03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unlearning the "Perfect Lessons" From History

Columbus Day is coming, one of those holidays that has started to make some of us cringe. Does anyone "discover" a land already inhabited by people who are functioning and trading and respecting the ecology of that land?

We have been trained to see "civilization" as a good thing, to celebrate Columbus Day with parades. And of course we are in a tough spot since, if Queen Isabella didn't have so many tantrums insisting on new territories, where would any of us be right at this very moment? But aside from liking a good parade, we might be provoked to want more than our schoolchildren observing the mandatory politically correct exhibits of Native Americans happily existing on the very terrain that may have actually been conquered rather than "discovered."

We might take two steps back from such righteousness and examine the part that America has played and still plays on the landscape of local and world history. Of course, if our perfectionist and otherwise righteous needs can begin to be challenged, there is the connection of the past to the present to discuss as well.

We have studied the reasons for Naziism, and we know the list includes Germany's depression of self-concept because of prior losses and unemployment. We have learned over and again that the fragile esteem of a nation can produce disaster.

Yet, we still don't teach our history by having our children play out different roles so they can feel the experience and come to know it subjectively -- from within. We don't usually study history so we can empathize since empathy with those who commit evil is something that offends our sense of righteousness, or we fear that doing so makes our own esteem too fragile for our taste.

For the most part we teach and learn facts to remember -- often to feel superior -- and for the most part we don't include the question of: Is any of this happening right here on our soil and in our schools that might have a similar results?

Instead, here are the lessons we do teach: The Nazis were barbarians, and we were not. Stalin was a tyrannical violent dictator which thank God we don't have and will never have. Yet, the Russians have gotten wind of this convenient way to reform history and to shift perspective. President Putin has done so in one felled swoop by charging the writers of textbooks in Russia to take the tyrant out of Stalin and leave the hero in because the Russian people need the heroism for their esteem.

Hmm, teaching history for esteem ... as in the North of America aren't we great because we freed the slaves while any carriage ride in Savannah or a simple conversation with a Southerner will hit us in the face when they mention the same Civil War as "The War of Northern Aggression?" We don't meet in the middle to discuss the stories of those involved in memories, nor do we use the letters of children and grownups from all sides to learn the perspectives so that they reach our insides as well as the tips of our shortest of memory.

Conversely, we have been told that any learning has to have a context of the capacity to learn from mistakes. If mistakes are merely avoided, curiosity comes to a halt. But when most of us have been raised on combinations of harsh judgments from religions, from parents, from media, we dread taking risks of failure. So many people are either risk averse or they slide into self-destructive addictive behavior where judgment, good and bad, is on hold.

Liberals have been part of this equation, judging and feeling judged, for questioning whether the Israel side has some validity in the Middle East conflict, as we remain loath to admit the violent potential and revenge fantasies within ourselves. Carl Jung's statement that we are all potential criminals doesn't go over well in a crowd caught up in our own righteousness and the need to blame someone else.

Such is the righteousness that keeps us hating the bullies in the town hall health care meetings while ignoring the violent nature of bullying in almost every school in rich or poor neighborhoods alike. We cannot really afford to stay away from knowing our own backyards, and yet we won't allow ourselves to do so if the only thing waiting for us is our feeling like utter failures with no possible redemption of our self-respect.

To admit our part in emotional and educational and political violence, through our modeling of hatred and righteousness or through our passivity, we would have to begin to turn the notion of perfectionism on its head.

As we are all potential criminals, our imperfections make us all potential givers of life and creators of a different kind of community of cooperation. If we can take the sport out of humiliation, perhaps we could afford to learn that we have something in common with most aggressors, just as we do with those in touch with their love and caring.