To my U.S. history students,
Your next assignment is attached below. I apologize in advance.
I’m pulling the chronological carpet out from under your barely stable academic feet again. We are backtracking, and the reading is more than I told you it would be. I’m sorry! I know this is a “modern” U.S. history class, and most of you would honestly rather focus on the, like, now. (Learning about a national crisis over Confederate statues this summer wasn’t your idea of enjoying the present moment?) We’ve jumped from a 130,000 years of possible human existence in the Americas, lingered in the pre-Columbian era (1491), and taken on lynching, terrorism, and women and the west. I know I just told you we were about to study the Civil War, and at this pace we’ll never get through the book, but we are going back to Jamestown again.
There is just no way we can start jumping into war without better understanding the foolishness that got us there.
It isn’t just one person who said, “History is just one damn thing after another.” Textbooks are annotated war timelines, so let’s ditch the dirty chrono-carpet.
Napoleon said, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”
There are some versions that I question and I’d like to point them out and see what you think. If the history textbook is about war, then war is always a given. Greed and human atrocities like slavery are a given. I personally think this is a false assumption lacking in the most important skills schools are made for: critical thinking. So prepping for econ class, I came across an article by one of the most laudable resources for American history, Gilder Lehrman. We’ll get to that in a few weeks, but in the meantime, let’s reassess our design.
Part of the assignment is to consider your own highest goals.
One of my highest goals is to provide space for a rigorous history class. And I’m not sorry about that. I’m not really sorry about jumping around anymore either. I understand you have a lot of other subjects and a lot of other homework to do. How would life change if you were able to just focus on chemistry alone?! Alas, while there are many flaws in school design (and more design solutions than there are people!), the world is our real school. Oh right. There are many design flaws in the world, too, and an overwhelming amount of things to focus on at once.
But are they design flaws, or a lack of design? Is the world riddled with distractions, or are we just unfocused?
Oh life! You are working, volunteering, practicing, and continuously having to perform, everyday. A significant part of your future may hinge on these evaluations, if not just an externally imposed sense of self. And this is the easy, straightforward, clear-cut part. On top of this, is EVERYTHING ELSE. I don’t pretend to know what you are going through, but I do get what it is like to have my attention split into the many simultaneous demands. Sometimes, we all feel like there is so much to get done, we have to just put our heads down and accomplish the task in front of us in order to keep up.
Focus. The ancient sages from the pages keep reminding us to keep calm and focus our minds. Science agrees it is better for our physical and mental well-being.
Fine. So even if it is out of fashion everywhere else in life, we are slowing it down in history.
Because I want you to feel the weight of it.
Call it Super Slow History Ha! Get it? ...No?
Lemme explain: “Super Slow” is a weight-training technique. And as with any workout plan, it’s a great idea to start with a goal. People often want to exercise to feel good and enjoy life more. That is a good goal. We could consider the same goal for our super slow history workout: to feel good and enjoy life more. Possible? As your “coach,” I support that and hope to help you meet that goal and indeed: enjoy life more.
The idea behind the super slow workout is that by going slowly, one is able to give full effort to the exercise, taking each muscle fiber (neuron, perhaps?) to peak performance until exhaustion, then do one more. This both keeps the body safe (stress free!) AND is so effective, you only need to work out once a week- for twenty minutes! Sound good? Too good to true? Yea, this may be where the super slow workout/ super slow history analogy falls apart. But the goal is still to enjoy life and have a rigorous history class, right? Let’s try putting the analogy to the test. Reading is the biggest hurdle. There is no way you can do all the reading and respond to the homework in just twenty minutes per week. How much time is a reasonable amount of time to spend on history, or any class for that matter? Depends on the class. Chemistry will probably take longer. Spanish is better in short, frequent spurts of practice (anxiety is counter-productive and repetition builds long term memory). A five unit class requires a minimum of five hours per week, of course depending on the person’s facility for that subject. Can over five hours of content be condensed to twenty minutes? That would be the history miracle drug and I’d have to quit and go hawk it.
But can we make study time more efficient? Audiobooks work great for me. They help me keep my sanity while washing dishes, and folding clothes. Gardening, one of my favorite pass times got even better when I started “reading” great novels simultaneously. The pleasure of holding a great story is shot, because I often feel chained to the couch with it, while there is so much to do calling my name. Listening even helps me to focus on the story better when I’m otherwise engaged in a simple, but relaxing task. But that is just me. How can you enjoy reading more? Perhaps read in your favorite tree, get a friend and read to each other, or ask me for the audiobook and I’ll get it for you. Just read. Then you can spend twenty minutes of sincere focus to writing anything you want. Anything that connects what you read to your higher goal of wanting to enjoy life more — which I think is a highly respectable goal.
A more enjoyable life experience for all. If we focus on that as our personal goal, can we also use this focal point as a lense for analyzing history. Rather than a chronological stroll, we have a thread of continuity that is our goal: rigor and a more enjoyable life experience. We can now ping pong around the history table, from one time period to another, weaving a web that shows us how we can intelligently design the way we see life. Once upon a time history was agreed upon to be “one damn thing after another,” and the same thing has been said about life! One damn thing after another.
As you read (and as you live), ask yourself, at what point could this scenario have been (be now) designed better to provide a more enjoyable life experience for all?
Is there a question you think is more relevant? Ask that question. Share your responses. Your twenty minute super slow history work-out is bound to make you stronger.
See assignment below.
Read Chapter 1 of A People’s History, Drawing the Color Line.
About the author
Observations, reflections, questions, and personal inquiries on how to shift our collective mindset to one that fulfills our human potential as innovative, compassionate, and joyful.