History is by nature subjective. Even something as seemingly simple as writing the story of your own childhood can quickly become complicated, especially as you collect different perspectives from family and friends who spent time with you as a kid. The same is true for national stories. Take any event in American history, for example, then ask a random sampling of Americans what it was about, and you will get a variety of answers. Everyone has their own perspective.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Historical research and writing have undergone many changes over the years. One of the classes I took in graduate school in Boston was on the subject of historiography. Historiography is the study of historical writing, particularly how evidence is utilized and analyzed in presenting a historical narrative. How one understands an event or life in the past depends largely on how it is interpreted in the present.
Western culture has depended almost entirely on written records for its understanding of history. This has often not been the case in other cultures. Indigenous peoples worldwide tend to rely more on oral traditions passed down from one generation to the next. Many cultures and families today continue to preserve oral traditions. I found this when I was corresponding with relatives about my own ancestors from Ireland and Germany. This kind of history is going to focus on different things than a scholarly book or essay. All are important in achieving a deeper understanding of a given subject.
For history and the other social sciences are, in the end, about people: who people understand themselves to be, where they came from and why, patterns in national and individual behavior, interactions between groups, how human culture is shaped by technology, etc. A balanced understanding of history or politics or economics or psychology will, therefore, incorporate as many different perspectives on the same thing as possible.
After I finished my Master’s degree at UMass/Boston in 1985, I entered seminary at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley to study religion. The GTU is an amazing place. Roman Catholics and Protestant Christians of all denominations study side by side with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and many other faiths. Agnostics and atheists are part of the community as well. Of all the centers of theological study in the world, the GTU is one of the most diverse.
When I was there, however, it was not very culturally diverse. My seminary in particular was very homogeneous, with an overwhelming majority of American teachers and students from exclusively northern European backgrounds. There were a handful of people from other ethnicities on the faculty and in the student body, and we had a few notable guest scholars from places like Africa and Asia. There were growing numbers of female students (my denomination at the time had begun ordaining women in 1970) and LGBT candidates for the ministry were just starting to come out publicly. But overall, almost everybody there was white, male, and straight with a surname from somewhere in Germany, Scandinavia, or the British Isles. This, of course, included me.
There were efforts to diversify, however, especially in the curriculum. One of the requirements for my degree was to complete what was called a month of “Cross-Cultural Experience.” I had to spend one of my January intersessions living and working in a community that was different culturally from where I grew up. The seminary field office offered many locations to complete this requirement, staffed by local clergy and community organizers.
I actually decided to complete two such sessions. The first time I worked with an African American pastor in East Oakland, California. I had considerable experience in the black community growing up, since my father taught at one of the HBCUs for a while and many of my friends and classmates in Raleigh, Memphis, and Harrisonburg were African American. But East Oakland was still an eye opener for me. I definitely saw things like church and society differently at the end of the month than I did at the beginning.
The second experience was more of a culture shock. I spent a month on the Wai’anae coast of the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. This was, at that time, an economically depressed area just miles from the popular tourist attractions in greater Honolulu. It is also a traditionally Hawaiian cultural part of the island. I was privileged to be hosted by a local farmer and community leader who was Native Hawaiian himself and busy developing what he called “alternative tourism.”
This involved learning about the people, land, and culture of Hawai’i from the ground up, rather than cloistered in a high rise hotel on Waikiki Beach. My host “talked story” with me about Hawaiian history, the current state government and economy, and the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, which was seeking to reclaim Hawaiian heritage and political self-determination. He taught me how to plant taro, a staple of the Native Hawaiian diet which is also a symbol of the people and their history. I learned about religious beliefs, traditional music and dance, agricultural practices, family structures, and the profound love for the land, or aloha ‘aina, that had sustained his people for centuries.
This was all new for a haole (Caucasian) guy from “the Mainland” like me. I remember feeling the same way when I moved from Virginia to southern California in 1977 and was now living amidst large Asian and Latino communities for the first time. The culture shock of going from a small Shenandoah Valley town of 14,000 people to the second largest metropolitan area in the United States was big enough, but now I had classmates of every conceivable cultural and religious background. But rather than shunning me as an outsider from the other side of the country, my new classmates embraced me with an open heart.
This openness and tolerance encouraged me to go further. When I got to college, I began reading books like Occupied America by Rodolfo Acuna, Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, all of which challenged my pre-existing notions about American history. I learned Spanish and participated in a Native American sweat lodge ceremony. I began listening to women and LGBT classmates in my undergraduate seminars share their pain of being marginalized in a patriarchal, heterosexist society. I interviewed Japanese American World War II veterans for my senior project. One of my professors had marched with Martin Luther King at Selma and shared his perspectives as an African American growing up in the Jim Crow South.
Years later when I became a teacher, I tried to create this kind of learning experience for my students. The homework assignments, essays, slideshows and films, lectures, projects, and field trips I offered were all tailored to present a diverse and inclusive portrait of American history. The diversity of background among my students made this easier for me as I was always learning something new as well.
Together we had a lot of fun discussing and debating and exploring and celebrating the trials and triumphs of the American experience. The same was true in my world history and economics classes. Listening to cross-cultural perspectives on historical patterns, the job market, literary and artistic expression, community organizing, political campaigning, and family concerns all made for a rich and rewarding school year.
Make an effort to reach out beyond your comfort zone. Read new books. Visit new places. Listen to new music. Make new friends. And most importantly, listen. The rewards are worth the effort.
Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
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