Learning from Doves

Learning from Doves
by Teresa H. Janssen

Photograph by Teresa H. Janssen

Photograph by Teresa H. Janssen

Most of us who teach Social Studies do so because we think there is great value in knowing history. We believe, perhaps naively, that we can learn from the past to avoid repeating the worst of it. I have been a teacher for more than twenty years, most recently in a public high school. I have taught English, French, and my favorite, Social Studies. Recent political events have prompted me to reflect on history—why we, as a society, fail to learn from it, and the potential good for the world in changing how we teach it.

In the fall and early winter of 2016, the world seemed paralyzed as the residents of East Aleppo, Syria—terrorized by daily sniper attacks and the bombing of neighborhoods, hospitals, and schools during the siege of their city—begged for help. The Battle of Aleppo, part of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, lasted four years and five months. Of over 23,000 civilians killed, more than five thousand were children.

Only twenty years prior, during the Bosnian War in the early nineties, the people of the city of Sarajevo were also under siege. For three years and seven months, they were afraid to leave their homes for fear of death. More than 10,000 people were killed by bombshells and sniper bullets—over half of those were civilians. They, too, had pleaded for help. At the end of the conflict, the European Parliament, in condemning the atrocities, promised it would never happen again.

Why don’t we learn from history?

In order to learn from it, we need to know it. I travel during my summers off to learn about the world. I try to be a keen student and to return a better teacher. It is hard to teach something I don’t really understand. In the summer of 2015, I went to the Balkans.

I arrived in Sarajevo the day before the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. World dignitaries arriving for the memorial came by jet, but I had come by public bus from Croatia, unaware of my timing and the significance of the date. Two decades before, outside the town of Srebrenica, a hundred miles from Sarajevo, eight thousand Muslim men and boys had been turned out of a U.N. security camp to be hunted down by Serbian soldiers as part of a larger program of ethnic cleansing. The day I arrived in Sarajevo was sunny and hot, and sorrow hung over the town like a shroud.

I dropped my bag at a family-run hotel near the center of town and walked to Baščaršija Square, the main plaza in the Ottoman old town. The fountain in its center was surrounded by a huge flock of fat, gray pigeons, which were a symbol of the city. The birds strutted and cooed, some so friendly that they took seed from the hands of tourists. In the Bosnian language, the word for pigeon and dove, golub, is the same. For much of its history, Sarajevo, a long narrow city set in a valley between high mountains along the Miljacka River, was known as a peaceful town where four major religions lived in harmony.

I left Baščaršija Square, and, for the next three days, I tried to get a grip on a city I had only heard about in the news. I meandered through the tight streets of the old town, visited mosques, churches, and synagogues, strolled the old Hapsburg section, and then walked through downtown and the infamous “sniper alley.” I passed facades still pocked with bullet holes, remnants of ruined buildings not worth repairing, and cemented over craters where bombs had once torn roads apart. I passed handmade signs of spray paint on cardboard with the silent plea, “Don’t Forget”.

Why don’t we learn from history?

As an educator, I take this question personally. Perhaps we don’t learn from history because of the way it is taught. If we change the way we teach history, can we change the way we learn it?

For centuries, the study of history was considered essential for an educated person. America’s founding fathers believed that all citizens should be well-versed in classical history and the civilizations of Europe for moral improvement. Military schools have traditionally studied war as a means of tactical skill-building. Most of the powerbrokers of WWI had thorough educations in the conflicts of European history yet were unable to prevent over ten million deaths and widespread devastation in the first global war. They had operated on the assumption that war was a given, and we simply needed to get better at it.

It seems that knowing the facts of history is not enough to prevent it from repeating. If the great minds of Western civilization were not able to jump the groove of historical repetition, what hope is there for us?

J. Rufus Fears in his Big Think article, “Why We Refuse to Learn from History,” asserts that, although we might like to read history, as a society we do not think historically. We are a culture that looks to the future, donning metaphorical blinders to remain focused on the road ahead. We do not use lessons from the past to plan for the present because we believe advances in technology have given us more control over the laws of cause and effect. We make excuses that what has happened before doesn’t apply to present situations because the circumstances are different. J. Rufus Fears reminds us, however, that the lessons of history endure because human nature has remained essentially the same despite material change.

At Sarajevo’s historical museum, I stared at photographs of the faces of emaciated children who lived underground to avoid being shot on the streets during the long siege. A Sarajevan tour guide patiently led me through the 1992 break-up of Yugoslavia and the fateful turn of events that led to the siege of her city.

My guide whispered that snipers shot into a crowd, killing six, on April 6, 1992 when 100,000 citizens of Sarajevo held an independence rally in front of the Bosnian parliament. Soon after, Serbian paramilitary forces began firing on the city, and within a month, they had set up a blockade.

