Sunday, 15 June 2014

History- The Story of Class Struggles

“That's wrong,” my five-year son old recently interrupted with indignation as I read about India's caste system in Story of the World. He quickly added that in our own society, Roma gypsies aren't unlike the Untouchables we just read about. They only do the dirtiest and lowest-paid jobs and are shunned by the majority ethnicity.

My older daughter asked why Romans liked to watch people die when she first encountered ancient history. When we read about Romans again because my son was doing Story of the World 1, she wanted to know if the word “fasces” had any connection with the word “fascism”. Next, she asked if Hitler and Mussolini had perhaps admired ancient Rome. I had been unaware of this etymological connection, and was amazed to find that she was right.

“Don't make him decide what he likes and doesn't like about ancient Rome; let him wallow in gladiators and chariot races,” The Well-Trained Mind told me when I first started homeschooling. “The immature mind is more suited to absorption than argument”.

The Well-Trained Mind made so much sense to me when I read it the first time. It gave me the confidence I needed, and the practical tools to go along with it. The neo-classical trivium seemed to be such a neat thing: first fill a child's mind with facts and basic skills, and then build on those skills. Isn't it impossible to analyze things we know nothing about?

History Belongs To All Of Us

Well, my kids turned out to be naturally-born critical thinkers with a heavy emphasis on the word “critical”. They did not “wallow in gladiators and chariot races”. They wanted to know why things happened and more importantly, why so many wrong things happened.

I believe there is a lot of value in a chronological progression of history studies, but I am also happy that I recently jumped out of that by turning to a document that was written much later on: The Manifesto of the Communist Party.

One doesn't have to be a communist to agree with its statement that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. One doesn't have to believe in Marx's dialectical materialism or the inevitability of the end of class antagonisms to get something out of the Marxist analysis of history.

History is a story; a story in which earlier events create later events and later events are influenced by previous events. What kind of story is it? Is it the story of kings and knights, and empires that rose and fell in both ancient and modern times? Is it the story of far-away things that have no connection to us, rendering it hopelessly boring?

Since these are exactly the kind of things that many elementary-age history books focus on, it is easy to get that impression. It is easy, too, to get the impression that people at the bottom of society don't matter, that they're not included in history.

Unless we recognize that history is indeed the story of class struggles, we may get the facts but miss out on the plot line.

Beyond Metternich And Guizot

Yes, this small document provokes a bunch of questions beyond “Who were Metternich and Guizot?”, and it certainly requires follow-up. One question one might ask is: “Where will the story end?” Marx and Engels thought they knew when they wrote the Manifesto, and I'll admit that I thought I knew too, when I first read it as a young teen.

Now, I'm not so sure. By studying this booklet with my young kids — an act I discovered horrifies some Americans — I am not sweeping the heinous crimes committed in the name of communism under the carpet any more than reading about the Spanish Inquisition would justify religious hatred. Yet the Communist Manifesto plays an important, thought-provoking role in the study of history, and the study of human nature too.

Now that class antagonisms are more on our radar while we investigate history, the Manifesto and other communist writings still have plenty more material for debate to offer. Should we interpret the world or attempt to change it? Is turning to violence to overcome oppression or injustice acceptable? What kind of society is ideal, and is that ideal something that's also attainable? We all answer these questions, and other exciting ones, in different ways. Seeing how my kids tackle the profound stuff is hugely interesting and — I think — one of the biggest perks of homeschooling.

Jack is the enthusiastic, opinionated mother of two kids who are frustratingly similar to her. They are "global citizens", otherwise known as perpetual foreigners. Happily, they're comfortable with being in a minority, and it's just as well because they're just about the only homeschoolers in their Eastern European country of residence and are multiethnic to boot. Jack enjoys knitting, redecorating furniture, and talking about things that shock people. She homeschools because she wants her kids to have a decent education and a childhood in which they can feel normal, despite being multiethnic, Jewish, vegetarian and raised by a widowed mom.

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