Face Thyself: Study History

~ Michael Hornbaker, Upper School Lead Teacher

I’ve recently read that the study of history is the study of oneself.   To look at the past is to look in the mirror.  On the surface this appears contradictory.  When we think of history we often think of people living in places far from us, during times long ago, and facing circumstances foreign to our own.  

all-quiet-on-the-western-front-coverTenth grade students have recently finished reading the classic World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front  by Erich Maria Remarque.  In the novel, we met Paul Bäumer, a young German student who is exhorted by his teachers to enlist for the cause of the Fatherland.  Paul and his comrades experience the terrible atrocities of war and form deep bonds of comradeship that are forged in suffering, loss, and affliction.  The men learn to cope with complete detachment from their previous lives, as the reality of their situation is plagued by contradiction.  They face the paradox of men butchering one another to pieces on the front line and then a few hundred yards behind attempting to stitch them back together again.  Families at home struggle with basic needs and cling desperately to hope, while a country’s resources are devoted to the production of machines of war (both the weapons and the men) and sing songs of triumph.

What does the Great War offer to us today nearly 100 years after the armistice that brought a fragile peace?  One of the ways that we have attempted to make this journey into the early parts of the Twentieth Century in class is by tracing our own family ancestry.  census-record-2By combining census records from the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s we were able to identify the great-grandfather of a student who had no knowledge of this generation in his family’s story.  We met a man born in Alabama circa 1890.  He was just 24 when the war began.  We started to realize that we didn’t have to travel many generations to meet family members who lived during the global war that we were studying.  We found ourselves implicated in new ways in this story of struggle for land, power, freedom, and survival.   

We found ourselves hoping for our protagonist, Paul, while often forgetting that his German side was the enemy of the country we call our own.  His struggle to survive another moment of heavy shelling caused us to rethink the categories of enemy and ally.  Indeed, it was easiest to hate the pompous and cavalier spirit that celebrated the war as advancement and honorable duty.  We grieved with Paul as he watched the French soldier he wounded in hand to hand combat gasp and slowly die before him.  We held our breath as Paul reached into the dead soldier’s pocket-book and found his name, Gérard Duval.  A name. Not an enemy, but a husband, a father, a printer, a man with a name.          

What a costly gift the soldiers of WWI have given to the generations that have followed them: resilience in the face of utter despair, hope in the presence of unimaginable loss, humanity in the midst of dehumanization.  When we look long enough we will find that the greatest struggle is always internal.  Fighting despair, patiently enduring suffering, mourning loss, asking the name of our enemy—these are our shared human tasks.  When we linger in the past long enough we will find ourselves in the present.   

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