By Fernande Raine, Founder, got history?
In this moment of global crisis, our inboxes are replete with wise and wonderful How-Tos and What-Ifs. There are seemingly endless lists of recommendations on how to stay safe, entertained, sane and healthy, with links to concerts and comedy, recipes and reflection, homeschooling and hand-washing. Let’s call this the “we are all in this together” survival guide.
At the same time, alongside the epidemiological disaster stories, we can find ample resources to help us believe that this is all a catharsis, paving the way to a better tomorrow. One can explore luscious landscapes of the future, painted in vivid colors by visionaries who are reimagining an economy restructured for more equity and an education system redesigned to allow for more creativity and play. Let’s dub this the “wouldn’t it be lovely” library.
But there are few guidelines or ideas on the space in the middle, on the middle ground between survival and utopia. In that space lies the question of how we might strengthen our capacity as humans in society so that we can come out of this crisis ready to create a better tomorrow. As a civic entrepreneur and a historian who believes in the power of human beings to learn from and be inspired by lessons from the past, I, therefore, suggest a modest collection of nutrients and activities for all ages to promote our individual and societal wellbeing, centered around using history to strengthen our civic muscles. Let’s call this set of resources the “Civic Gym”.
As I invite you to join this gym — whether as a teacher, student or parent — I do not suggest dusting off big history textbooks off of your shelf to use them for biceps curls, or surfing the internet for hopefully true stories on how society handled pandemics in the past to soothe an anxious mind. I do suggest finding opportunities to engage yourself or people you love with humanity in a way that can truly help us as society pave the way for a future in which all can thrive. Celebrate the opportunity to explore narratives off the text-book scripts that dominate our classrooms and usually bore our children, driving them away from an engagement with history forever. During our time in isolation from what is widely acknowledged to be a faulty system, we have a unique opportunity to come back to what Professor Danielle Allen calls the “Humanistic Baseline” of education, i.e. helping to “unfold or awaken the powers that mark us as human”. This is the time not to worry about what your kid knows, but why they need to learn.
Before we begin our civic work-out, let us briefly review what is meant by these essential “powers that mark us as humans”, and what truly matters in education. We are used to competing gospels in the realm of physical health, with disciples of Keto, Paleo or Mediterranean diets hawking their benefits on all available airwaves. Similarly, education innovators, academics and economists have been sparring passionately with politicians, administrators and teachers unions for decades over which powers and skills are most important for us develop in young people in order for them to be effective and thriving members of the society and economy of the 21st century. The Corona crisis is eliciting particularly eloquent pleas, such as Alice O’Keefe’s piece in the Guardian, for a reorientation of education systems towards Wellbeing, instead of towards a mere accumulation of facts.
If you take all of the various available learner profiles and academic frameworks on what a human must master to be empowered as a modern citizen, and lay them over one another to find overlap (as I have done in the last weeks ) one can see a pattern suggesting a surprising consensus on a set of nutrients that we need in order to strengthen our capacity as human beings to participate in a democracy, particularly during a time of rapid change (1).
- Vitamin A, stands for a sense of human Agency, which means both knowledge of how people have made change happen in the past, understanding of how change happens today and feeling like you yourself have power to make a difference. This is as much about feeling as it is about knowledge, and is deeply influenced by the personal encouragement and messages that young people hear from parents, mentors, coaches or teachers.
- Vitamin B, for a sense of Belonging, which means feeling like you are seen and appreciated with all of your uniqueness. This is usually shows up in educational frameworks as questions relating to identity, but I have chosen to focus here on the the underlying object of longing which is not to have an identity, but is feeling rooted, valued and seen.
- Vitamin C1, for an understanding of Community and a connection to a collective identity. This is one of the more critical vitamins, for a deficiency thereof can cause full-on systems failure. Connecting with a concept of community means, of course, connecting with our village, town or city, but it also means thinking about what ties our national and global community together. Nation states and ethnic units are much maligned, having led us into the most bloody human conflicts the world has ever known. But they do exist as organizational entities of the global economy and international system, and they will always create an imagined past. As Jill Lepore so deftly puts it “Nations, to make sense of themselves, need a kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will”. She continues with the warning that when we stop engaging carefully in building an imagined past with historical evidence and human stories, “nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.” The effect of a lack of Vitamin C is, therefore, no less than the death of democracy and the idea that all humans are created equal and have key inalienable rights.
