I am spending several weeks in one of my courses on the struggle in South Africa to bring the apartheid system to an end. This is a struggle many of us remember well from the 1970s and 1980s, largely because it became a leading issue for activists in the United States as well as many other places in the world. But — as I’ve come to understand about the Holocaust and other atrocities of the twentieth century as well — the ideas that many Americans had about the evils of apartheid were vastly oversimplified and uninformed. The apartheid regime was racist, it was neo-colonial, it was oppressive, and it was violent. But these descriptions, though true enough, fail to capture the human reality of the system of apartheid. And for that reason, even well-intentioned advocates tended to fail to understand the human evil that this system represented.
It is possible that every instance of widespread injustice and suffering has this same problem. The plight of Syrian refugee children is horrendous, and it is horrendous for each child and parent in a very specific and poignant human way. And yet we subsume this vast human situation of suffering under a single phrase, “the refugee crisis”. What is needed in order to allow distant human cousins to deeply empathize with these suffering children, and to commit to substantial, meaningful ways to steps that would ameliorate or end the circumstances that bring about their suffering? What is needed in order to come to a more adequate human and historical understanding of circumstances like these?
In the case of the apartheid system, one important step is to learn more exactly about the magnitude of the suffering: the vast numbers of black South Africans whose liberties and lives were truncated, the depth of poverty and hopelessness created in each family in a black “homeland” or shanty-town, the shameful differences in wages between white and black workers, the health disparities and childhood mortality rates — in short, the full range of circumstances that flow from oppression and exploitation. And it is crucial to understand the fundamental racism that underlay the system, the fundamental assumptions of white European superiority.
This is where history comes in. Historians help us understand these human realities in more than the shorthand ways that we often navigate the world. They help us increase the scope and complexity of the moral frameworks within which we understand the world — of the present as well as the past. They educate and deepen us by providing some of the important facts about various historical events, some of the ways that those events were experienced by the men, women, and children who lived through them, and some ways of asking the question, why? Why did apartheid arise? Why did Stalin and the Soviet regime engineer the mass starvation of the Ukrainian peasants? Why are millions of innocent people from Iraq, Syria, or Palestine forced to trudge away from their homes to find refuge somewhere else? Why and how did the Nazi regime undertake the murder of Europe’s Jews? When people read history they come to think and understand differently; one would like to think they become more fully human in their capacity for compassion and understanding.
This seems to be one of Marc Bloch’s central contributions in his reflections about “the historian’s craft”: historians have the task of understanding human beings as actors in time, and in uncovering the nature of human experience in dramatically different times and places. Consequently the Annales school took the subject of the mentalité of people in the past very seriously as an object of investigation. Here is a brief description from an earlier post:
Historians of the Annales school gave special attention to the task of reconstructing the mentalité of people and groups of the past. Durkheim’s ideas about the social world seem to be in the background in the focus offered by Marc Bloch or Jacques Le Goff on this aspect of history’s tapestry — though the Annales approach seems to be more psychological than Durkheim would have preferred. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, for example, sought to capture the mentalité of the peasants of Montaillou in his book of that title, offering substantial commentary on their attitudes towards death, sex, and religion. Lawrence Stone writes of Le Roy Ladurie’s “sheer brilliance in the use of a unique document to reconstruct in fascinating detail a previously totally unknown world, the mental, emotional, sexual, and religious life of late thirteenth-century peasants in a remote Pyrennean village” (review by Lawrence Stone). (link)
Mentalité is not exactly the same as “lived experience”, but the two concepts have a great deal in common. And if we can come to understand the mental frameworks and meanings of the actors during these periods of intense human experience, we come much closer to having a genuine human understanding of the historical event as well.History can have this effect on us. But so can literature — novels, poetry, and theatre that creatively seek to inspire in readers and viewers some of the understanding and pity that we often lack in our everyday lives. Novels are not the same as historical books; they have different standards of “authenticity” and truth; but they have the capacity to take the reader into a world very far from home. And this ability of literature and fiction to create a vivid experience of a different world for readers is profoundly deepening for each person who engages with Rufus in Another Country, or Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago, or Joseph K in The Trial.
But here is the really hard question for anyone who cares about education: how is that deepened understanding of the past, and the human significance of some of the horrible events in our history — how is that understanding supposed to come about for young people in the United States? In practical terms, what intellectual and educational experiences can children, adolescents, and young adults be expected to have that will lead them to deepen their understandings of the history of our world, and our moral place in that world? How can they be expected to come to see the difference between “apartheid” (the label to which they have been exposed very superficially) and apartheid (the human reality and fundamental injustice that a system of racial oppression represented)?