Gaining a Little Perspective

by Editors

Gaining a Little Perspective

By Sarah Katherine Mergel, contributing writer

About a month and a half ago, a friend told me about her son’s experiment to gain a broader perspective of the world around him. He had decided to stop speaking for ten days. He communicated only through a dry erase board and through email or text messages. I weighed the idea of not speaking for maybe fifteen seconds but it seemed particularly unrealistic for me. As a college student, this solution might work. However, I assumed my students might find it odd if I stopped talking. The experiment nevertheless got me thinking about how I could increase my awareness while still trying to keep up with my research, writing, and teaching.

I came up with a three part strategy. One, I perused a magazine that challenged me politically in addition to my regular fare. Two, I read an article that was outside my comfort zone or area of expertise. Finally, I learned something about the past that relates to current events. For some of you, something along these lines has already made its way into your regular routine. The key for me was to find the time to do what I had planned. And happily, I did.

Admittedly, I chuckled through some of the articles in the magazine from the other side of the political spectrum. Although, I did learn more about the U.S. strategy for fighting the Iraq War and the growing antiwar movement. I also picked up some useful information on urban demographics and race. None of what I gleaned will change my political conviction, but I gained a better appreciation of what people on both sides of the issue are saying.

Then I read a fascinating article, Steven Mailloux’s “Thinking with Rhetorical Figures: Performing Racial and Disciplinary Identities in Late-Nineteenth-Century America,” about rhetoric and racial identity. I suspect that someday it will come in useful when teaching about the construction of race in the U.S. While it had something to do with the past in that it focused on 19th-century America, the article presented me with a new perspective on the issue—one based on a literary and psychological analysis.

As an historian, the last task to me seems the most important. I regularly plead with my students to think historically, but it is something I need to do as well. To make it more likely I would learn something new, I chose to go outside my field of expertise—American history—by reading Tara Zara’s “‘Each Nation Cares For Its Own’: Empire, Nation, and Child Welfare Activism in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1918.” The article enlightened me about connections between European and American progressivism at the turn of the 20th century.

Historians have recognized for some years that British and Americans progressives shared similar goals and tactics. But apparently, these influences reached nationalist movements in Eastern Europe before World War I. Similar to the progressives a century ago, Americans still question what the role of government should be in their lives. Reading this essay reaffirmed my belief that history matters when it comes to evaluating current events and policies.

Overall, the experiment proved to be a nice change of pace from my regular routine and I plan to incorporate these steps into my future schedule. Hopefully, my experience has inspired you to expand your horizons, especially when it comes to thinking historically. To help you along, I will be doling out pearls of wisdom on how historical events related to current political, social, and cultural issues in upcoming installments. Next time—what can the presidential election of 1968 tell us about the 2008 contest?

Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.

Suggested Reading

  • Steven Mailloux, “Thinking with Rhetorical Figures: Performing Racial and Disciplinary Identities in Late-Nineteenth-Century America,” American Literary History 18 (Winter 2006): 695-711.
  • Tara Zara, “‘Each Nation Cares For Its Own’: Empire, Nation, and Child Welfare Activism in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1918,” The American Historical Review 111 (December 2006): 1378-1402.