Teaching About Totality and about Charlottesville

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As teachers get ready to start the school year, I want to suggest that they start engaging their students in conversations about Totality, and about Charlottesville.

The total solar eclipse which was viewable in all of North America on Monday, August 21st brought together millions of people to share in the awe of the celestial event. As I watched CNN’s coverage of the eclipse from an airplane flying over the Atlantic, I was also in awe at how this phenomenon had brought together people all across the United States. As beautiful as the eclipse itself were the images of people of diverse backgrounds, races, across hundreds of towns, sharing the emotions of contemplating an infrequent, and beautiful, natural phenomenon. Contemplating those images brought into focus how easy it is, with a little perspective, to see that we are all one. How much we share in common with each other, how much we are together in most things that matter, particularly, in our relationship to our planet and to the universe, or in matters of any consequence to our lives and to our individual and collective future.

To the awareness of our common humanity that the shared joy over experiencing it brought forth, the media coverage of the eclipse added the awareness that we are also a species with awareness of our past. Time and again we heard those interviewed by reporters explain that part of what made this eclipse special, was the fact that it had been a century since another total eclipse had taken place in North America. To our awareness of our past, the predictions of the next eclipse brought into light that it is also our awareness of our future, our interest in it, our curiosity to predict it, to make plans for ourselves into the future, that makes us fully human. We don’t just live in the present, and we don’t just wait for the future, we shape it.

Awareness of our common humanity, our sense of past and awareness of the future make us distinctively human, and a beautiful species. A species worthy of the same awe as the eclipse itself.

What a contrast this shared experience was, and the insights about our humanity that reflecting on it make visible, to the images and narratives prevalent the last few days, covering the hateful acts of a group of white supremacists in Charlottesville and the failure of our President to take a clear and unequivocal stance denouncing such acts.

The reports of both events, the shared experiencing of a beautiful natural event by millions of Americans, and the harm and death caused by a few misguided individuals, help put in proper perspective that most people are ready to embrace their common humanity with others, and that it is a very small number of Americans who embrace a hateful ideology.

That they are a small number, of course, does not mean we should ignore the harm they have caused and could cause. We live times when the ubiquity of technology, and of weapons, make it relatively easy for a small group of individuals to cause harm disproportionate to their numbers, as another group of terrorists just demonstrated in Barcelona.

But the images of the millions of people who joined others to share the total eclipse, or the thousands who marched in the city of Boston to stand for anti-racism, dwarfing a rally that many saw as too closely associated with the racists who killed Heather Heyer and hurt dozens of others in Charlottesville are the proper frame to understand the direction in which the arc of history moves. The larger number of people participating in Boston anti-racist rally led Mayor Walsh to state that the rally had made clear that our city stands of Peace and Love, not Bigotry and Hate. A good example of what leaders do to build a narrative that speaks to people’s better angels, and a clear contrast to the equivocal narrative that President Trump used following Charlottesville tragic actions.

Discussing Totality with students in all grades as the school year begins will provide many valuable learning opportunities for students, especially opportunities to draw on multiple disciplines to pursue multiple angles in understanding the eclipse. The opportunity to appreciate how much Astronomy, one of our oldest sciences, helps us understand, and to predict, events which link us to our ancestors, generations ago. The opportunity to understand the importance of studying science to make sense of the world around us, and to appreciate how such commitment to education has been understood as the cornerstone to participating in public life for at least twenty centuries, since the romans included Astronomy as one of the seven liberal arts which prepared a person for civic engagement.

Going back to the last total solar eclipse which took place in 1918 will also offer a window to appreciate how much society has changed for the better in one century. Women did not yet have the right to vote, legal barriers denied African Americans this right, there was racial segregation and a strong anti immigrant sentiment had led to the Immigration Act of 1917 which had reversed the nation’s open door policy. It is to that bigoted past that those advocating for white supremacy, under the guise of nationalism, want to take the country back.

The study and discussion of Totality, and of the tragedy of Charlottesville, will help our students develop important and enduring understandings about the beauty of the universe and of our place in it, of our shared humanity, the fragility of our planet, and the value of scientific and social progress. It will cultivate their humanity by helping them develop an understanding of our shared history, and an appreciation of our capacity to project, and to build, a future that is better than the past.