Monday, March 9, 2009

Studied Ignorance

The Felix Chronicles, #9

In which a botched assignment leads to a discussion of how to think without knowing

There’s nothing like the survey to make you aware of what’s missing in any account of U.S. History. In a way, that’s counterintuitive. For a teacher planning a new course, or a student embarking on one, a survey curriculum is a mountain of content—months and months of lesson plans to be filled in with reading, lectures, discussions and the like. Conversely, for all the topics you could cover, there’s a cemented consensus about what you have to do—a survey wouldn’t be a survey without the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II and the like. (Somehow, wars always seem to be the hinges.) Yet these fixed points and cavernous spaces are both pressurized by the passage of time itself—history isn’t getting any shorter—and new subjects and information that have gradually pushed their way into necessity as well. Women’s History. African-American History. Environmental History.

There are some topics in the survey that I regard as chronic problems in my teaching. I don’t devote enough time to the Constitution. Latinos are stinted—they fall out of the picture once the focus shifts from Spanish colonization, only briefly to surface again during the Mexican War—and my handling of women’s suffrage is notably weak. From time to time, I resolve to fix these problems, though the press of other commitments often leads me to defer them. Sometimes, though, I do plug holes. This year is the year I finally do something about Native Americans.

The process of doing so takes a while. Over the course of last spring, I stepped up my reading—long overlooked classics like William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and new scholarship like Alan Taylor’s The Middle Ground. When I took my kids for a vacation to Plimouth Plantation over spring break last year (my wife had to work), I picked up a DVD on King Philip’s War of 1675-76 to show to my class. While it was relatively difficult to carve open more than a class session or two in which Native Americans would be focal to the discussion, I made a more of an effort to weave the Seminole Wars into my handling of Andrew Jackson’s Indian policies (the Cherokees were already there) or Pontiac’s Rebellion after the French and Indian War.

To some extent, I was spurred to do this work by an exceptionally talented former student of mine who had spent a summer on a Lakota Sioux reservation and did a senior project supervised by a colleague to develop curriculum for teachers of U.S. history at the school to incorporate into their classes. So now that we’ve reached the late nineteenth century, and I’ve reached the point where I do my standard routine about the trans-Mississippi west, I add a session using her material on the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. I also toss in some material on second Wounded Knee, the standoff at the Pine Ridge Reservation that took place in 1972. In the latter event, internecine conflict between tribal leader Dickie Wilson and his militant challenger Russell Means of the American Indian Movement (AIM; That's him up on the right.)

After providing some overview information, I begin our class discussion by explaining how it is that they came to be assigned this material, and recapitulate some of the history we’ve already studied. I also make what I consider a fairly standard gambit in asking them to compare the situation of Native Americans with that of African Americans. They’re pretty quick to make the point that African-Americans were pulled into the United States and absorbed, albeit unequally, into American society, whereas Native Americans, already here, were pushed out. They don’t have the background to talk about the sense of militancy that both groups shared after the integrationist spirit of the early Civil Rights Movement; that will be a conversation for another day. (Actually, this is a major line of discussion when I use the material in my “U.S. Since 1945” course.) For now, I ask: Do they think AIM was right to create that standoff? Was it the best strategy to get the U.S. government to rethink its treaty obligations?

A long silence—a very long silence. Even when I paraphrase the question, I still get no takers. Did they do the reading? Did I make a big mistake inserting this material into the course this way? In any case, we've fallen into a real ditch. I'm really not sure what to do.

Sam tentatively raises a hand, out of what I sense to be courtesy more than anything else. "I’m not sure taking over property and handing out guns is ever really a good idea," he says.

"But how else were they going to get the government’s attention?" I ask.

"Well, civil disobedience, he says. I mean, Martin Luther King used nonviolence, didn’t he?"

Lisa steps in. "You know, I really don’t know whether they had to do this or not. I just don’t feel like I know enough to say."

Hmmm. If anyone did the reading it was Lisa. I’m about to ask what she would feel she needed to know in order to have her opinion, when I suddenly change my mind.

All right then, I say, shifting my gaze from her to the class as a whole. Let’s approach this from a different angle. Let’s say you’re a government official with responsibility for law and order in South Dakota. You hear that a group of militants have taken over buildings in a town, and it’s your job to deal with the situation. What’s the first thing you consider in deciding what to do?

"Well the first thing I’d want to do," Susan says, "is get over there and find out what’s going on. Talk to them. Hear their side of the story."

Joey makes a scornful face, which I sense is partly an exaggerated sense of playacting, and partly reflects his actual stance. "What, Joey, you don’t think talking to the Indians is a good idea?"

"Oh you know me," Joey says. "I always shoot first and ask questions later." Nate laughs silently; Mark punches his upper arm. "Seriously, though. Where would this go? First these people make a bunch of demands that people try to listen to, and then where does it end? Soon every Indian tribe is complaining and there’s a casino on every corner." Real laughter at this. We’re not in a part of the world where Indian policy is much of an issue on a local level, but we’ve made field trips to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut in previous years, and I’ve listened to kids on the bus express unease about whether it’s really right for Native Americans to profit from gambling.

"Joey’s right," Becky says. "You gotta keep ’em in line."

"So there you have it, I say, trying to string these two opinions into a conversational clothesline. Susan says hold discussions; Joey says hold the line. What say the rest of you?"

Beth weighs in. "I think that one thing Joey’s forgetting here is that we’re talking about a group of people who have had a hard time for a long time. These are not just another group of demanding people. They’re people who have been oppressed for centuries."

"Actually, Beth, I say, seizing on an opening here, you’re not so much disagreeing with Joey—well, you are kind of doing that—as you are suggesting an entirely separate way of dealing with the problem. Susan’s instinct is to go local. Joey’s instinct is to apply broad principle, in this case what might be termed the problem of the slippery slope. There are, by the way, psychologists who would say that these are classically gendered ways of conceiving the situation—men tend to apply rules while women tend to think in terms of relationships. (Nate gives Joey a fist bump.) But you, Beth, are a girl after my own heart, because your instinct is to think in terms of history."

"History?" Joey asks. "What’s history?"

"Actually, I say, ignoring him, I think there’s something important here that goes beyond Native American history. Lisa said she felt like she lacked enough information to make an intelligent choice, and in an important sense she is of course right. But the truth of the matter is that this is really what life is like a lot of the time: You’re forced to make decisions based on incomplete information. What car should I buy? What woman should I marry? Do I take that job? Should I invest in this company? If you knew everything there is to know, making a choice would be easy. But you almost never do. So what you’re left with are instincts, what your gut tells you. But what’s the source of your gut’s instinct? Is it facts in the ground, like Susan’s? Abstract principles or dynamics, like Joey’s? Or experience, like Beth’s? Do you say, “What features does this car have?” Or: 'These companies do work that I believe in.' Or: 'I have a lousy track record with blondes.'" Some laughs here. "Knowing what your gut uses to tell you—and, maybe, making that gut bigger or changing its chemical composition—could give you better digestion, if you know what I mean."

"This is getting pretty gross," Kim says.

"Sorry. I guess I was getting a little carried away."

"You were also acting out of ignorance, Joey says."

"Well, that was sort of my point," I reply.

"Yes, well, I think I need to enlighten you. Have a look at the clock. Class is over."

He's right. "Thank you, oh wise one."

"De nada," he says. "Happy to help in your search for wisdom."