries, and millennia. You need to understand the old stories from multiple perspectives — the winners and the losers, the oppressors and the oppressed, the secular and the religious, the liberals and the conservatives.

We don't need historical trivia. We need historical understanding. 

We need to help our kids see themselves — and the communities of which they're a part — as historical actors.

So: how can a school bring kids toward that lofty goal — and start bringing them there starting in the earliest grades?

Obviously, we won't talk much about ISIS in primary school. But how do we lay the groundwork for understanding what's currently in the news — and what is bound to be in the news in the coming decades — as soon as students enter our school?

That is an idea I'll start to lay out in a coming post.