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Addressing the Weight of History

History shapes the way we reflect and reminisce. And so the way we look at history naturally carries equal weight in how we see ourselves.

Aldous L. Huxley, author of “Brave New World,” reminds us that the tendency of man to “not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” One of the most important factors that influences the emphasis we place on history is the academic environment in which we grow up. Therefore, in order for people to correctly learn history’s lessons, these academic environments must reflect history in a holistic way, putting as much emphasis on historical failures as successes.

In the United States, states have remarkable control and leeway over their own curricula and educational systems. This makes them instrumental in establishing academic environments, and as a result allows them to affect the weight with which entire populations consider certain aspects of history.

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The open spectrum of emphasis that results—with academics settings placing different emphases on different historical moments—demonstrates the malleability of history. For example, while the Civil Rights Movement is widely covered in at least nine out of 12 states in the former Confederacy, 16 states require no instruction at all about the movement, despite its vital importance in history and the present.

But the perceived significance of the past does not just vary between states. My hometown of Birmingham, Ala., which served and continues to serve as the stage for many of the greatest victories and losses of the Civil Rights Movement, exemplifies these perceptual discrepancies. Between the Children’s Crusade, 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” it was the epicenter of a battle that captivated a nation. This battle left scars that divided people with respect to which parts of Birmingham’s history are important to learn.

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Acknowledgment of the weight of this history varies wildly from district to district—and even from class to class within individual schools. A couple of weekends ago, I went to the famed Birmingham Civil Rights Institute with a friend from my high school. Both of us were enthralled by the museum’s commitment to being a “living memorial with an ongoing mission,” dedicated not only to presenting an honest account of Alabama’s tumultuous history but also the way in which these struggles persist into today. Our shared enthrallment, though, stemmed from two very different backgrounds.

While the stories I encountered were no less moving than the first time I had learned about them, the effect of the museum was largely supplementary, lending nuance to a narrative I had already come to understand. Meanwhile, my friend's reaction was one of overwhelming shock as he saw the harsh reality of city’s history and the way it affects the present for the first time. Though lessons concerning Birmingham’s civil history were plentiful in both of our schools, the lessons at his served as a sort of historical false bottom through which the significance of many of the city’s stories was lost. Of course, it’d be unfair to assume that this difference was borne out of any kind of malice, but for whatever reason, it still exists and must therefore be addressed.

In many places in the South, the weight of history is only stressed when that history is positive. It is worrying that my friend was so stunned by the more reprehensible side of Birmingham’s history. In order to effectively learn from a past that appears as hauntingly temporally close as we’d like to believe it is ideologically distant, we need to acknowledge that some of the city’s ugliest stories can be some of its most important. Only in this way can we acknowledge the ways they can carry into the present, recognizing the persistence of Jim Crow and modern inequalities. As people learn about Southern identity, policymakers must take action to ensure that all of the South’s unpleasant stories carry as much weight as its pleasant ones.

The challenge of ensuring that history’s weight is carried forth through lessons is both universal and distinctly local, and the history of Alabama as well as Alabama public schools is only one such stage on which it is taking place. When it is met, however, students gain an invaluable platform to interact with the complex issues that form the foundation of their seemingly simple realities, able to recognize both historical successes and the places where work must continue. It is only through this concentrated effort that Huxley’s criticism can even hope to be avoided, as without it, history’s lessons don’t stand a chance.

Anastasia Sorochinsky ’21 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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