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Bridging Problems and Solutions: An Appeal for History

When I was initially contemplating how to approach this article, I thought I was going to write about how current political discourse, especially among the younger generations, is limited to talking about problems (mostly via social media), and that there is little to no focus on solutions. However, I don’t exactly think that’s the case. It’s not the solution-discourse that is absent; it is the bridge between problems and solutions, the how, that is most important to, yet unfortunately most absent from, current political discourse.

An imperative of this problem is our relationship with history: as a country, we have divorced ourselves from history, and therefore, we are experiencing a devastating case of historical amnesia. In regards to the Trump catastrophe, “how did we get here?” is a commonly asked question, as if he just appeared out of nowhere. If only history had been emphasized with its unparalleled value and power, everyone would know exactly how we got here, assuming we would have even gotten here had we been equipped with the knowledge and tools that history provides.

Unfortunately, history is commonly misunderstood as a compilation of “whos, whats, wheres, whens and whys,” which is unappealing at best. Ironically, current problems and solutions are also often interpreted and discussed in terms of “whos, whats, wheres, whens and whys.” In regards to both history and problem-solution discourse, the most important piece of the puzzle is missing: the how.

With respect to history, the how tells us about the changes that define history, for history is the study of change (although it is arguably more interesting and important to pay attention to those things that have not changed). Whether it is revolutions, legislation or movements, how they came to be offers the greatest takeaway. Just memorizing names, dates and laws is not history. Knowing how things came to be and the inextricable relationship between past and present; now, that is history. “What does any of that have to do with me?” ask the millennials who have been bred to believe that world revolves around them. In the words of Skyline College professor Mustafa Popal, “The things you do with ease, someone fought to make easy.” Not only is history the study of change, but we are a product of that change. That right to vote that we all tie to our identity as Americans, the diversity in our classrooms, minimum wage: activated people who sought change organized and mobilized, fought and died, so that those ideals could one day, in our day, be realities. In order to understand how we got here, we need to know the history that has undeniably shaped who we are as a people and as individuals.

Those who would label themselves as “progressives” especially need history. Progress is not solely progress towards, it is also progress from. What good are solutions if we don’t understand the historical foundations of the problems? It is irresponsible to limit political engagement to rants about problems, whether in real life or on social media platforms, even if solutions are proposed. We must collectively look back, generally to those things that either did not change or evolved through change in order to form clear understandings of problems as well as learn from the success of those who did implement change. We need to pay close attention to how they did it.

One way to conceive social and political progress throughout history comes to us again by way of Mustafa Popal, who explains that movements are composed of three phases: inspiration, organization and mobilization. Inspiration generally comes from those who act or speak on a social or political problem because they are individually moved to. This lends itself to organization of and by those who have been inspired. The organization process consists of proposing a solution and determining how to transform that solution from an idea to a reality; the result is the mobilization of inspired and organized people, and when done right, the outcome of that mobilization is change — the realizing of a solution. This process and its success are evident in history; just look at the abolition and civil rights movements.

The problem with our current political discourse is that it is just current political discourse; we are stuck in a watered down inspiration phase. Social media has made politics impossible to ignore and more people comfortable speaking up, but posting, sharing, liking and commenting are not enough. We can talk about problems and solutions all we want, but unless we organize and figure out our own how, it will all be in vain. We will be remembered as the generation that sat behind their devices. Instead of making history, we will be nothing more than the products of a history we didn’t even bother to learn. Democracy is not the freedom to post, nor is it the sticker you receive for coming out once every four years to vote. Democracy is a lifestyle, and if we value it as much as we claim to, we need to start living it. We can’t be another chapter about a contradiction between ideology and reality. We need to engage with those moments of inspiration and organize. We need to talk to each other, but more importantly, we need to listen to each other. We need to know our history in order to know ourselves. We need to know our history in order to make our own.