My Escalator Theory of History

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Some of my former students might remember my analogy of history being like a down escalator and societies/civilizations are striving to get to the top. Therefore, they need to run up the down escalator. Let me provide some background on how this theory developed.

For a number of years, I took 9th graders to Washington DC for a week, and while our days were easily packed with things to do, night time in our nation’s capital with fourteen-year-olds was a challenge. Time between dinner and bedtime spent only in hotel rooms was never productive and could lead to situations requiring discipline. It took some creative thinking to fill those hours.

 One night was always spent at a food court away from the hotel, which meant taking the metro back. Leaving the metro platform and returning to the Mall level meant taking the escalator to the surface and there were always two escalators going down at our station. In a fit of desperation and a desire to eat up time, I challenged them to race up the down escalators. At that time of night, we were the only ones at the station. And almost every one of them took part in the challenge and ran up while the steps were going down.

I very quickly realized that unless they stepped off the escalator, but only did their “happy ‘cause I am the winner dance” on the top step, they were soon drifting downward. From this came my theory.

The down escalator is time.

And as a society, we must keep moving forward, keep striving upward, or we will begin to fall back. Historically, when any civilization says, “I have it all. I am the perfect society,” they begin to slip behind. When they stop embracing change and want to freeze their world as it is, others will surpass them.

History is the story of change, and to be honest, change can be uncomfortable. I have heard it said that the only person who wants change is a wet baby, which is perhaps an over simplification, but has some validity.

What is happening in so many places today in education is a movement to try to stop change, to stop ideas. Yes, some ideas are uncomfortable. But discomfort is ok. Would a runner or other athlete ever improve if not pushed into a bit of discomfort during practices or even the actual events?

It bothers me that people who might castigate countries who manage their citizens through control of the media, are the same people who are trying to regulate what can be taught in schools and who are seeking to punish teachers who dare to share uncomfortable ideas with students. A group in one state in the US has a $500 reward for anyone reporting such a teacher.

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Schools are meant to educate, which means to lead forth. Yes, basic math is important, as is the ability to read. But if a child can only read certain books with certain ideas, how will that child grow? That child, those children, will be frozen on the down escalator. Teachers need to expose children to a variety of ideas and teach them the critical thinking skills necessary to approach new ideas.

No, that does not mean that history teachers must present opposing views on all topics. The Holocaust was a bad event—there is no upside, unless we learn from it and prevent another from happening, but in the 75 years since World War II ended, many mini-holocausts have occurred. So no lessons learned.

I fear for the state of much of American education. I fear that non-professionals, in an effort to keep controversy out of the classroom, are so sanitizing our curriculums that our students will not learn and grow. Yes, we need to acknowledge what we have accomplished as a country, but we also must admit there is more to do.

Unless all viewpoints are represented, how can we make a decision? No trial just presents the defense case or the prosecution case, and at times, I think we need to have a third viewpoint, that of society. I once was involved as a teacher in a child custody case and spoke for the child—not as the mother or the father, both of whom loved their child—but as the teacher who saw the impact of both parents on the child. I was that third or maybe even the fourth voice, since the child was also questioned.

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As our children become the adults in charge, will they be content with how things are in this country. Will they cease to create a more perfect union since they have been taught that all is perfect? If so, we will slip further and further down on that escalator of history.

We need our teachers to be free to teach without fear of retribution or punishment. If we don’t allow freedom in the classroom, we will have no teachers of quality left in our schools as we create a nation of people who are limited in their thinking and world view.

We need to embrace the challenge of running up the down escalator.