- Vitamin C2 refers to human Creativity. If there is anything that history can teach you, it is that human beings are insanely creative, and have endless resourcefulness when faced with challenges. Whether it is in the creativity of inventors changing the course of human history with their designs or in the movements of nomadic populations adapting to changes in their environment, human creativity is inspiring. But it also allows you to explore questions of ethics, for not all creative solutions are morally and ethically sound. If you approach the past with the question of “how did [fill in the blank] deal with the challenge of [fill in the blank] they faced?” you will find people driven by a thirst for glory and greed as much as will you find creativity fueled by the wish to serve the benefit of all.
- Vitamin E, for the ability to practice Empathy, which includes talking to and bridging worlds of understanding with people who are different than you. It starts with the process of active listening and compassion, and then, when paired with a sense of agency becomes the driver of engagement for social justice. Applied empathy means truly understanding how someone feels and then caring enough to want to make them feel better.
- Vitamin I1, for understanding Ideas that Move. This is a complex one, for it usually is labelled as “Communication” skills, including the ability to make a claim, to back it up with evidence, and to present it in a convincing way. What we miss by labelling it as “communication” is that we focus on the tool, not on the goal. The goal is not to communicate per se, it is to have an effect. Preachers, speeches, activists, poets, journalists and writers move people and shape new worlds with their words and ideas. Building up our reserves of Vitamin I means realizing the radical power of the combination of reflection and words, both in the past, and in the present.
- Vitamin I2, for Inquiry, encompasses what is usually labelled “critical thinking” or “curiosity” plus “evaluating sources”. It is the capacity to ask a question and to be able to find an answer, and is perhaps the single most important civic skill. Anyone who (re-)develops their 3-year old self’s ability to ask endless questions of “why are things the way they are?” and knows how to track down sources that will provide a truthful answer is activated as a participant in society, for they will find things that go against their sense of justice and for which they will engage to find a solution.
- Vitamin L, for understanding the various forms of Leadership, which includes analyzing how people have created change in the past, and how change happens today. This is often described as the toolkit of collective action, or of civic participation; I am broadening it to include all reflection on the role of humans in effecting change. Too often, leadership conversations are informed by old-fashioned stereotypes of hierarchical leaders. Reflecting on leadership requires thinking about new models of inspirational, collaborative and inclusive leadership that shift systems into new ways of operating. Collaboration and leadership are often seen as separate: here, I have rolled them into one, for they are inseparable in an interconnected world. As above in the rubric of creativity, exploring leadership also elicits reflections on ethics, for not all leaders are driven by moral goals.
Without any one of these, we are weakened in our capacity to engage and be well without hurting others. I invite you to review your daily diet of activities, and to supplement your health with the following exercises and inputs. These are only 4 exercises to get you started. Should you have other ideas and suggestions, do please add them in your comments: we will update this list and expand it over the next weeks.
The best thing about this civic gym is that your membership will never expire, and it will never cost anything. Nonetheless, the effects will, hopefully, be visible within days and last a lifetime. Here’s to doing our part to building a community, a nation, and a world, ready to heal and reimagine a better future in which more people can fully enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Record Family Stories
Nutritional Value: Vitamins B, C and E
One of the easiest things you could possibly do to improve your family’s wellbeing during this isolation phase is having your kids collect family stories. Capturing stories from people in our family or our community serves a wide array of purposes. It allows a deep form of connection in a time of isolation, it allows us capture our own human story, and provides us with a chance to reflect on how this story relate to others and the world in which we live. Particularly in a world that is and will be continue to be shaped by unprecedented levels of human migration, this is perhaps the most valuable activity in which you could engage to prepare yourself for the future, not to mention that there’s actually an app to help you do this easily. It’s not just an app, it’s a scientifically and beautifully designed Moving Stories app, created by the phenomenal team at Reimagining Migration. If you want a less structured format, you can also download the StoryCorps app and follow their format. Either way, you will find these storytelling moments are a huge gift of connection and history making.
