Understanding Beginnings

Posted on Fri 12/17/2010 by

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By Tom McLaughlinSistine Chapel Ceiling

One of the first homework assignments my students get is to ask their parents three questions: “How did everything (the universe) begin?”; “Where did humans come from?” and “Is there meaning to human life?”. For those who answered yes to the last question, there was a follow-up: “If so, can you explain that meaning in one sentence?”

Answers vary. Most are classic like “the big bang” and “God created it,” to explain how the universe began. Also classic were understandings of where humans come from such as the Darwinian: “They evolved from lower forms of life,” to the Judeo/Christian/Muslim: “God created them.”

Answers to the third question about whether life has meaning included a simple “No” for several parents. Each of these had answered the first two questions with big bang and evolution, though others who had answered thusly did believe there was meaning to human life. Some of their answers included: “Become the best person you can be”; “Live life to the fullest“; Do as much good as you can,” and “Help others.” All who believed God created the universe and humans also believed there was meaning to human life. Answers were predictable and tended to be variations on: “To do God’s will”; “To make it to heaven”; “Love one another”; etc. Afterward, I ask students to answer the questions for themselves. As expected, students’ answers reflected parental beliefs, but not in every case.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

Ideas have consequences. How people of any culture understand the beginnings of everything affects their outlook on other things, and American thinking was constantly changing throughout the twentieth century. Darwin’s theory of evolution, Nietzsche’s “superman” (Ubermensch), “will to power,” and declaration that “god is dead”; Marx’s about communism, revolution, and atheism as well as Sigmund Freud’s concepts of human psychology, all had profound influence on 20th century U.S. history. Debate over policy between groups of Americans with differing beliefs about the above ideas follows often-predictable patterns right into the 21st century, especially about the role of government and the influence of religion upon it.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Ideas also have histories. Many thoughts in the minds of my students originated in other minds centuries and millennia before they were born. Conflict between ideas often results in conflict between individuals, between groups, and between nations. World War II, the Cold War, and today’s war with Radical Islam cannot be fully understood if not in light of such ideological conflicts.

The textbook we use: Prentice Hall’s “American Nation” was the most widely-used in America when I chose it ten years ago. It’s boring and it has a liberal bias, but the others I had to choose from were worse. The flip side is that my lessons can seem interesting by contrast and my bias is opposite that of the book. The text contains several paragraphs about the then much-publicized Scopes Trial in 1926, during which Tennessee biology teacher John Scopes was charged and convicted of teaching evolution instead of creation. Eighty-four years later, the issue is still contentious in American public schools.

Mine are not science classes. I’m not teaching evolution or creation. My lessons are that ideas in human minds lead to behaviors which are beneficial or destructive at different times and in different ways. Ideas bring out the best and the worst in people when they’re propagated and when they’re repressed or resisted.

There was a time when I considered my thirteen and fourteen-year-old students too young to understand any of this, but I underestimated their capabilities. Not only can they comprehend classic ideological movements and conflicts, but that comprehension enhances their understanding of other aspects of history, economics and civics by providing an intellectual framework upon which to organize their understanding of disparate events in 20th-century US history. And, most like learning about them. I return to these ideas at various points in my 20th century US History curriculum.

It’s satisfying when my students offer me fresh perspectives on classic arguments. Many have been smarter than I am over the years as they grasp these concepts for the first time in their young lives. Their minds are less cluttered with bias and political correctness than those of adults and they ask very interesting questions. It’s exciting to be reminded of when I first chewed on these ideas and learned the nomenclature necessary to converse in them. The old becomes new again as I observe students jousting with one another in the arena of abstract thought.

Contributing Editor . Tom is a history teacher and a regular weekly columnist for newspapers in Maine and New Hampshire. He writes about political and social issues, history, family, education and Radical Islam.

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