I have become a devoted fan of continuing education courses at Rice University. Since my husband and I both register for the various offerings each fall and spring it can become rather pricey to take as many classes as I would like, so I’ve had to carefully pick and choose. I’ve generally settled on historical topics because I’m fascinated by the parallels of human behavior from one time or place to another. While we are definitely evolving to better versions of our human selves it is a somewhat slow process that is often marked by backsliding from time to time. It is as though we are engaged in a grand and never ending experiment in social science that always seems to involve attempts to determine where power should lie and how goods should be shared. In spite of centuries of evidence regarding the errors and triumphs of our behavior, we always tend to focus on the present moment with a kind of tunnel vision that prevents us from seeing parallels with the past that might help us to build a better future.
This fall I have been learning about the Victorian era which is far more interesting in its scope than just the long reigning Queen for whom the time is named. This was a moment of great change within the British Empire during which the colonial period would reach a peak and then slowly begin to fade. It was also a period when democracy would become more and more of a reality for the common white males of Britain. It would take until 1928, for the women to be included in the series of reforms that were enacted with respect to giving a real voice to ordinary souls in the government. The time of powerful and wealthy Lords vetoing reforms intended to provide decent lives to all of the people came abruptly to an end in the early years of twentieth century Britain.
How we hand off power to the people is always complicated by economics and political ideals. Our systems often favor one group over another. Sometimes they even deny access to certain individuals. If only we were to actually spend more time honestly studying the ebb and flow of justice throughout history we might be more inclined to work together to create systems that are more fair and just for everyone. Instead we tend to be incredibly ignorant of the realities of not just our past, but also our present state. We take sides and vote mostly on emotion and personal beliefs that may or may not be valid. Learning history, when presented in an honest fashion using primary sources, becomes a stunningly eye opening experience.
Suddenly there are efforts all over our country to prohibit the flow of certain kinds of information and theories. There is a kind of fear that neither we nor our young children should be exposed to ideas that make us feel uncomfortable. It is as though the idea of censoring truth is better for our psyches, when just the opposite is the more comforting proposition.
It’s difficult to hear that Cecil Rhodes, the well known and often revered philanthropist, was not as upright as we want to believe. He explored Africa and claimed to have discovered land that he named Rhodesia after himself. Then he exported diamonds from his self proclaimed country and became one of the richest people in the world. Never mind that there were already native Africans living in the place that he basically invaded and stole. We don’t want to think ill of a man whose foundation has so generously given Oxford educations to students from around the world, but the evidence is very clear that what he did was wrong.
If we are to truly bring justice to the world we have to be willing to look at the past and learn from it. There really is no alternative justification for slavery or for the Holocaust or any other misuse of power that resulted in brutal abuse to any group of people. We don’t need to remove books from school libraries that recall the horrors of the Jim Crow era. Instead we need more information on what really happened from the time of slavery to the present day so that we might avoid the egregious errors of the past as well as those that continue in the present.
We humans have never lived in Disneyland. Life has often been brutish and short for those on the bottom of the societal ladder. Instead of ignoring their cries as they strive to lift themselves up, it’s time we listened with open minds. The civil rights movement is not yet over and we might begin to improve on the reforms that we have often reluctantly enacted by being honest about the horrors of our past. While we don’t want to get stuck in finger pointing and anger, we can use hard truths to craft better more just ways of living together in a spirit of understanding. Instead of harping on a few individuals who destroy property or some confusing thoughts about redesigning our police forces, we should be actively determining how we can intelligently remove barriers to voting. We can honor the voices of those brave enough to tell us their stories of pain and despair.
History shows us that our greatest moments come when we face our demons and work together to create a better world for everyone. We have to emerge from our bubbles of self preservation long enough to see the realities of others who do not yet enjoy the sense of safety and security that we often take for granted. We should be working together to provide more representation for the underserved, not less. Our efforts should encourage people to vote, not limit their ability to do so. We should all be against any efforts to gerrymander certain groups to power. The dream of democracy should be bold enough to include everyone. History tells us that truth is the road to better lives for us all. We may have to see some heroes in a more human light to get there, but that’s okay. Facing our past and our present with unmitigated honesty is the beginning of being free. We all need more history in the raw, not less.