Awakening an Interest in History by Andy Starck
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” states a famous Party slogan in George Orwell’s 1984. These prophetic words not only encapsulate dictatorial governments but reveal one of the more subtle ways any power structure can redefine how a society thinks and thus functions. There are of course less subtle ways as Orwell’s tragic protagonist Winston discovered. Hopefully you will never be imprisoned in the Ministry of Love or have to encounter the horror of horrors awaiting Winston in room 101. If Orwell was right and truly “Who controls the present controls the past” then it begs the question, who is in control of the present? If we can answer that then we know who controls history.
Being humble language teachers, trying our best to instill enough confidence in overly shy students is a big enough hurdle. And to get them to open their mouths and express simple opinions, in fairly comprehensible English, is not always as easy as it sounds. Therefore questions of control of the past, present and future rarely, if ever arise. Past, present and future are merely grammatical concepts – I was, I am, I will be, you went, you go, you will go – no more than rules to be memorized. These help to place actions in time and are often the parameters of students’ communication abilities. But, having been volunteered to open a new course in History, these important functions of grammar started to take on a whole new meaning.
If you think about it, history is literally everything from this present moment backwards, to the very beginning of time, that is a lot to take in. Every culture has its origins in a creation story. The Chinese have the half human half snake form of Nu Gua, the female goddess who molded humans out of clay. The Abrahamic religions declare God created the world in six days whereas theoretical physicists say it happened in a split second just over 13 and half billion years ago, called the Big Bang, So should I start back there? But was that the beginning of everything or just the beginning of what Einstein dubbed the space-time continuum? Christian Creationists bring the whole of history forward by 13 and half billion years to a mere 6000 odd years ago. Making things a little easier to handle; that is if you can dismiss all of evolution, plate tectonics, millions of fossils and envisage dinosaurs stomping around on earth with human beings.
I could not hear any stomping, when I opened my eyes. I had overslept on babysitting duty, looking after my sister’s young twins, Max and Ava. Something was amiss, it was already 7.30 and it was very, very quiet, no gymnastic practice, no wrestling or kick boxing, no little munchkins pummeling me from on top of the duvet. I leapt out of bed wondering what had happened. They were not in their bedrooms, or in the kitchen helping themselves to cereal, the backdoor to the garden was not open, so they could not be out there. Following some faint giggling, I found them snuggled up in their parents’ bed glued to an iPad. “So what cartoons are you watching?” I asked. “It’s not a cartoon! It’s Horrible Histories!” Ava declared pulling the screen around to show me. As Max made room for me to join them, I soon found out that is exactly what it was, a funny take on horrible things that happened in the past. Wow, two eight year olds had just introduced me to a very handy resource for my adult classes.
The Internet is of course a great resource, but sometimes it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. And in history there are a lot of woods and even more trees. To try and find my way through the jungle I took a look at some quotations about history. At first glance this led to further confusion, Henry Ford stating that, “History is more or less bunk”, to Malcolm X’s, “History is a people’s memory and without a memory people are demoted to the lower animals.” Henry Ford, being a proud car mass producer, begs the question, why on earth would he like to dismiss history as, “bunk”? Could it be anything to do with his anti-Semitic publications in The Dearborn Independent and his mass distribution of it? Or the fact Hitler not only kept a picture of Ford on his desk but praised him in Mein Kampf ? Whereas Malcolm X’s very name is an outcry against the inhumanity of slavery. Malcolm X reeducated himself in prison to become a great orator and black activist. He willingly risked and finally gave his life in order that the horrors of history would not be covered up by brushing them under the carpet.
So where to begin my curriculum? I wondered what my students, mostly in their early twenties, would be more interested in. Perhaps some topics slightly closer to the time span of their lives might engage them more, something they may have read about or seen on TV. On a visit to the local foreign language bookshop I had picked up a copy of Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer, as his subtitle describes, “the untold story of how and why foreign governments and businesses helped make Bill and Hillary rich.” His first chapter starts with the question, why tens of millions of dollars were and still are constantly flowing into the Clinton foundation? Schweizer quotes Team Clinton, “As a president he was beloved around the world, so it should come as no surprise that there has been an outpouring of financial support from around the world to sustain his post presidential work.” So the Clintons are rich all because of love.
Bill was indeed renowned for his loving. Starting in January 1998 Monica Lewinski was headline news every time you turned on the TV. It seemed to go on for months, ‘So what?’ I thought naively believing an affair should be a private matter, but there were a lot of other things going on behind the scenes at the time. So was the Lewinski affair just a smoke screen? Doing more research it soon became apparent that Monica Lewinski’s fame and shame was something that may have saved her life. There is a long list of other lovers who had mysteriously disappeared. The list did not stop with lovers; it seems that so many connected with the Clintons, who in some way or other crossed either Bill of Hillary made sudden departures. This gave me an idea for an early class. Students love a mystery and maybe love to use their cell phones even more, so I handed each student a name from the list of names found on ‘The Clinton Body count.’ I gave the students no explanations as to who the people were. I simply said I wanted them to do a bit of research and wrote three questions on the blackboard, 1) What did the person do? 2) Which famous person did they know or work for? 3) Where are they now and how did they get there? Strangely I have done this 3 years running and each year it has become harder to find the background information about the hidden secrets of each victim’s case.
Do you want to know a secret? Yes, me too! And who better at revealing them than whistleblowers? The three that first sprung to mind were Chelsea Manning locked up for 50 years after a military secret trial; Julianne Assange, still avoiding extradition to the US by taking refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and Edward Snowden in self-imposed exile in Russia. These three are amongst the many brave people who have exposed the lies that we are being brainwashed with every day. Oliver Stone’s movie Snowden had come out on DVD just at the right time for my course. It encompassed the perfect balance of NSA / CIA intrigue with a protagonist who was a young nerdy computer whizz kid and his romance with a beautiful pole dancer to captivate university undergraduates’ attention. This should lead to some interesting discussions on the abuse of privacy and misuse of law.
So the beginnings of a course were taking shape. I would start with contemporary issues and could work backwards. Getting into some research, I was surprised to learn that even the Big Bang Theory itself is not only being questioned but debunked by the very physicists who once taught it as an axiomatic truth. So I definitely wouldn’t be going back that far in time. The vast expanse of history like that of space can be so overwhelming it can be quite off putting for anyone let alone a student struggling with a foreign language. James Joyce had his own struggles inventing a new way of using the English language whilst still being haunted by his Irish, Jesuit upbringing, “History is a nightmare… from which I am trying to awake.” Stephen Dedalus, his semi-autobiographical protagonist declared. On the contrary rather than view it as a nightmare, I hoped to awaken a love of history in my students. Horrible as much of it indeed has been, if my sister’s eight year olds enjoyed it so much, I hoped my university undergraduates would do so too.
Schweizer, P. Clinton Cash The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. Harper Collins 2015