History Lessons

It was the evening after the first day of school and after cooking with Andy we were all seated in the deepening dusk of the garden, candles burning in jars, Will stating that this macaroni and cheese was the best he’d ever had… Andy’s magic, complimented by my grilled protein and sautéed green beans (beans that Nate had helped prep).

We debated the merits of school starting before Labor Day and my assertion that since summer had already ended, Labor Day might be less depressing, less drenched in the last meal before the execution sort of melancholy.

We talk about being present to the moment and I can happily report that I was—the edge of fall in the night air (or what passes for fall in LA), the color of the velvet sky, the tastes and textures of pasta and cheese—soft, crisp and creamy, the sounds of neighbors living life on the other sides of fences and trees.

Will excused himself to get back to his homework and Nate asked for tips on reading more effectively.  We talked about sitting up rather than lying in bed, all of which lead to him talking about what he’d read on his first day of eleventh grade:  the opening and the afterward from Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.”

Nate spoke so eloquently about what he’d read that Andy and I were able to point out, quite honestly, that he was reading effectively—and passionately.  Nate insisted that I would love this book.  I’ve come to trust my kid’s reading picks (“Things Fall Apart” was Will’s summer suggestion and it was great) and I’d been meaning to read Zinn’s book anyway, so after the dishes I took a look at it.

Reading the opening and the afterward of Zinn’s book, I found it rather wonderfully to my taste and worldview.  While Zinn is controversial—a polarizing and provocative voice—at least he’s no bore; his book is a passionate cry to consciousness and compassion.

Zinn writes, “Behind every fact presented to the world—by a teacher, a writer, anyone—is a judgment.  The judgment that has been made is that this fact is important, and that other facts, omitted, are not important…  The consequences of those omissions has been not simply to give a distorted view of the past but, more important, to mislead us all about the present.

For instance, there is the issue of class.  It is pretended that, as in the Preamble to the Constitution, it is ‘we the people’ who wrote that document, rather than fifty-five privileged white males whose class interest required a strong central government.  That use of government for class purposes, to serve the needs of the wealthy and powerful, has continued throughout American history, down to the present day.  It is disguised by language that suggests all of us—rich and poor and middle class—have a common interest.”

It struck me as wonderful and ironic for my kid to be learning to deconstruct his own privilege in the midst of a private school education.  And then I got to a passage that I felt as if I could have written myself, so strongly did I agree with it:

“…what struck me as I began to study history was how nationalistic fervor—inculcated from childhood on by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing—permeated the education systems of all countries, including our own.  I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own.  Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, nor napalm on Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children, indeed our children.”

Zinn’s book is not a textbook.  Its facts could be disputed, yet he’s not trying to set the record straight so much as inspire us to participate.  That is why it’s a people’s history.

For example, as Zinn explains it, the native peoples who greeted Columbus, the Arawak, were incredibly generous and trusting.  The Spaniards thought they were gullible idiots; but perhaps they were enlightened and closer to a gift economy and to what is best in human beings.

To be generous is generally seen in our culture as a bit naïve, and possibly even idiotic; but perhaps generosity makes ungenerous people uncomfortable and ashamed—and then unconsciously triggered to attack.  How different is a kind person crucified by Romans from a kind Arawak tortured and killed by Christians?

To think of all kids as our children is a consciousness of love and generosity; the ramifications of such thinking, after war was ruled out, would be that good education for all would be ruled in.  Until and unless we have an educational expectation that ALL kids will be educated well and in an environment of safety, respect, encouragement, support and excellence, we do not live in one unified nation.  What I hope for from education is not just readiness for some job market, but rather that our kids might learn to question everything, question if our world is really working for them, much less the group, learn how to learn, how to think for themselves and to be empowered to re-construct a mis-constructed social order toward something more genuine and more generous (not as any moral stance, but as a path toward better and more connected lives, toward authentic happiness).

In our economy of attention (branding, marketing, seeking eyeballs and “followers”) we “spend” when we spend our time and our attention; attention is not free and when we direct our attention to our children we enrich them and help them know that they matter.

Following Zinn’s way of questioning, I raise the question as to why our nation (i.e. the stakeholders in the status quo) so devalues childcare and education?

As our eyes start to open, it becomes easy enough to see how the idea of “national interest” and “national security” might actually serve the needs of very few (i.e. those who profit from war and those who would not actually be thrilled if all kids went to the equivalent of Harvard and diluted the specialness of their elite branding).  What better way to measure what those in power truly value than to follow the money—billions for wars (to keep us safe, we’re told) and pennies on the dollar for kids.

But since even money is fast losing its value, we can spend our attention on what we believe matters, such as our collective children and the importance of truly educating them.  This is strangely powerful.  We are making our world by how we think about it; thus if we become more educated (meaning learning how to think about our lives and the group we influence by our intentions and attention), we become free (and that’s the last thing the rich and powerful want to happen—they’d rather we just keep trying to get rich on their terms).

A true educational system in a true democracy would serve ALL its members.  This we do not remotely have.  We don’t need to tear anything down—it’s collapsing under the weight of its own lies; rather we are well served to attend to what we believe matters, such as educating all children (and ignore Wall Street, Washington and stupid media and they will dry up and blow away soon enough, having run their course of usefulness or else change and become about what we, the people, actually care about).

