History made every day
Saratoga Middle High School history teacher puts current events into perspective
January 20, 2021
The author Adora Svitak once said “History is made every day. The challenge is getting everyone to pay attention to it.”
For Jason Williams, history and government teacher at Saratoga Middle High School (SMHS), getting his students to pay attention to the history taking place may not be that challenging. On January 6, people across the country and across the world watched as an unknown number of people broke into the Capitol Building.
When the Saratoga Sun spoke with Williams for his perspective as a history and government teacher on January 13, the House of Representatives was debating an article of impeachment against President Donald Trump in relation to the events the week prior. Trump would become the first president in United States history to be impeached by the House twice and 10 Republican members of the House would cross the aisle to join in impeachment, including Wyoming’s lone representative, Liz Cheney.
According to Williams, as he watched the events of January 6 unfold, he thought back to the French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville, who lived from 1805 to 1859 toured the United States of America in the 1830s and subsequently wrote a two volume text entitled “On Democracy in America”.
“Coming from Europe, at the time, one of the things he wrote … is that he was amazed at our system of government that allowed a peaceful transfer of power every four years,” said Williams. I keep coming back to that and thinking ‘Have we lost that?’”
While the SMHS teacher admits that American History has its fair share of assassinations that led to a transfer of power, what was seen on January 6 was “pretty unique”.
“History’s being made everyday and I just feel like January of 2021; there’s going to be movies made about it and books written about it,” Williams said.
Along with examining those events through a historical lens, Williams said that looking at it through the lens of a government teacher led him to a similar thought.
“There was always kind of the idea, even if I don’t like how the election turned out there’s hope on the horizon. It won’t always be like this,” said Williams. “I don’t know if it’s more of a cultural thing that we’ve lost sight of that but, from the government side, it’s concerning to me how much social media, it feels like, is influencing our government and the elections and people’s opinions.”
Williams stated that while he hadn’t actively brought up the events of January 6—which has simultaneously been called a riot, an insurrection and an act of sedition—he has worked to answer questions raised by his students.
“They’ve asked some questions and we’ve discussed it as those questions have come up. Mostly, it’s been kind of a ‘Has anything like this ever happened before?’ because they’ve seen the images from last week,” Williams said. “I told them the last time this happened was 1814 when the British were there and they burned it. I think, for some of them, that was a little bit jarring. That ‘Wow, this really is a historical moment that we’re witnessing’.”
Williams added that, in the classroom, he works to be as objective as possible. According to him, he considers himself a success if students can graduate from school without ever knowing what his political leanings are.
“It can be a challenge. I think we all have certain hot button issues that we’re kind of passionate about, and I do too, and when those are brought up I really have to check myself a little bit. It’s also helped me, kind of, have a broader view because I try to be the devil’s advocate on both sides,” said Williams. “If somebody’s presenting a real conservative viewpoint, then I try to say ‘Well, what about this? This is what the other side believes. What’s wrong with this argument?’ And the other way around, if a real liberal view is being presented by a student I try to say the same thing. ‘Have you considered these thoughts because this is what the other side thinks’.”
In the time that Williams has been providing counter-points, he has said that it has allowed him to see that most people tend to agree on the big picture of what they want to see.
“Whether it’s (what we want) the country to look like or what we want maybe our county to look like, our city, community or even our school. We just disagree on what it’s going to take to get there, what it’s going to take to accomplish that,” Williams said. “Any time we do have these classroom discussions, that’s what I try to bring it around to and kind of conclude with. We want the same thing, we just disagree on what it’s going to require to get there. If we can first agree on ‘Yeah, this is what we want’ then that’s a good starting point.
If all we’re focused on is our message and never the actual goal, we’re just going to continue having this strife.”
While much of what has been seen over the last few weeks may be considered unprecedented, Williams suggests that students and non-students alike examine writings of the Founding Fathers. More specifically, Williams recommended Federalist Paper No. 10 and Federalist Paper No. 51, both written by James Madison.
“He was probably kind of the first political expert in human behavior,” said Williams. “A lot of his writings are about human behavior and that our government was designed to, if people became corrupt— which that was his fear—he explained that the government is setup to prevent any one person from gaining too much power and then if they do try to be above the law that there are methods and means to remove corrupt people from power.”
While he admits that it is important to read documents such as the United States Constitution, Williams added that reading the Federalist Papers also helps put into perspective why many of these mechanisms are in place to protect both citizens and the government. Additionally, according to Williams, both news and information literacy are extremely important.
“I’ve heard for the last, I don’t know how many elections, that ‘This is the most important election in history’ but this is kind of a pivotal moment in our history, I believe,” Williams said. “I would just encourage people to not only be paying attention but to pay attention where they’re getting their news from. If it’s from Facebook, it might not be the most valid source. I think that now, more than ever, the source of where we get our information is more important than ever.”