The siege continued for 1,300 days with an average of more than three hundred mortar attacks per day, cutting the people off from food, water, electricity, medical supplies, and the world. Bombers targeted Muslim neighborhoods, but snipers fired upon anyone in the streets. Cigarettes, still manufactured during the siege, served as currency to buy what they needed to survive. The stadium from the Olympic Games eight years before became a graveyard for the dead, and the wooden seats from the ice arena were used to build coffins. 1,600 children died.

I wanted to scream.

I left the museum. Near a shady park, I stopped at the Memorial to the Children. A sculpture of a half-finished sandcastle stood in the middle of a fountain, flanked by steel pillars with the names of the child victims. I sat on a bench, and for nearly an hour, I watched the water fall.

I felt tired and guilty. Where was I when the siege was happening? I counted back. During the Balkan War, I was living in Oregon caring for my newborn, toddler, and preschooler and supporting my grad-student husband. Buried in what seemed endless work and confused by the tangle of ethnicity and religion on a map that seemed to be changing every day, I did not have the energy to advocate for young mothers and children living a nightmare in a city a world away. Like many of my fellow citizens, I couldn’t see the bigger historical picture; the systematic persecution of Bosnian Muslims as part of a struggle for a new balance of powers in the region. If we—justice-minded people—had spoken up sooner and put pressure on our governments to protect the safety zones for civilians while persistently negotiating for peace, how many innocent lives may have been saved?

I thought of the students in my classrooms at home. At that moment, they were likely on vacation, working at a summer job, or playing at the beach. How could I nurture my students’ compassion for today’s Sarajevans? How could I help them learn to pay attention to patterns of oppression better than I have? In order to take action against it, we first need to perceive it. How could I teach my students to think historically?

Howard Zinn thought it was a matter of life and death. He believed that if you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday: “If you really don’t know history you are a victim of whatever the authorities tell you. You have no way of checking up on them. You have no way of deciding whether there is any truth in what they are saying.”

Why does the responsibility for teaching history fall on high school teachers? It falls on us because most Americans do not go to college where they might learn methods of deeper analysis, and yet we all influence events in the world through the ballot box. The public high school is the best opportunity to nurture a young person’s natural curiosity about the world, develop habits of life-long learning, and teach historical perspective. If this doesn’t happen, we will continue to be entrenched in a culture of reactivity and false narratives of identity.

In teacher trainings, I had been taught that if a concept is well learned, it becomes part of a mental construct and a contributing factor in the development of our understanding of the world. The stumbling block, I have come to believe, is that adverb well. How do we learn so deeply that it guides our future actions? I have been yanked back again and again to the enigma of teaching for meaningful learning.

Pedagogical experts have been theorizing for generations as to what constitutes authentic learning. H. Lynn Erickson, the author of groundbreaking books on concept-based curriculum and instruction, urges us to teach history through overreaching concepts or big ideas. She tells us, “When students consider specific events, issues, and historical figures through a conceptual lens, they are forced to analyze and investigate at deeper levels as they consider the transferable legitimacy of an idea.” This approach helps a student gain perspective by understanding historical events as part of a pattern or theme that repeats over time.

If a teenager in West Virginia learned about the cycle of stress, innovation, and transition to new technologies that has historically changed work patterns in other regions (like the end of whaling in New England or cattle drives in Texas or the decline of logging in the Pacific Northwest), he may be able to understand the changes that are happening in his community. If he is able to see these changes through a historical lens, he will begin to realize the probability that he may need to find a livelihood in an industry other than coal. He will gain perspective that the shift in technologies is not particular to his people; it has all happened before. He will have the opportunity to examine the adjustments that other communities over the centuries have made.

Concepts can be universal or specific, depending on the focus of study, but all reflect our experience as social beings. Teaching in this way allows us to explore themes like personhood, inter-dependence, thresholds, innovation, continuity, and other shared human experiences. A thematic approach enables us make sense of the particulars, link ideas, and connect events. Seeing the bigger picture helps us to find real-world meaning in what is happening now, to postulate about the future, and when necessary, to act. We all want to know that what we are learning is important. If we can see ourselves as part of the web of history, we can better understand the effects of our actions.

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker H. Palmer, educator, author, and activist, reminds us to teach to the spirit that desires connection with the largeness of the world and also to the heart. He states, “Intellect works in concert with feeling, so if I hope to open students’ minds, I must open their emotions as well.” Palmer warns that when we separate intellect from feeling, the results are a combination of “bloodless facts that make the world distant and remote and ignorant emotions that reduce truth to how we feel today.”

To reach the heart, he urges us to teach less at a deeper level: “Why do we keep dumping truckloads of sand on our students, blinding them to the whole, instead of lifting up a grain so they can learn to see for themselves?”

When I studied U.S. History in high school, the year was a dizzying dash. We sprinted from the French and Indian War to the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812 to the Civil War, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, WWI, then WWII and Korea, and we just barely got to Vietnam, a conflict that had dominated my high school years. The Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum taught in many of our high schools now is a similar race to the test.

