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Let the Past Inform Our Understanding of the Present

Part of my job as a professor of history is to help students draw links between the past and present. This semester in particular, it has been easy to see the parallels between current events and our not-so-distant past. In the wake of the Paris bombings, my French history students needed no prompting to make comparisons between the Revolutionary government's abrogation of civil liberties and due process when threatened by war and counterrevolution and present legislation and emergency decrees designed to protect countries from terrorism. In my German history seminar, students soberly discussed Saul Friedländer's account of the expulsion of 27,000 Czech Jews from Austria in 1938 through the eyes of a gleeful Hermann Göring. It was impossible not to conjure up images of Syrian refugees trying to find a European country that would accept them as we read about the Jewish refugees setting up makeshift camps in the no-man's land between Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia. 

Christine Adams

In light of recent horrific attacks in Beirut, Paris, Bamako, and now San Bernadino, Calif., we have discussed calls for the United States to halt its refugee program, as well as the unwillingness of state governors to accept Syrian refugees. As presidential candidates suggest that we close mosques, create a database of Muslims, and limit our acceptance of refugees to Christians, my students have drawn links to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, as well as our own country's willingness to turn away Jewish refugees in 1939 and later. My students, who entered grade school at the time of the 9/11 attacks, have grown up in a dangerous world, but their study of the past sensitizes them to the ugliness of victim-blaming and xenophobia. At the same time, this has allowed them to empathize with the fears that past generations have faced. 

I want to make a plug for my discipline and for the liberal arts in general here. A citizenry trained in the liberal arts is a citizenry that at least questions the intolerant and ahistorical policies that seem ascendant today. Students are eager to discuss and to bring their analysis of the past to bear on the complicated events of the present. It is our obligation as professors to foster these discussions. At a time when state governments are less willing to support higher education and the humanities are under attack by politicians who believe that we need, as Marco Rubio put it,  "more welders and [fewer] philosophers," the broad-based liberal arts education that helps young people develop the tools to think critically, evaluate evidence, and to bring a humanitarian approach to the problems of the modern world has become harder to access. 

My students are well aware of the links between current events and the past. They know that there are no easy answers to current problems. They know that we cannot sacrifice our humanity at the altar of a security that can never be perfectly achieved. They do not want future generations to read about them and condemn them as we condemn those who in the past behaved with a clear lack of moral courage. 

Christine Adams is professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

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