A few months back, in the midst of the publishing business “changing” (like the Titanic “changed” during its final journey), I had a conference call with an editor at a large publishing house.  I had read in the paper that this company had recently bought a huge and prestigious building in Manhattan and were remodeling it.  I quipped to my agent, before the call, that all I wanted to do was get my book to people, not be burdened with helping to support construction costs in a narcissistic and obsolete trophy building.  My agent laughed, and also reminded me that such thinking would not help me pitch myself on our conference call.  I behaved (mostly) on the call, but on that call they talked about how Barnes & Noble was no longer accepting any general parenting books—only books by famous personalities, and books that were “diagnosis driven.”  That, I argued, was the complete opposite of my point of view:  the idea that so many things are wrong with our kids feeds a self-help industry (or “fed” as it is a dying industry) that was long-based, like our economy as a whole, on creating and exploiting fear.

My soul wish is to participate, not to lead, in the relinquishing of fear and desire. Consciousness is changing all around us—and the less of a stakeholder that you are in the current social order, the better things may turn out to be for you (even as the dominant media tells you that the sky is falling; the sky isn’t falling, merely the old social order).  I’m not clamoring to reach the masses, I’m reaching you and that’s quite enough for me.  And this means that if you believe that you are rich already, rich in what matters, if you believe that you are successful right now, for being an authentic and loving human being, then you are free—free to connect, to live, to love, to be here right now (rather than endlessly getting ready for a tomorrow that never quite arrives).  Today’s the day.  You care about all our kids and so do I; our consciousness carries this day; we are the change and our only real limitation is our limitation on what we can imagine—so imagine all kids being cared about and truly educated.

We don’t need to rush to big social action, that is very 20th century and that century set the stage for this time; we merely need to realize that we are the change and that our minds are free.  And if our minds are truly free, our bodies, our lives and our children will likely follow.

We may well be on the cusp of something the power elite have never really wanted:  liberty and justice for all.  We may, in fact, already possess it (and the change is mostly in the realization, the rising consciousness).  I realize that this sort of talk is not very “real” or “pragmatic” or “concrete,” but that is my point entirely:  the shift is mental, yet empires rise and fall on such soufflé-like foundations.

Talking and reading over the shoulder, as it were, with Nate on Howard Zinn inspired me to write this blog post.  This is an example of great teachers (Zinn, who taught at Spellman College, as well as Nate’s History teacher, who is a true gem) rippling real change into the consciousness of kids, which ripples to parents, and from me to you.

Later that night Nate asked me if I wanted to talk more about what I read, and so I stopped tapping away on my laptop, on this blog post, to chat with him as he drifted off toward sleep, the two of us exploring different nuances and avenues of the ideas pulsing with life between us—encouraging us both to live more fully and authentically and consciously (and breaking the mold of sullen teens freezing out obtuse parents).

I told Nate how I always think about the Native Americans who once camped on the very land where we now live, in between where two rivers meet (rivers now corralled into behaving via concrete riverbanks)—how I honor those native people in my heart and sense that not until we somehow come to terms, as a nation, with all those we killed to take this place will we truly be at peace, will we come into better harmony with the natural world that offers good lives but not endless restless expansion.  Perhaps we cannot undo the atrocities of the past, but can truly honor the spirit of our indigenous predecessors by making our own way toward the same truths of collectivity and harmony (with each other and with all nature) that sustained their vanished consciousness, a consciousness waiting to re-sprout from the same land on which it was mowed down—bursting to grow once again at the urging of millions of wise ghosts.

Zinn ends his afterward by quoting the poet Shelley, who women garment workers in New York recited more than a century ago in their bids for better treatment:

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquished number!

Shake your chains to earth, like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many; they are few!

So, let’s dedicate today to the truth that, together, we might hold as self-evident:  that all children are our collective children.  If we act accordingly, we add water and sunshine to the better world sprouting powerfully all around us—while those stakeholders who stand to lose in the bargain must themselves also be seen as our collective children—like the uptight banker/father who only becomes happy at the end of Mary Popins when going with his family to fly kites.

Your words, your deeds, your thoughts are powerful, vast and right now changing the world.  We’re making a new kind of history and the very notion that you actually know what I mean is very cool.  Trust this and do nothing well; and when you “do,” read with love, walk with love, nap with love, think with love… and watch the world change around you, as if by magic.

Namaste, Bruce


8 Responses to “History Lessons”

  1. mark Says:

    I think those 55 rich and powerful white men wrote an incredible document for their time, in fact, any time in the form of the constitution of this country. It was way out of the box considering how easy it would have been to pull a power grab back then for any number of reasons. They went out of their way to construct a government that should have limited central power and discouraged benefitting the few. The hundreds of millions of rags to riches stories in America as well as the choice to pursue non financial personal goals is a testament to that. It is only in modern times with the huge growth of the federal government that crony capitalism and shameful self serving back room deals have distorted the intent of those wise and powerful white men.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      That document, I agree, was an incredible and visionary map suffused with transcendent ideals and spirit. That our nation has not fully realized, nor followed, its own founding roadmap begs the question: what can we, the people, do in OUR TIME to truly follow and bring to life the spirit that was intended and envisioned by our founding “fathers,” AND honor the brilliance of the indigenous people who lived in harmony with nature rather than in dominion over it (even if they espoused equality of humans, what about the wisdom and inherent value in the natural world that sustains us)?

