I've spent the past few days on the road talking (mostly) to young people. Many of these conversations have revolved around the difference between education and credentialism. Within that conversation is still another idea--the discomfiting nature of historical study. That is to say, the idea that history was not made to make us feel good, or to raise our self-esteem. On the contrary, an humble engagement with history--one not rooted in opportunism--is, initially, going to be a downer.
When I was young the myth of ennobling oppression was all around me, and it was thought that the fact of racism and all its effects proved our inherent goodness. I am sure this notion isn't original to black people. When you've been kicked in the teeth it will always be easier to think of yourself as having been robbed, then having simply lost out. That you would likely be doing the kicking yourself, that your weakness is not kindness is too much to take.
Last summer, an eruption on the sun's surface scored a solar weather hat trick, racking up all three of the major phenomenon scientists observe: a solar flare, a coronal mass ejection (CME), and coronal rain, "complex moving structures in association with changes in magnetic field lines that loop up into the sun's atmosphere," NASA explains. The solar flare in the video is not massive, by the sun's standards, but "moderately powerful," as NASA calls it. But what makes the show special is the coronal rain, charged plasma slowly dripping in fiery loops along the sun's magnetic fields.
There is a moment in this video where a scale version of earth is measured against this solar hat-trick, and you can see how this event is bigger (many times over) than the entire planet which you and I inhabit. Last night I was out with my wife and some friends. We were thinking about how Star Trek is basically limited to our own galaxy. Voyager which is supposedly in some distant part of the verse, is actually still within the Milky Way. And yet there are gazillions of Milky Ways--of galaxies--beyond the fictional world of Star Trek. (Some talk about Species 8472 and the failure of the Enterprise series then ensued. It was resolved that we needed more Knob Creek.)
Carl Sagan says that on a galatic level, "Our preferences don't count." From there you can the seed of our denialism--from climate change to the Civil War--and perhaps the seed of religion, itself. Our sciences (in which I am including history) don't ennoble us. They don't reflect well on humans, instead they confirm a kind of powerlessness, a deep moral weakness, and sense of futility.
At least that's the start. I'd argue that when we can get past our own vanity, as scientists, there comes something else--Wonder.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.
Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.