2019: A World on the Margins
- What is the difference between history, prehistory, and historiography?
- Who decides what history is taught in school?
- Do all history books tell the same story? If not, what leads them to tell different stories? Do these stories ever contradict one another?
- Do you learn the same history that your parents learned in school? If not, why and how has it changed?
- Along these lines, explore the concept of historical revisionism. Discuss with your team: are some reasons for “revising” history better than others? What are common criticisms of revisionism?
- Are there episodes in your country’s past that are not frequently taught?
- Are there episodes in your country’s past that you would prefer not be taught, or that you believe should be taught differently?
- Is the idea of “history” biased against cultures and groups of people that keep fewer written records? If so, how can historians tell their stories?
- What matters more: the history of people who needed help, or the history of the people who helped them?
- What do you think historians will write about the year 2019 a hundred years from now? Are there groups of people you think they will neglect?
- When everyone around you chooses to believe in a story that contradicts what you have learned about the past, should you contradict them, stay quiet, or do your best to find common ground? What if “everyone” includes your history teacher—or your parents?
- Is it more important to study the history of one person who made decisions that affected a million people—or of the million people whom those decisions affected?
Investigate historical debates on what it means to be a child
- A question to consider: are children omitted from so many histories because they did not matter as much as adults—or because they did not have the chance to speak as loudly?
- “Being” versus “Becoming”: Explore the thoughts of Aristotle, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the nature of childhood. Which philosopher do you think has had the most impact on how we think about childhood today?
- Consider the work of Phillipe Aries, who argued in Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life that the modern notion of childhood was “invented” in the 17th century. What evidence does he use to back his claims, and what are some criticisms of his work? Discuss with your team: does childhood need to be reinvented in the 21st century?
- The idea of “teenagers” as a special group between children and adults emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. Discuss with your team: is the concept of teenagers one that took too long to come about? Is it already outdated? Would you agree, as this article suggests, that the United States invented teenagers?
What would it be like to be a child in or among (examples)...
- Ancient Egypt | medieval Europe | colonial America | 19th century England
- Dynastic China | the !Kung | the Yanomami | Sparta
Going to Schools
- Where and when did the first schools dedicated to the education of children come about in different parts of the world?
- Where and when did governments first offer public education?
- When did the first “boarding” schools emerge?
- Explore historical alternatives to schools, including tutors and apprenticeships. Discuss with your team: do these alternatives still have a place in the world today? If a child asked to become an apprentice to a computer programmer rather than attend school, would that be okay?
- Where and when were the earliest academic competitions? Is the concept of “extracurriculars” something that only came about in the 20th century?
A History of Orphans
- Explore the historical treatment of orphans around the world, from ancient Greece to the 21st century. Discuss with your team: if you had to be an orphan in the past, where and when would you most want to be? Least?
- Consider the Nigerian proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”. Are there societies in which children are routinely raised in group settings? Discuss with your team: does mainstream society overemphasize the importance of parents raising their own children?
- Some orphans still have one or two living parents. Discuss with your team: under what circumstances would it be appropriate to separate a child from his or her parents? Do different societies answer this question differently?
- Research “the Stolen Generations”—a time in Australian history when indigenous children were taken from their families to assimilate them into “white” culture. Australia’s government has apologized for these policies. The Canadian government has issued a similar apology for a similar policy. Discuss with your team: is it ever possible to make adequate amends for the mistakes of past generations? Are there other countries that have followed similar policies but have yet to apologize—and does it matter if the policies were official or unofficial?
- Many people assume orphanages are bad, but others argue that they are the best solution for children in need. Skim this positive perspective on orphanages, then discuss with your team: what would the perfect modern orphanage look like?
- Learn more about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. What led to its passage, and is it being upheld in your own country? Are there other UN Conventions that you believe still need to be created and signed—for instance, a UN Convention on the Rights of Online Gamers?
Rites of Passage
- Explore different rites of passage for children to adulthood, today and in the past. How different are they across cultures and across history? Are they less important today than they used to be?
- Rites to research (examples):
- kahs-wan | sweet sixteens | krypteia | quinceañera
- guan li/ji li | seijin shiki | chudakarana | “vision quests”
- okuyi | bar/bat mitzvah | first car | walkabout
- Discuss with your team: do rites of passage create an artificial divide between childhood and adulthood, or are they important for helping children find their place in the adult world?
- If you could design a rite of passage for our world today, what would it be?
Additional Discussion Questions
- How does a child’s gender, race, nationality, or class affect his or her experience of childhood? Are there some cases in which it is good for children to mature quickly and to skip ahead to adolescence and adulthood?
