Pedagogica: Reading history & fluid identity

Currently I am reviewing a book on Northern, Central and Eastern Europe – you'll read about it here shortly. Various chapters address the history of the countries in these regions from their beginnings through contemporary times. In setting these historical accounts side-by-side, I had a deepening insight about my mind's management of nations and national identities that I would like to share and discuss here.

What do you hear, listen to, if I simply say the word "Poland"? Or, "Russia"? Or do you hear anything at all when I say "Estonia"? Taking Poland as an example, over the ages it has been a once great empire, it has also vanished from the map for many years, and now has reemerged as a economic powerhouse in its part of Europe. So the question becomes, what lives in your mental frame and in mine when we speak its name? What is the frame of reference that you and I use to contain it? Where is it in time and in our experience of it? Just as we have become concerned recently about the bias that our frames may contain about individuals on the basis of their gender, ethnic background, etc., are we not not likely, when reading history, to pose our current frame in an anachronistic way?

So it seems to me that the reading of history, (perhaps of any subject) is all about bending and breaking the frames we have and reframing in the light of learning, and that this is a continuous process, though at various special moments it may seem like a breakthrough.

I'm reminded of an insight once shared with me by Fernando Flores about how breakdowns become breakthroughs. The metaphor he used was that of a competition sailing boat. In preparation for a great cup race the crew puts the vessel through its endurance tests to the extreme point where something breaks or breaks down. The breakdown becomes the opportunity to examine the structure and use of the element that has failed and, discovering just how that happened, one can redesign and rebuild and benefit from the improvements. In other words, we should grow to love breakdowns as beckoning opportunities rather than failures, whether we're talking about racing gear or learning challenges. Unlike the racing yacht, however, our inadequate mental frames are unlikely to show obvious wear and tear, and breakdown may occur only when we are challenged, sense dissonance, or make the effort to seek and find new information.

I have noted elsewhere that the concept of "unconscious bias" is problematic because how it is used often tends to imply a moral deficiency of sorts. Understanding how our human process of thinking and learning takes place, we should realize now that a limited or insensitive frame is normal, but when recognized or identified challenges us to exercise reflection and curiosity to learn more. It is not a moment for blame but as an opportunity to progress. It's time to grow, whether in our comprehension of the complexity of history or in grasping more fully the richness of others.


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