Teaching Perseverance Through Adversity-A History Lesson
by Lawrence F. Roberge M.S.
Editors note: Mr. Roberge resides and teaches in Middletown, NY-60 miles from the World Trade Center Ground Zero.
I recently had a discussion with a colleague that reminded me of a lesson in perspective. Under the present shadow of the September 11th terrorism as well as the discord aroused from the news of bioterrorism, I was wondering out loud whether our nation would have the resolve to handle this crisis. And then, a more senior colleague, reminded me (and chided me a little) of our nation's history at handling crisis, conflict, and adversity during the Cold War era. After a moment of reflection, several other historical examples came to my mind during the 1930's, 1940's, 1970's, etc.
Since that brief exchange, I have made it a quiet mission to help settle the fears of my students by reminding them of this nation's historical examples of "Perseverance through Adversity". After a while, I have even challenged some of my students to seek out and inquire from their parents and grandparents (or other senior citizens) how they had weathered those trying days in our nation's history. It is my hope that from their example, my students may gain not only their own steely resolve to face these modern threats and fears, but also to remember the history of this great nation, and the perseverance that was required during those adverse times.
Lately, I have discussed in my classes the effects and threats of bioterrorism. Yet, I am reminded that the effects of these weapons are not merely the diseases themselves. Rather, than just the fear of the ailment, it is the sheer terror inflicted on the population that such weapons could be used on them without warning. Since this technology is not easily understood, nor easily controlled; many individuals will have a sense of fear because this threat is well beyond their control or understanding.
This is precisely how others in history felt as well. They had no control over certain forces, threats, or enemies; nonetheless, they persevered despite the adversity of their times. What is taught in the history of today can not always describe the real human stories of endurance under the events of the past. From these stories of endurance can come lessons for future generations with their own struggles. As if to paraphrase Santa Ana, "Those who learn from history, tend to be strengthened by it."
The History Lessons
When I think of my own grandparents and parents, I am first reminded of the Great Depression. The time from 1929 through 1939 when the US economy was in shambles (as were the economies of the rest of the world). The unemployment rate in 1929 was at 25%, but by 1933 rose to 33% (one out of three people out of work!). The newsreels of the 1930's portrayed long lines at the soup kitchens, desperate faces of the unemployed, and sad stories of displaced farmers losing their farms. Some Americans struggled by selling apples on city street corners, while others watched the "Dust Bowl" of the Midwest erode away tons of topsoil. Many people learned to live with little and survive on merger income (for those who did have work). Some lived with the constant presence of hunger; others with the constant threat of starvation. Even with the New Deal of the Roosevelt Administration, the US economy was not completely recovered until the 1940's.
Which brings me to the adversity of the United States during World War II. The US faced an enemy (the Axis powers) on two fronts. America fought a two-ocean war. Overnight, Americans sacrificed under the milieu of air raid drills, food rationing, gas rationing, and war time production. Many Americans feared invasion from the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, while many other Americans buried sons who died on battlefields half a world away. Yet through it all, Americans sacrificed, labored, and struggled for the cause of freedom. With new technologies like radar and antibiotics as well as rapid industrial production of war materials and new weapons; Americans endured and persevered to see victory in 1945. At wars end, a new technology, borne from advanced physics, ended one war, yet heralded a threat of an even greater war to come.
With the onset of the Cold War, Americans faced a greater challenge. Instead of an enemy faced on a certain battlefield, they faced an enemy half a world away with the technology to obliterate entire cities. As Americans traveled through the 1950's, the challenges of food and gas rationing were replaced with the need for bomb shelters and "duck and cover" training (such training even occurred in school classrooms across the country!). The fear and uncertainty of nuclear annihilation culminated with the "Cuban Missile Crisis" where many Americans on the East Coast prepared for Soviet nuclear attacks. Yet, throughout all of these uncertain times, Americans persevered under the threat of nuclear warfare and World War III. Technologies, like the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line, spy planes, spy satellites, and ballistic missiles, were developed to detect, warn and defend against nuclear sneak attacks. The Cold War eventually ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the close of the 1980's.
In the 1970's, Americans faced a different series of crises. Although some remember the 1970's as a period of disco and Watergate, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 bore global fruits that eventually awoke Americans to the problem of foreign energy dependence. In the years following 1973, Americans lived with the effects of the energy crisis by suffering with gas lines, fuel shortages, inflation spurred by petroleum price spikes, and the economic disruption aptly called "stag-flation". Though out this period, Americans underwent fuel and transportation shortages, unemployment, and even geo-political turmoil (culminating with the Iranian hostage crisis). Yet, Americans did not become numb from these challenges. They like many Americans of past generations persevered in the midst of adversity. Some by inventing new strategies of energy conservation; while others created new technologies for energy production.
In light of the threats against Americans by terrorists as well as the unseen threat of bioterrorism, students may ask, "Can we persevere under this new adversity?" My response to many students is simply, "As your parents, grandparents, and even forefathers did; Yes! We just will!"
During many times of past adversity, people worked together and shared the knowledge to understand the threat as well as understand what sacrifices must be made. Knowledge. A wonderful tool. That is what education is about. We, the educators, pass on knowledge so that our students will be empowered to affect their world, to measure the threats, and to act in ways to meet the challenge of these threats. One of my favorite mantras that I pass onto my students is, "Knowledge is power!"
The knowledge of the past provides the student with not merely a factual compendium of dates and events. Instead with the proper instruction, the history of the past becomes the tools of motivation for the challenges of the present. In understanding the vast threats of the past, one need not surrender in the face of these present day threats with a sense of smallness and utter futility. Rather, like their parents and grandparents with previous threats; today's students will comprehend that the present day adversities are measured not only by the threats presented to them, but by how this generation rises to persevere amidst them.
Finally, another tool that is required as part of this lesson is to understand the history of how past generations used technology during these challenges. The creative genius borne in the crucible of adversity has helped many Americans to overcome tough times. As the old saying goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention". Whether it was the developments of radar, penicillin, satellites, new energy sources, or other technologies; technology has always been an important tool to help many people persevere during adversity.
Although students can be instructed on technology's role in the perseverance of past challenges, it can not stop there. Today's teachers-either the social studies OR science teachers-can develop these lessons under the strategy of examining the effects of science on society. Teachers can demonstrate how existing and new technologies can buttress our country's capacity to persevere in the midst of present day threats. Teachers can discuss how an array of vaccines, antibiotics, military satellites, diagnostic kits, decontamination techniques, and other technologies play a vital role in dealing with the threats from terrorism or biological weapons. As a result, students can understand how the present technologies and the creative energies of many scientists and engineers can help overcome the present adversities.
We as educators face a turbulent time. For our students, most (if not all) have had no previous experience with adverse times. Yet as educators, it is up to us to teach our students the challenges of the past; to describe the perseverance by Americans under previous adversities; and hopefully, inspire our students to persevere under the present challenges with courage, ingenuity, and confidence.
COPYRIGHT 2002: LAWRENCE F. ROBERGE