Taking On Immigration: Doing History in Reverse

Written by Steve Diehl on January 18, 2017

As a history teacher, I often felt somewhat uncomfortable with the person who told me, “Well, history is important…if we don’t know it, we are likely to repeat it.” It came across as a dismissal of the many more concrete reasons why historical study is beneficial. I was suspicious that this is what was said by those who really didn’t see any value in studying history–they just wanted to let me know they didn’t think I was wasting my life because I didn’t teach Math or Science.

That assertion makes a number of assumptions: 1) that it is possible to deduce “lessons” from history, 2) that it is possible to carry those “lessons” forward in spite of the manifold difference in context, 3) that it only has value moving from past to current, and 4) that you or I will actually be in a position to influence history. I have doubts about all of these assumptions.

A history professor once remarked, when asked why he took up history, that he found the world to be an odd place, and wondered how it got that way.

As a history teacher at a small school I had the leeway to follow this to its logical conclusion. With the permission of the Principal (I was also the Principal), I taught history backwards. We started with current events and news that students found odd. Then we flipped to the back of the textbook and stepped back, and back, and back—always asking how things got that way.

This year the Heritage Center plans to create a space for the topic of immigration. In April we will open the exhibit Opportunity and Conscience: Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania. This is solidly in our wheelhouse. But we can’t help but notice that immigration is also a very hot topic right now. And while we can’t begin to address the complexity of the current issues, we could try to connect with real people, with fresh immigration stories.

The first step for us is simply hearing those stories. Steve Kriss, the new Executive Minister of the Franconia Mennonite Conference, works with recent immigrants, many with Mennonite heritage or joining Mennonite congregations. He is facilitating introducing us to up to six different ethnic groups.

The next step will be deciding how to present those stories in the context of the exhibit. In the process, we hope our recent immigrant guests may encounter the story we tell, and a dialogue will ensue. We are not just trying to “learn lessons from history so that we don’t repeat them”. Hopefully we will learn a few things about how our odd situation with immigration got this way; I bet our new friends will give us a better lens for viewing 18th century Mennonite immigration.

Maybe working backwards, things will be a little clearer.

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