Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Luke, I Am Your Father

One of the most iconic moments in pop culture is this: 
Darth Vader, breathing heavily (loudly) and uncomfortably confessing, “No, I am your father”

Of course he is Luke’s father. The next few Star Wars movies are built around that premise.

But that was a HECK of a bomb to drop on Luke (and the millions in the audiences around the world) at the time.

We forget how absolutely SHOCKING that was in 1980. We forget how audiences had hated him as the ultimate enemy through two and a half movies (and three actual years).  With those four words, Darth Vader went from a stereotypical villain to a three-dimensional, complicated human being.

Well,  I haven’t seen the new Star Wars movie yet. My vacation was ridiculously busy and I need to find a babysitter.

But I think about Darth Vader and the enormity of that one line -- both in the Star Wars franchise and in pop culture in general. How when we know the end of the story, like we do in 2016, everything is predictable. For those of us who watch it NOW, of course Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Of course! that explains so much.

When we know the ending, the story seems predictable, almost destined, inevitable.

But Darth Vader is not really that simple.

Neither is most of history.

We tend to teach history like readers who skipped to the final pages of the novel (Full disclosure: I’m totally guilty of this on occasions). When we know “whodunit” in the mystery, we can see all the clues light up before us to create an obvious path to the “right answer”.

But when we live our lives and make our decisions, we don’t know how it is going to turn out.

When people in history lived their lives and made their decisions, they didn’t know how it was going to turn out either.

The National Standards for History (which are optional standards not adopted in Florida but are good for pondering...) say this:
"The student is able to challenge arguments of historical inevitability by formulating examples of historical contingency, of how different choices could have led to different consequences."

What many kids get out of textbooks is what I get when I flip to the end of the novel to find out the ending. We lose what author Philip Roth calles "the sense of inevitibility".

My favorite SS blogger, Glenn Wiebe asked, "Do we know what's going to happen ... in middle eastern countires? Will China actually become a superpower? In the moment, no one really knows what's going to happen but we teach history as if what actually happened was 'inevitible' ... Roth says that 'the terror of the unseen is what the science of history hides'. We lose the 'unseen' when we don't ask good questions and don't encourage kids to solve interesting problems.

If a few things had been different, maybe the US would not have won its independence from Britain. Maybe slavery would have ended earlier or the Civil War would have been different. Maybe WWI could have been avoided. Maybe different people would have won different elections and made different choices.

Not everything in history was predestined. History happened because of both decisions and indecision, because of both human effort and human mistake, because of both chance and calculations.

To every action is a reaction. From every cause is an effect, intended or unintended.

History is not (and was not) inevitable.

Teach your students to not assume that every moment in history was part of one unbroken line that was destined to be that way.

Teach your students about the decisions and indecisions that real people made in history and how those things impacted the towns, countries, and world in which they lived.

Then, teach them that their choices, too, impact the world in which THEY live. Their words, their actions, their votes impact their world as much as the actions, words, and votes of people in the past did.

There’s power in knowing that the world is not destined to be a certain way and that we can influence it.

Use the idea of historical inevitability to engage your students about the past AND the present. Use the idea of historical inevitibility to raise "big" questions and to get students thinking.

The world isn't always predictable. Darth Vader certainly wasn't.

Do you teach about historical inevitability? Or do you “skip to the end of the book” and teach the ending first? Can you find the Franz Ferdinand trivia in this email? How do YOU teach about historical inevitability and human choice? Can you imagine a world in which we DIDN’T all know that Darth Vader was Luke’s father? What did you think of the new Star Wars movie?

As always, I love to hear from you! email me at


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