Think about US
Nutritional Value: Vitamins B, C1
We don’t usually talk about America at the dinner table, but now, with everyone home and the news full of reports on our country in crisis, now might be the perfect time to reflect on the values and ideas that might bring us together after all of this is over. Historians have been doing some amazing work in the last years unearthing elements of our nation’s story that have been left out of the narratives that inform our collective imagination: now is as good a time to tap into their wisdom so that we might both acknowledge the truth and find the energy to heal. This isn’t just an exercise for us parents to give our teenagers so that they stay entertained and informed: this is for all of us, regardless of our age, and a chance to engage in conversations on our national story in a way that has nothing to do with partisan politics. While it might be a daunting task to read all 960 pages of Jill Lepore’s important new book on the American Narrative entitled “These Truths”, you could watch her one-hour book talk on C-Span, or let Danielle Allen guide you through a fresh read of the Declaration of Independence, highlighting the vision of equality that we have yet to realize. You could let yourself be moved by the short video created by the Equal Justice Initiative to introduce the Lynching Memorial in Birmingham, or watch the key concept videos on Slavery in America produced by Teaching Tolerance. Chances are your education on Native American history was rather short and cartoonish; to remedy that, dive into the moving testimonials and materials on the Smithsonian Institute for the Museum of the American Indian’s website entitled Native Knowledge 360.
Watch movies and reflect
Nutritional Value: Vitamins A, C1, C2, I1, L
Common sense media has been reviewing and categorizing documentaries and mainstream movies for years, tagging them along various character traits that are highlighted in the stories. Their list of historical movies is impressive, and allows you to search for themes with more purpose than a usual search engine. Instead of being limited to finding inspiration in the “standard leadership canon” of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Patton and Malala, one can find quiet leaders who resisted authoritarian rule as artists, or who fought against the discriminatory practices of banks that co-created the segregated housing policy of red-lining that still shapes our communities today. Reimagining Migration has also compiled a brilliant list of movies that allow us to think about our identity as a nation of people on the move, and the New York Times has compiled a list of uplifting documentaries that tell stories of human ingenuity and resilience. Whichever movie you might watch, don’t just make popcorn: make conversation about what this made you think and feel!
Make a difference, however small
Nutritional value: Vitamins A, E, C1 and C2
This time of seclusion can be particularly hard on our sense of agency and connection, for we are not allowed to be engaging in some of the mechanisms traditionally associated with social engagement, be they meetings, marches or door-to-door petitions. And yet, history does teach us that it sometimes in the steps that seem most irrelevant that community is changed, and that the choices we make on a daily basis about the energy we share add up to a force that can shape the future. Three organizations have created campaigns to help young people activate their empathy at increasing degrees of commitment: Design for Change has launched #DoGoodFromHome, a low-threshold opportunity to show you care, and Peace First has announced Rapid Response grants for young Changemakers who are already rallying around an idea.
Next week, we will share a set of curated podcasts, free reading resources, virtual field-trips and other activities. Stay well!
(1) I am indebted here, in particular, to the frameworks outlined by Tony Wagner, Sir Ken Robinson, Danielle Allen/the Humanities Lab, High Resolves and the C3 Framework.
Fernande Raine is a life-long activist for democracy and passionate lover of history. She completed a Ph.D. in History at Yale after spending much of her undergraduate years in Germany on student government and democracy building efforts in post-Cold-War Europe. As a consultant at McKinsey and Innosight she learned the importance of strategic planning. In 12 years as an entrepreneur at Ashoka, she learned the importance of failure and the power of weaving a team of teams for systemic change. In 16 years as a mom of 4 kids, she has learned that young people are our best teachers.
Image Credit: The Popeye image is courtesy of Jean Pierre Gallot