Maybe we should rethink how we teach history

By Ferrell Foster

I was just thinking about the teaching of history. Since knowledge is built by connecting new insights to ones that already exist, maybe we are teaching history backward in schools.

Maybe we should start with something a student knows and then go backward instead of starting in the distant past and coming forward.

For instance, what if a world history class this fall started with the non-war that’s really was war in Afghanistan. Kids have been hearing a lot about Afghanistan, so they have a point of reference. Talk about the evacuation, but go back to what we tried to accomplish there — dealing with the terrorism behind 9/11 and then our efforts to build a somewhat democratic state. Then you could go back from 9/11 and explain how and why militant Islam arose.

You get the idea. The hard part would be getting high school history teachers to try to be honest with presenting recent events because; like the rest of us, they have their opinions. But this is already a problem. Many of us raised in the South were educated with false notions about the cause of the Civil War — states rights, not the real cause of slavery. So current opinions already have an impact.

Just an idea, but there’s a reason many kids don’t like history in school and one is that it doesn’t seem to matter to their current lives. Good history teachers know this and help students make the connections even when starting with Roman history or the European migration to the Americas.

History is so very important. It is one of the few ways we can gain understanding beyond our years — literally.

We all contain a spark of the ‘primal fire’

By Ferrell Foster

What does it mean to be human. The Bible says humanity is created in the image of God. It is a way of expressing the value of each person — self and others. It was a key concept behind the Civil Rights Movement as proclaimed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is such an important concept that it is good to get new perspectives on what this image of God might mean — how we are related to God.

Evelyn Underhill, in writing about 14th century Christian mystic John Ruysbroeck, helps us in this. Underhill:

“. . . there is in man [humanity] a latent Divine likeness, a ‘spark’ of the primal fire. Created for union with God, already in Eternity that union is a fact.”

I catch on a few key words. One is “latent.” The image of God is not always readily apparent in my neighbors and me. But this is important because even when we cannot see God’s likeness, it is there.

This is what King was doing in the 1950s and ’60s when White people were being so mean and ignorant toward Black humanity. King called on Black people to look deeper than the meanness and ignorance and to see the humanity, which from a Christian perspective has a Divine likeness.

The second word is “spark.” We all know a spark is not a fire, but we also know that a spark can start a fire.

The third, a phrase, is “primal fire.” In God there is the fire of life; it is primal — before and beyond all else.

To think of humanity as having a spark of this primal fire within us should encourage us. It explains why we are doing the caring, loving, righteous, gracious, just thing — all characteristics of the Divine as revealed in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

We should indeed be encouraged. There is something — a spark — within each of us that goes back to the very nature of God. And that spark is in everyone we encounter. It may be latent in us, but it is still there and possible to ignite into flame.

(Quote from Underhill’s book, Ruysbroeck, p. 27, Kindle Edition)

Right-wing fanaticism has similarities across time

Mark Lilla:

“In 1930, after the National Socialists won a disturbingly large number of seats in parliament—a storm warning, [Thomas Mann] called it — he delivered an address titled ‘An Appeal to Reason’ that exposed the fanatical reactionary state of mind behind Nazism: ‘Fanaticism turns into a means of salvation, enthusiasm into epileptic ecstasy, politics becomes an opiate for the masses, a proletarian eschatology; and reason veils her face.'”

“The Writer Apart,” NY Review of Books, May 13, 2021, p. 18

Journalism – it keeps truth in front of us

Dollar for dollar, my favorite publication is The New York Review of Books. It helps readers be more informed about a wide number of things. You don’t have to just like books to like NYRB; you have to love gaining knowledge.

For instance, the May 27 issue (I’m always behind) has a great story about The Guardian newspaper in England. by Alan Rusbridger, “Two Centuries of ‘The Guardian’.” Here’s part of one little story within the story.

“A clue to their motives [for starting the paper] can be found in the Peterloo Massacre of August 16, 1819. Eighteen people were killed and as many as 670 were injured when the cavalry, encouraged by the local Manchester magistrates, charged into a crowd of working-class protesters peacefully demanding greater political representation.

