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My Presentism RANT

By Adam Jewell, History Faculty

My Presentism RANT

An immediate disclaimer: I am a flawed human; we all are. I am, however, probably flawed more than most. I attended six different colleges and have two degrees (one of them is NOT a doctorate). I routinely annoy every human I interact with, especially my poor wife. I very nearly cause severe (inadvertent) bodily harm to my son each and every day, but we laugh and shake it off so I assume all is well. In short, I mess up this game of life each and every day and therefore try to not pass any judgments (moral or otherwise) upon anyone. With that in mind, seriously, we all have a pretty damn good life. However, from what we all often say and hear on a daily basis, one would think we are living a life akin to Depression Era America or perhaps worse. I refer to this phenomenon as my own version of “presentism.” My idea strays from the normal definition of the term. Simply put, “presentism” in my discipline is interpreting the past through the moral concepts and lens of the present. Instead, I argue that a more tangible form of “presentism” exists amongst us all. This idea states that our modern lives are the best, but also, and more importantly for this monologue, the worst days the populace of this Earth has ever encountered.

As a teacher, and a teacher who does have that odd “teacher” skill of being able to hear EVERYTHING you say (yes, you, you know who you are), I hear a bevy of negative quotes from teenagers (and well, let’s be honest, adults as well) that can only be characterized as the sky is falling, quasi-Eeyore (of Winnie the Pooh fame for those keeping score at home) end of the world genre. Again, disclaimer time: I know we all have social, emotional, and physical problems. I know many of us are battling something, internally and externally. And I know life is hard; it is damn hard (try potty training a kid sometime). But every day I need both hands to count how many times I hear something akin to, “Oh…this is the worst day ever,” or, “Things just can’t get any worse,” or “This is horrible.” Yup, daily ups and downs are horrible. Yes, the present issue that just baffled you is terrible. However, no matter how bad it may seem, we are living in a time period, country, world and school, where I could say with some degree of certainty is better off than probably 90-95% of humans that ever walked this Earth (and that is a conservative percentage). Do we not realize just how bad “things” have been in the past? Do we not all realize that even hanging out at Versailles with Louis meant you had almost no bathrooms and access to baths was limited? London did not have sewage systems for most of its inhabitants until the early 1900s, despite what occurred at Mohenjo-Daro and what the Romans “cooked” up (see Ms. Cook’s recent article) thousands of years ago. Not many of us use public baths anymore either (well, at least I do not think many of us do).

We can all (again, almost all of us) literally pick up our “phones” and see the world. My grandparents grew up without electricity in Ohio and my father (when he snuck into this country illegally) did not have a TV until he moved to Cambridge in 1960. Yes, yes, I know what you are saying, “Oh great another ‘adult’ lecturing us on how we complain too much and how they had to walk up hill, both ways, to school in a snow storm. I assure you, it was not that bad for me and I will try to not chastise you all, but…come on people! I could simply say #firstworldproblems and move on but I do not believe that is enough.

At the height of the Great Depression probably 25% of the workforce was unemployed and the income of the average American family dropped by nearly 40%. America, and the world at large, has recently grappled with the Great Recession that saw unemployment rates at about 10% in the USA and the average American family saw their wealth drop by 23%.[1] Horrible losses to be sure, and no doubt, including in my own personal case as well, losses that may hit close to home for some us at St. Mark’s. However, within this data and a more topical look around our environs, it is fairly plain to see that we as a community are doing quite well.

At this point we could delve into the peasant percentages of populations within Ancient Rome, Ancien Regime France or even closer to home in pre-Revolutionary America. All of these show that a vast majority of the populace dwelled at an income level that would astonish many of us. A glimpse into the daily drudgery of their lives would further demonstrate a system that makes the modern 99% versus 1% mentality look laughable. A more graphic example may do this diatribe better justice and can be found via a small Brooklyn Art Gallery named Air Circulation and its exhibit entitled “Power Hungry.” [2] However, in order to truly understand these issues you must sign up for the History Department’s series of elective courses that become available next year (a shameless tease and/or plug, but I just had to).

After making it this far, you may be asking yourself, “What is your point, Jewell?” That is simple to tell you and difficult to answer. We as a whole must not just talk about how we can empathize with others and how we can see “things from other’s points of view.” We must act–get action as Teddy Roosevelt would have said. Telling you my point is simple. Actually answering my point is hard. It is probably as hard as the problems we all face in our day-to-day lives. We are busy people. We all know the school schedule keeps us busy and we all have families as well. As many of you know, when my day at SM is done I run, I do not walk, I run, home to see my wife and Grey. I am not sorry for doing so, nor should you be sorry for not putting action to the great tasks ahead of us all. You have nearer stresses and more prescient concerns staring you in the face. We all know that and we all get it. But I, and we as a school, would not be doing our jobs if we did not challenge you to act. The real reason I teach history (other than a promise I made to my dearly departed brother, but that is a subject for another time) is so that I can hopefully open student’s eyes to the past of “real” people. That maybe, just maybe, we can look at our lives and see that we, as humans, have come a long way. Perhaps we can see that the mass of people in the past suffered, and did so daily, and yet, here we are. Anyone who knows me or has taken any class with me knows that I detest the “Great Man” version of history. I truly despise the demagoguery of the “great men” (who by definition, are, well, men and all too often white) of history who apparently shaped the world all alone. I teach this subject so that we may see what life was really like (even though I know that is not possible). In essence, I teach so that we can have a better understanding of who we are and where we “fit” in this world. I teach so that this version of “presentism” can slowly fade away and be replaced by something, anything, that makes us realize that being the “us” we are now, is enough and it is pretty damn good to be us.

Adam Jewell is a member of the History and Social Sciences Department and teaches Advanced European History and RUSH (Regular U.S. History). He received his B.A. in American History from Bridgewater State University and his M.A. in American and European History from Virginia Commonwealth University. Mr. Jewell coaches boys soccer and lacrosse and lives in Framingham with his wife Kristi and son Greysen.


[1] Good, if confusing, data about this can be found through the Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2012/recession/pdf/recession_bls_spotlight.pdf) and Stanford University’s study of the Great Recession (http://web.stanford.edu/group/recessiontrends/cgi-bin/web/sites/all/themes/barron/pdf/IncomeWealthDebt_fact_sheet.pdf)

[2] The exhibit compares the amount of food available to the “haves” and the “have nots” within various nations of the past and present. The exhibit ended in early January, but an article about it can still be seen at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/11/hunger-photo-series_n_6297410.html?utm_hp_ref=impact&ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000010. A more detailed explanation of the exhibit is also available here: http://www.aircirculation.org/power-hungry/


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