when history gets personal

my 10th grade students have been studying social movements for the 4 weeks. after a case study of Indian independence that the class investigated together, students formed research groups to investigate their chosen movements, all taking place in the second half of the twentieth century in countries around the globe. choices of social movements to study included the civil rights movement in the US; resistance to dictatorship in Argentina; the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and others, and also the pro-democracy movement in China in the late 1980s.

as this is the culminating group project, the student research teams chose how to share their work with the class. each decided on a means of presentation and on a discussion format to use to discuss concepts with the class. in addition, they chose which question they believed fit best with their research, and that they could present a clear conclusion for: To what extent is the personal political and the political personal? Can individuals change societies? and, Is history a story of great men or everyday people?

the presentations have been going very well, although i have had to curb my inclination to correct and amend the ones that I know well (mainly US’s civil rights movement and South Africa’s anti-apartheid)– not because my students’ information is incorrect, but rather because I know the issues to be so much more complicated than they are representing. this , of course, is an issue in teaching high school in general, and i think all teachers- history, science, literature, etc.- struggle to find a middle ground between encouraging students to tackle content and concepts in depth and realizing that we are teaching individuals that are 14-18 years of age and that they will learn more later. not everything is appropriate or pertinent right now: Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and all that.


however, what i’ve noticed recently is my strong personal reaction to students’ interpretations of the material, and my ‘public service announcements’ as i call them (mini-lectures which i generally try to avoid) have become more frequent. with my IB history class, which studied the US civil rights movement in depth for 4-6 weeks, i carefully curated material, stoked discussions, and made sure that my students encountered different viewpoints, but I also found myself speaking at length about how I believe the CRM is misrepresented in history and what i think to be its continuing compelling lessons. in my 10th grade class, the one with the social movements, i have been trying to allow my students instead to discuss these ideas when presenting, without my interference or qualification.

but, it is very strange to have people from other cultures studying ‘my’ history and drawing conclusions that i don’t necessarily agree with.

today was an opportunity to see this happen to a student- and also, in myself. in one class section, a group was presenting on the failed movement towards Chinese democracy in the late 1980s. a Chinese boy, now living in Argentina, is part of the group. he has been very interested in researching the movement and very helpfully was able to access and translate key primary sources for the group. his parents, on the other hand, told him they thought studying the movement was stupid. this follows with what happened in class today.

as the group was concluding their presentation, they described the obstacles to the movement: a lack of a clear leader, the absence of clearly defined aims, access to effective media, etc. the Chinese student then added that the Chinese population itself was an obstacle to democracy. he said that it wasn’t logistically feasible for China to have democracy:  there are ‘too many people’ in China and it would be impossible for them all to effectively vote. i challenged the student by asking where that idea came from (his parents) and offering analogies (if a country can logistically send people to and from space, shouldn’t they be able to organize 1.3 billion people to vote?). ashamedly, i wouldn’t let it go. i interrupted the student when he was explaining a source to a small group, and he clearly was surprised by my continued challenge. i felt worked up about it even when the class ended: how could anyone say that democracy wouldn’t work in China; how insulting to Chinese people; what a spurious argument; etc.

interestingly, other students did chime in: a Ukrainian girl defending the validity of communism, and a Belgian boy asserting that Indian democracy exists- but in thinking about it now, i’m more struck by the emotions that i experienced and that probably my student experienced than the intellectual content of the debate. why was i so worked up over this comment? why do i care so vehemently about my own interpretation? why am i so defensive of American values and protective of interpretations of American history, despite being an ardent critic of nationalism?

maybe ‘you can take the girl out of the US, but you can’t take the US out of the girl’ holds true?

or maybe I’m right, democracy is a universal human value (Article 21, UN Declaration of Human Rights), and my Chinese student is repeating ideas from his parents, whose ideas are affected by the fact they spent most of their lives in China, able to access only what the government thought worthy.

sometimes cultural relativism can also be blinding.



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