Teaching About the Past As a Foreign Country. People Are So Blind To Others’ Sufferings; They Don’t See the Truth for Years

High school students resist the notion of studying the past because they are so obsessed with individuating from their parents, discovering their identity and creating something new. But if their imaginations can be sparked for reflection, travel or time time, they might take some interest. The British author L.P. Hartley, begans his novel The Go-Between (1953) thusly: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

Looking back on his youth in England before World War I, he experienced “the illusion of stability…the confidence in life, the belief that’s all well with the world. That seemingly pervasive belief would soon be shattered by slaughter in the trenches and tumultous change in civil society.”

Made into both a play and a movie, it is written from the point of view of an old man recalling how as a naive child in the early 20th century, he was so hopeful, but gradually became aware of the cruelties of the oppressive Victorian era in regard to class, gender, and sex, followed by the bloody devastation of two world wars. As an older man, he wondered how and why humans could be so rigid, blind and callous to the sufferings of others.

I tell students that my Victorian grandmother always addressed her husband as “Mister” and “Sir.” Students are appalled. “I would never do that!” said one. Of course you wouldn’t, I reply. You’re a modern American person. But these attitudes and social conventions have not died around the world. My female students in the Middle East generally did not know their fiancees well because the societies are gender-segregated. I could be accepting rather than judgmental of their situations because I viewed it as one of cultural development. I imagined that their lives were not so different from my grandparents’ lives. In my grandparents’ courting time in 1914, romantic love was a new concept. Their parents had likely not married for love but for practicality and survival. Women as late as the 19th century in the US were considered property, and that is still true in certain parts of the world.

My grandparents did not know each other well. Sex before marriage was taboo, involving a girl’s honor and a boy’s chivalry. Birth control did not exist. What they knew of love or how to interact with each other, they learned in romance novels. Quickly disillusioned with each other after marriage, they simply accepted their differences. Divorce was not common; it was a shameful concept, a “sin,” that destabilized societies. If incompatible, couples would usually stay together “for the sake of the children.” Pursuing personal happiness and fulfillment was not their main goal in life.

I might tell them this story handed down from my uncle about my grandparents and ask them to write the story of their grandparents:

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