      Even if all people are created equal, all children are created utterly dependent—and thus we have a collective obligation, if we are to honor the very roots of our constitution, to take optimal care of all our collective children, even when their parents may falter or be limited by circumstances beyond their control.

      I’m mostly suggesting that out of the sinking ship of our long legacy of “crony capitalism” we really should put the children, our future, in the lifeboats.

      BTW, while I get your point, if there had actually been “hundreds of millions” of rags to riches stories, in a country of less than 300 million we would not have so many people without jobs, losing homes (if they had ever even been able to buy one in the first place). That, in my view, is the shadow of Horatio Alger—the perpetuation of the fiction that this place is wide open for anyone to become as rich as Bill Gates with some hard work. The truly rich are so far out of reach of the masses (and perhaps out of touch with them as well) that it is an insult to suggest to an underprivileged kid (like the many I have worked with, living in group homes, shunned by society as a whole) that simply “staying in school” and working hard will bring them anywhere near what the rich are handed upon arrival into their rich families.

      If education is a key, then we should at the very least give every child that key, and truly encourage them to make good use of it (not just with talk).

      Ultimately I think we are on the same page here, the question still hangs there for me: what can you and I do to truly help? My hope is that if we really keep thinking about this, and are sincere in our wish to leave our country better than we found it, then we are part of the solution.


  2. mark Says:

    Rich is and always has been a relative term. I was referring more as relative to the rest of the world,to the general standard of living that many can and do enjoy here in the U.S if they ‘stay in school” and work hard . I was not referring to “Bill Gates” riches even though they were earned in an entrepreneurial manner and not handed down to him. Should we continue to strive through education to make sure the playing field is as even as possible so one has a chance to achieve whatever degree of financial and spiritual riches one desires , absolutely. The road is MUCH harder for the kids from broken homes, poverty and group homes, but at least there is a road. I don’t think those kids benefit from a viewpoint that labels them hopeless victims of an inherently flawed system.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      While we agree that our society ought to provide as even of a playing field as possible, it seems we differ in our outlook about where our society stands on this. I don’t think labeling kids as “victims” helps, but the on the ground reality in many schools at present is reflected by crowded classrooms, cuts in arts programs, lack of books and teacher attrition (and cut-backs). I agree that “at least there is a road,” I guess I just see more pot-holes in it than you do (particularly when it comes to kids who are not particularly gifted and are prone to become discouraged and drop out).

      I also do not necessarily see our system as inherently flawed but rather our execution of that original vision. You’re right to challenge my negativity—and can-do optimism is one of America’s strengths. Still, neither of us would say everything is hunky dory… the real question remains as to what would help us come together across points of view to better support all our collective kids (which might also nourish some of the widespread malaise I see amongst the worried well, the worried well-off).


  3. Kate Says:

    Fascinating post.
    Just to add to the discussion: In Columbus’ notes on his journeys, he vascilates between seeing the native people as a resource to use (to abuse) and as humans to convert. It is a deeply troubling dichotomy.

    The Ecological Indian is an interesting book which calls into question the idea that Natovr Americans were perfect stewards of the resources of the land. I do think that we live too far removed from the consequences of our actions on the land, and that there is much to be learned from more grounded peoples. However, idealizing anything doesn’t honor it.

    My days are filled with the love and care of my children, it is a devalued gift. But one I deeply enjoy. If we saw others and thought of our kin, what would history look like? But how can we drive past suffering, how can we see hunger without offering food? Changing our minds is the start. Our minds are where it all starts.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Kate, thanks for these comments. I completely agree with you that idealizing is never a good way to view anyone or anything, and you’re right to steer me back toward center. I am aware that Native Americans were human and thus far from perfect, and yet I’m with you in sensing that we can learn a thing or two from “grounded peoples” everywhere—people historically all-too-quickly dismissed (and brutalized) as “less than” for being different.

      I’m also with you on the notion that changing our consciousness is a valid way to change both our experience in the world, and the world itself.

      Here’s to open minds, compassion and learning together.

  4. Katrina Kenison Says:

    Don’t you love it when your kids lead YOU to a book? A couple of years ago, my son Jack had decided that he “hated” to read. He gave it up, entirely. This summer, as if by magic, he began again all on his own — Slaughterhouse Five, Animal Farm, 1984, Crime and Punishment. . . . He’s been telling me that I need to read 1984 again so we can talk about it. You’ve inspired me to veer from my current memoir obsession and join Jack for a while. Great post. Gotta love Howard Zinn!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I love how often it turns out that it is our children who are teaching us, helping us to evolve… maybe in a way we’re all each other’s children, sharing enthusiasms and working our way to some vast uncrowded middle where we discover that what we were after we somehow had all along. Namaste

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