Teaching U.S. history is sometimes a satisfying experience, never more so when you find a hook that works and you see in the eyes of the students a dawning recognition that the past was a freaking nasty place. Patriotism being what it is these days, an insidious virus of banality and acquiescence to the lowest common denominator, there's a fair amount of pushback built into every survey class like the one I teach, and that makes for a few openly confrontational students who have swallowed the Fox News mind pill and inserted the Bill O'Reilly American Imperium celebratory butt plug. Actually I sort of relish their agitprop, and their squinty W-esque smugness.
Regardless, the hardest thing to do, sort of a natural impossibility I believe, is to get modern Americans to empathize with their proto-modern ancestors who lived in a world of raw indignity and injustice. Last night I took a wild run at trying to get them to conceptualize Progressive Era capitalism as an oddity as equivalent to their lived experience in the modern economy as lynching seems to their racial mentality. After a lovely description of an actual lynching, spiced up with a dollop of feminist irony (the first woman Senator in history, Rebecca Latimer Felton, was an advocate of the practice) I suggested that the fear and loathing they were experiencing was an appropriate emotion in its distance to their understanding of early capitalism. Sure, I could suggest they read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle but this turned into a irresistible shortcut. Finishing the demonstration with a tangential shift into globalization and the exporting of our dirtiest economic exploitations offshore (did slave labor make your shirt or put that diamond on your finger?) you could fairly see the clicking go off in brain after brain, that dawning recognition that makes teaching worth the effort. And as the cynic, actually the sharpest knife in the drawer, went for the bait and was hooked too by the realization that yes indeed, the working life of the working stiff in the past was a capital lynching indeed I could afford myself one clean breath for having not wasted their time on a cool night in History 110.