Anniversaries, Anniversaries …

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… are always a chance to take up the topic of a historical event.

The most crucial anniversary of 2014, at least from a European perspective, is the centennial of World War 1. History books tell us the outbreak of war was triggered by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, an incident that Nassim Taleb considers might have been a Black Swan: an unpredictable event of large impact.

The initial assassination attempt took place on June 28, 1914, during Archduke Ferdinand’s motorcade through Sarajevo. Several bombs went off that did not reach their target and the Archduke was deemed to have survived the attacks on his life. Only on his way back to the hotel, the motorcade took a wrong way and coincidentally passed one of the group of assassins (this being the Black Swan moment Taleb refers to). Gavrilo Prinicip, who was on his own at the time, as the group had already scattered, took this unexpected chance to fire on the crown prince of Austria, thus turning an almost failed assassination into a final deadly success.

This version of events is one I definitely did not learn about in school, where history is taught as a succession of chronological events that couldn’t have happened any other way – lucid (and boring) narratives in school text books (see James W. Loewen, 1996: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong.)

The question, or speculation, whether World War I would have happened if the assassination attempt had failed would have been an interesting one, but never came up as far as I remember.

Another interesting anniversary is July 2, 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act. Before that, on June 14, 1964,  the so-called Mississippi Freedom Summer began when 1000 young Americans, almost all white students from Ohio active in the Civil Rights Movement, went to Mississippi to help increase voter registration.The mission turned deadly and forced the reality of racism and segregation in the South in all its brutality onto the group when three of their members were murdered by the KuKluxKlan.

The film Mississippi Burning depicts the events of that summer.

I have not taken any World War I related topic to class – too big. But I have introduced Loewen’s criticism of history textbooks, read some pages and discussed his concept of teaching history starting with the recent past, going back in time rather than starting somewhere in the ancient past and working oneself up to the present that rarely is ever reached as the road is so tediously long.

Taleb’s Black Swan theory is interesting for classes in insurance companies, and Mississippi Burning is a film that could be interesting to watch (in installments and with accompanying literature over two or three sessions) and discuss.

Further links


ITN sources: Anniversaries and events calendar

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