- For much of history and even today in many places, poor and working-class children have been expected to work. Discuss with your team: should children be economic assets for their families? Do they have a debt to their parents—and, if so, is that debt different now than it would have been a hundred years ago? Is it child labor if kids become famous on YouTube or other social media platforms?
- Should histories of childhood (and thinking about childhood in general) focus more on unconventional childhoods—for instance, the experience of those with physical disabilities or developmental differences?
- Research the modern use of the word “adulting”. Discuss with your team: what does it suggest about childhood and adulthood today?
- Every so often, a child has found himself or herself in a position of great power: King Tut, Joffrey, Puyi, Ivan the Terrible, King Oyo, and many others. Have such children shown themselves to be resilient in the face of the challenges of leadership? Have they been subject to exploitation?
The Stories of Those Who Serve
- Adam Smith is one of the most important economists of all time. But who was cooking his dinner? Henry David Thoreau retreated to Walden to become self-sufficient—but his mother still did his laundry. Batman has had myriad Robins, but only one Pennyworth. To what degree should we study those individuals (frequently women) who supported the individuals (frequently men) most featured in our textbooks?
- Explore the history of domestic labor in (examples)…
- Colonial India | Latin America | Pre- and Post-World War Britain
- South Africa | the United States | Indonesia
- Historical and Modern Institutions (examples):
- au pairs | nannies | butlers | amahs
- ayahs | governesses | house girls
- house elves | housewife vs. stay-at-home mother
- Discussion Questions
- In a 2011 speech, American comedian Amy Poehler thanked the nannies who care for her children and those of other working women. Discuss with your team: is domestic help common in your country? If so, is it a sufficiently regulated industry?
- In many countries, domestic workers are migrants from poorer countries. Does this migration represent an economic opportunity for the migrant workers, or are they being misled into jobs that shortchange them?
- In the 1970s, some feminists around the world argued that women should be paid for housework. Explore the history of the “Wages for Housework” campaign. Discuss with your team: should homemakers be paid—and, if so, by whom?
- Read this article about a school for butlers and discuss with your team: would butlers in modern society play a different role than in the past? If so, does the same apply to other kinds of domestic help? Was there a “golden age” for servants?
- Explore the history of slavery around the world. Questions to consider: how and when did the institution of slavery begin in each of these regions? When, why, and how did it end—or did it?
- the Americas | sub-Saharan Africa | the Russian Empire
- ancient Greece and Rome | the ancient Near East and Egypt
- Dynastic China | the ancient Middle East | Haiti
- Types of Slavery
- chattel slavery | indentured servitude | debt bondage
- forced labor | pawnship | slaves vs. enslaved people
- domestic slavery | military slavery
- Research enslaved people who rose to fame and/or power. Below are some examples. Did they find their way to success despite their subjugated origins, or because of them?
- Harriet Tubman | Aesop | Bilal ibn Rabah | Epictetus | Jean-Jacques Dessalines
- Juan Latino | Leo Africanus | Miguel de Cervantes | Ng Akew | Qutb-ud-din Aibak
- Spartacus | Toussaint L’Ouverture | Olaudah Equiano
- Discussion Questions
- Historically, many industrial workers lived in “factory villages” which kept them close to their work and in which they might even be pressured to spend their earnings at company-operated shops. Discuss with your team: would this situation be comparable to slavery, or would such a comparison be going a step too far? How about the lives of workers who live in modern-day factory towns, or who work in industrial agriculture? How about cruise ship workers?
- Should countries make reparations to the descendants of past slaves? If so, should future generations similarly compensate the descendants of other groups who have faced systematic socioeconomic limitations—such as women who were underpaid?
- Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. Why do you think it took longer than its neighbors? Was the pressure to end slavery gradual or sudden, and internal or external? How did society adjust afterward? Discuss with your team: what can we learn from the experience of Brazil about the government’s role in changing long-time institutions?
- In some parts of the world, slaves were treated as low-ranking family members or could earn their freedom after a set period. People could sometimes even enter slavery by choice. Discuss with your team: under what circumstances might someone choose to be enslaved? Should people be allowed to enslave themselves?
The Poor: Perspectives and Prospects
- A question to consider: what does it mean to be poor? Do we use the term too loosely, and has its meaning changed over time?
- Explore the difference between relative and absolute poverty. Discuss with your team: If you live in a society in which everyone has a smartphone and you can only afford a flip phone, are you poor?
- Consider the commonly repeated trope that poor people lead happier, simpler lives. Discuss with your team: is this just a myth? If so, what purpose does it serve? If not, should more people try to be poor?
- Industrialization is commonly seen as a path to economic development, but many historians argue that it can create a new class of urban poor. What has been the impact of industrialization on poverty and wealth in your own country?
