Governor Gina Raimondo posted this video to facebook on February 20, 2018 to show her support for the Newport Historical Society’s essay contest for 10th graders in tuition-free high schools. Winners of the contest (and their teacher) get a trip to New York City to see Hamilton: An
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Winners Receive Tickets to the Hit Broadway Musical “Hamilton”
During the 2017-2018 academic year, high school sophomores have the chance to enter a unique essay competition sponsored by the Newport Historical Society. This writing contest, entitled Big Ideas for a Changing World, asks students to explore the question, “What
“All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. ” – Edward Said (1981)
There can be no doubt that 2017 was a year infused with history. Yes, historic things happened (they always do). But more interestingly, we spent some considerable time reflecting on, facing, and resisting our national historic legacy. And why that matters was also highlighted – we watched on a national stage how much we are influenced in our thinking and our actions by how we think about the past. But neither the we, nor ” the past ” are fixed points. Our definitions shape the conversation, and differences among us — both recognized and unspoken — define our national discourse.
One of the biggest spotlights shone on the debate about Confederate monuments. Here the differences in how many of us think about the past, its legacy, and our place in history were in obvious relief. These are not subtle differences in historical interpretation, nor is there much dispute, among historians, about the actual evidence of history. In short, here are the basic facts that current academic history gives us: the American Civil War was fought over slavery, and the South’s desire to continue it. Yes, state’s rights, economic issues, and political jockeying between North and South all played a role. But the primary dispute, well-articulated at the time, was slavery. And the Confederacy was a secessionist government, set up in opposition to the United States.
Those of you who read the above paragraph and felt uncomfortable, or even angry, are demonstrating the task at hand. The facts are in conflict with how many of us perceive the past: through a lens constructed by family memories, national myth, and a sense of our heritage. The fact that we celebrate any part of the Confederacy has much to do with Reconstruction, and a desire by the federal government to reunite the country by avoiding the most inflammatory aspects of the recent past – a deliberate gloss on the historical facts, meant to serve the country best based on what was understood at the time. But with the perspective of time, it seems clear that this policy has had long-lasting and negative consequences.
As we see, our current understanding is also not a fixed point. As each group of us, however defined, will ” see ” the past differently, all of us will also understand the past based on current perceptions and conditions. And this puts aside the fact that we are, in this day and age, bombarded with partisan propaganda at every turn, which muddies the waters more.
Learning to deal with this is imperative, if we wish to retain any of our national integrity and unity. How can we examine how we construct our sense of the past, and how does that sense influence our perceptions and actions today? Doing so requires some shared assumptions about the facts, and how we understand them. Starting with the past, and learning to create a shared sense of reality as we know it, should also help us to evaluate and assess the present.
” Basically all democratic theory is built around the idea people have a roughly accurate and shared view of what’s going on. What if