“. . . There were widely conflicting accounts of what had happened, with the magistrates keen to promote their version through the press and the courts: that their forces had come under attack from a violent mob. They were not short of newspapers that would put political interests above the truth. . . .

“John Edward Taylor, a prominent cotton merchant and civic leader, was in the crowd that day and predicted the tide of propaganda, which began with the magistrates sending false accounts to the Home Office. He also knew The Times’s correspondent, John Tyas, was in custody and unable to file a report. So he wrote a hurried account himself and got it on the mail coach to London. It was published on August 18. It is fascinating to read The Times over the subsequent days, as the paper’s great editor, Thomas Barnes, attempted to establish a common foundation of evidence for what had happened. He used what we might now call crowd-sourcing (‘I was there’) and aggregation (“here’s the Liverpool Mercury and the Manchester Herald account”) to build up a kaleidoscope of eyewitness testimony. It was, in the end, overwhelmingly supportive of Taylor’s account.

“The historian E.P. Thompson later described this battle for truth as one between the ‘OK witness’ (i.e., bishops and generals) and the ‘non-OK witnesses’ (i.e., working-class). Thanks in large part to Taylor, Tyas, and The Times, the non-OK side eventually triumphed. Thompson’s judgment, written in 1957, was that ‘never since Peterloo has authority dared to use equal violence on a peaceful British crowd.’ Peterloo, according to The Guardian’s centenary historian and chief reporter, William Haslam Mills, marked “the début of the reporter in English public life.”

After reading this article, I subscribed to The Guardian. Quality professional journalism must be supported if we love democracy.

Remember and recommit – it’s a good way to live

Sometimes we need reminders — it’s biblical.

“Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders” (Deuteronomy 29:2-3, NRSV).

And then Moses said something that caught my attention this morning.

“I have led you forty years in the wilderness” (v. 5).

Forty years ago I was 25, pretty newly married, managing editor of a daily newspaper, and still trying to figure out my way in the world. At times, it did feel as if I was in a wilderness — not one long one but a few shorter ones.

Taking in the memories of those forty years, I can attest with Moses that God has cared for Trese, the kids, and me. I remember Trese and me praying in bed together every night — for all kinds of things, including the blessing of someday being parents, which turned out to be a little tricky.

Trese eventually gave birth to six children (not all at once), and we now have five grandchildren.

Back there in those early years I prayed that God would help me to be a good husband and father and not put my work ahead of my family. Now, sometimes I find myself wishing I had done more with my professional life. (Mom thought I would be president.) But then I remember my own prayers — to put family ahead of job.

I hope I have balanced the family-job thing well. I do feel God has blessed Trese and me wonderfully, not only with family but with friends and churches and professional opportunities. And, my travel-loving wife has gotten to travel more than we could have ever hoped for.

So, remembering God’s grace and blessings are good. But, it is important not to stop there. Moses was talking about a covenant between God and God’s people — an agreement to cooperate.

In Deuteronomy 29:19-20, Moses says this:

“All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, ‘We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways’ (thus bringing disaster on moist and dry alike) the LORD will be unwilling to pardon them, for the LORD ’s anger and passion will smoke against them. All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the LORD will blot out their names from under heaven.”

Protestant Christians have a special problem with this. “Once saved always saved” may be true, but it is very, very dangerous. It can produce an arrogance in the face of the living God. It can make a person feel “safe even though we go our own stubborn ways,” as Moses said.

I don’t know about curses, but when we take God’s grace, love, and forgiveness for granted, we are playing with our own destruction. You end up with preachers acting holier than thou but doing despicable things, and people in their congregations doing likewise.

It is so good to remember, but it is equally good to recommit our now. A covenant with the Divine, I think, is nothing to take lightly.

Remembering my dad’s words

One of my friends asked others to remember things their dads said. Here’s what I responded, and I’d love to hear your dads’ words, as well:

“Make sure it has antlers before you pull the trigger.”

My first time deer hunting, and I didn’t have a doe permit. More importantly, he didn’t want me to shoot a cow.

I didn’t. One shot, one deer down. First time out. Thirteen years old. 1968.