Nightmares Can Teach Us a History Lesson


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Some observers today oppose teaching dark material to high school or even college students because they fear it will be psychologically damaging. In one case, I read about a Virginia mother who pushed her son’s high school to ban a novel about slavery that gave him nightmares. I am surprised that such a standard would preclude reading many excellent works of literature. “Iliad”, “Macbeth”, “The Trial” and “1984” popped into his mind immediately. If literature can cause nightmares, so can history. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken,” Stephen Dedalus famously said in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” “Ulysses” was published in 1922, four years after the end of World War I.

It is true that becoming educated means learning about, in the words of Matthew Arnold, “the best that has been thought and said.” It also requires learning about the dark passions that drive people. Young children shouldn’t read disturbing literary or historical material, but it’s important for older students to know what our world really is like.

Identity politics in the US has helped tend to make it easier for instructors to understand. Many teachers are reluctant to make views that may offend and offend students of a race, ethnicity, or gender, but if we study world history, we know that bad behavior far has been carried out by and against people of all races and religions. , ethnicity and sexual orientation. “History,” observes Edward Gibbon in “A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” “is indeed a little more than a record of the crimes, crimes, and misfortunes of mankind.” Gibbon argues that violent behavior is “too familiar and natural to humans” – implying that an educated human being should be aware of the dark forces driving humanity. However, he also sees good, praising “the silent and irresistible advance of reason.”

Gibbon was a discerning historian who attempted to provide a balanced view of people and institutions. There is no balanced view of Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot — to name the worst tyrants of the 20th century — but students should be told carefully and nonchalantly about the evils they they have committed. To be sure, it’s hard to read about mass murder and mass starvation. In “Burnt Norton,” says Dr. Eliot, “human kindness / Can’t stand many realities.” But education requires understanding reality. Students should know about the terrible things people do when they are infected by a fanatical ideology or fear those in power.

John Milton said that “a complete and generous Education. . . fit one man to carry out justly, skillfully and magnanimously all the private and public offices of Peace and War. “Young people may not become responsible and civic adults if they are shielded from dark literary or historical documents. If education has to cause nightmares to prevent them from becoming reality, so be it.

Miller’s latest book is Rollercoaster: A Life in Twenty-Nine Jobs.

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