- Consider the historical factors affecting poverty. Of the following, which do you think have the greatest impact?
- climate | health and disease | agriculture | natural resources
- access to food and water | education | poverty cycle | geography
- Explore the history of poverty in each of the following countries. Which of these countries has seen the great reduction in poverty—and is it a model that other countries could follow? Which ones are the poorest countries in their regions?
- Nigeria | the Congo | India | China | the United States
- Mexico | Norway | Ireland | Haiti | the Soviet Union
- Consider some of the following strategies for battling poverty in different parts of the world. Have some proven more effective than others?
- population control | welfare | dole
- minimum wage laws | food stamps
- donation | tithe | alms | zakat | harambee
- dāna | ukusisa & ukwenana | tzedaka
Case Studies in Poverty and Philanthropy
- Look into the English Poor Laws. What inspired them, and were they effective? Do you and your team find any aspects of them objectionable - and is there anything in them that you would want to see implemented more widely today?
- Consider the common saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Discuss with your team: how true is this statement? Does it make too many assumptions about the supply of fish?
- Along the lines, the poor are especially susceptible to the consequences of drought and famine. Consider the circumstances of some of the deadliest famines in recorded history, then discuss with your team: if you had to choose between teaching people how to fish and teaching them how to read, which would make the most sense?
- One historian at Duke University has argued that the experience of the Ottoman Empire teaches us that when the courts protect a group of individuals from the consequences of business mistakes—whether the elite or the poor—that group’s economic prospects can suffer, because no one will want to loan them money. Discuss with your team: do you agree with this argument? Should there be special protections for anyone in an economy, or do they inevitably backfire?
- Some people believe that governments should help the poor; others argue that we should turn to philanthropy and private charity. Discuss with your team: who is most responsible for looking out for the well-being of those in need?
- Consider some of the world’s best-known historical philanthropists, from Andrew Carnegie to Cornelius Vanderbilt. Critics would argue that their philanthropy, like that of individuals such as Bill and Melinda Gates today, is inherently undemocratic, as it over-empowers wealthy individuals who can invest huge resources to pursue their own agendas. Discuss with your team: should the government (or a coalition of governments) take a more active role in administering privately funded charities?
- Check out the Free Rice initiative, then discuss with your team: is adding a game-playing element to this donation program a good strategy for increasing engagement, or should the United Nations Food Program simply be donating all the rice they can at any given time?
- Four Americans were recently sentenced to prison as a result of their leaving food and water for migrants in a protected wildlife refuge. Discuss with your team: should they have been allowed to go free because of their motives? Should the laws ever limit or regulate charitable giving?
- Does the value of a charitable act or donation depend on the motive of the person (or persons) behind it? Are anonymous donations more virtuous than those for which people take credit? Explore some of the many writings on this topic, including the linked piece by the ethicist Peter Singer, and then decide with your team: would you turn down a donation from someone who had earned their money in ethically questionable ways? If so, would you refuse to accept an anonymous donation unless you knew its source?
- Who lives, who dies, who rewrites the story? Spend time with your team researching instances when some would argue that history has been (or should be) "rewritten" to erase - or promote - the struggles and achievements of certain people or peoples. Are some reasons for rewriting history better than others? In looking at the past, who should be the ultimate arbiter of what really happened and who really mattered? Below are some examples to help launch your exploration.
- The simple story is that Rome fell to the "barbarians". But who were the "barbarians" - why were they named that, and by whom? Is it what they called themselves - and, if not, what did they call themselves? Can you think of any times when a group has embraced a label you might have expected it to reject?
- Published in 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States retold American history through the lens of those whose voices had been left out of standard textbooks: indigenous populations, women, enslaved people, and immigrants. Research the history of this book to understand what has made it so controversial. Then, discuss with your team: does your nation’s history need a similar retelling? Is it possible for such efforts to go too far?
- Sometimes, a large event can be lost in the shadow of even larger one. Such was the case of the Spanish Flu, which occurred after World War I and may have killed even more people. Are our methods of recording history to blame for this mass forgetting? Can you imagine any overlooked events today gaining more recognition over time?
- In recent decades, there has been a backlash in some regions against what critics call “politically correct” language. Explore the history of this phrase, then discuss with your team: is it ever all right to use language that might demean or offend groups of people? If so, what should the standard be for acceptable versus unacceptable language?
- Consider the story of someone who may have helped prevent the end of the world. What leads some important people (and moments in history) to be less widely known than others?
- They may not have saved the world, but they helped make a difference in it: read through these stories of lesser recognized co-founders of famous companies. Why are Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates household names while Eduardo Saverin and Paul Allen aren't? Is it usually a case of one co-founder ultimately earning (or wanting) most of the credit, or are there larger social forces at work?