A study of more depth would have made it easier for me to understand the complex interplay of causal events in order to get the big ideas. With a more open curriculum, I could have asked the questions I most wanted to know the answers to. I might have talked to my grandmother about how she struggled to feed her family during the Great Depression, to my uncle about how he felt as he walked through the jungle of Bataan, or to my neighbor about what it was like living in Mussolini’s Italy. I could have read and reflected on diaries and eyewitness accounts of the experiences of people different than me. I might have come to empathize with a child factory worker, a Native-American landless farmer, an African-American teacher denied her right to vote, or a migrant grape-picker with cancer. I could have compared their experiences to others in history, and I may have concluded on my own, “Never again.”

If I were fortunate, I would have been able to go to a place where history happened—the field where the strikers were herded before being trucked out of town or the warehouse where Japanese internees were housed. I might have had the opportunity to creatively express my understandings through art, literature, music, or drama, and in so doing, make a personal connection with the topic to better remember what I had learned.

Václav Havel, leader in the Czech Velvet Revolution for liberation from Soviet Russia, advised, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

The longer I teach, I realize that the most important thing is not the subjects I teach, but rather how I teach them—my ability to engage students to learn with open minds and hearts and to understand the whole. In order to teach them, I, too, need to learn with my heart.

One afternoon in Sarajevo, I went to the Srebrenica Exhibition, a visit I had been putting off due to the atrocities it would describe. On my way, I encountered pigeons so dense on some corners that they blocked my path. During the depths of the war, when there was little to eat, Sarajevans trapped the pigeons and ate them. But the species is tough. Now they are thriving, fed by grateful city dwellers glad to have plenty to share.

At the exhibition, I learned of the sequence of critical events leading to the massacre. I read testimonials, watched video clips, and strolled past photographs of hundreds of victims, many of whom were mere children. Despite the crowd of visitors, the rooms were eerily silent. The massacre, by many accounts, was the tragic event that finally spurred the world to intervene to end the Balkan War.

Numb with grief, I left the museum and stopped at an outdoor café in the old town. I ordered a burek, a type of spinach pie, and as I ate, I watched the people of Sarajevo pass by. Scarved women holding the hands of their little children, middle-aged Muslim men, averting their eyes from the café tables, knowing that sunset was still hours off during the month of Ramadan, and older Croat men puffing on cigarettes that at one time might have saved their lives. I searched for signs of strength on the faces of passing survivors. What does resilience look like?

It occurred to me that, although I had introduced universal themes to help my students broaden their historical perspectives, I had organized much of my curriculum around periods of social failure and conflict—the same paradigm I had been taught. I realized that to teach change, I needed to focus on concepts of reconciliation and peace-building. My students could spend more time examining the situations when fighting was averted. They could study the aftermaths of hostilities and explore the skills and strategies employed to maintain peace—in Germany, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Rwanda. Our heroes would be the far-sighted citizens who demonstrated courage, patience, and resilience and who led social movements for justice; we would celebrate the leaders who set aside their egos to craft creative solutions that avoided or lessened bloodshed. In our teaching, the losses of war would be honored, but the sacrifices made for peace would be held up as what transformed our world.

My last afternoon in Sarajevo, I walked down a busy street to the Markale covered market. Shoppers browsed rustic tables piled with produce—heads of ruffled cabbage, meaty tomatoes, and slender fingerling carrots. On a stone plaque on the back wall were etched the names of shoppers who, on two fateful days during the long siege, had died in the violence as they shopped for food for their families. On February 5, 1994, a bomb flew through the roof, killing sixty-seven, and on August 28, 1995, a blast killed forty-three more.

Photograph by Teresa H. Janssen

Photograph by Teresa H. Janssen

For a moment I could picture the shoppers looking up at the sound of a bomb whistling above their heads, startling at the rip of corrugated tin and recoiling at the shredding of canvas. I could imagine cans bouncing on concrete and rolling across the ground and vegetables being impaled by shrapnel or crushed beneath the weight of flattened tables. But the people who were hit that day? I could not imagine them. It was too much. They were names carved onto a cold stone wall.

I left the market and stood at the crosswalk light of the narrow street. Cars raced past. Then, in front of me, a pigeon, pale as a dove, flew up from the sidewalk into the path of a speeding car. I heard the whump of its small flesh and bone against metal. In a split second, its ribcage was crushed, its wings wrecked, and its neck broken. Thrown by the impact, it landed on the curb near my feet. The car sped on.

The air filled with feathers. Tiny feathers drifted around me, landing on my shirt, my pants, and my hair, reminding me—for the sake of those who had lost their lives on this holy ground—to teach the ways of peace. The cars stopped. I walked through feathers to the other side of the street. §

Issue 07
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Teresa H. Janssen is an educator who writes about family, migration, and the power of place. She has received the Norman Mailer/NCTE national non-fiction award, Pacific Northwest Writers non-fiction prize, and a Travelers’ Tales Solas Gold award for spiritual writing, and her nonfiction has been published in Obra/Artifact and Tidepools, with an essay forthcoming in Gold Man. Learn more about her writing at teresahjanssen.com.