Lessons of the French Revolution

It's like Dickens was writing this for me...
It’s like Dickens was writing this for me…

We’ve been learning all about the French Revolution in history for the past few weeks. I love this unit because it’s my opportunity to show off my French pronunciation. That’s right, 4 years and departmental honors, and this is all the use I’ve gotten out of my French major. No regrets.

I try to ride the fine line between sympathizing with the third estate (97.5% of France) and not excusing their barbaric actions. Although, after you study the systemic oppression of the third estate you wonder why exactly they end up becoming the villains of the revolution.

But I love Marie Antoinette. I just do. I know she was extravagant and selfish, but the more I read about her (just finished Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography), the more she just seems trapped in a culture and society that very strictly defined her role. Are we angry at her for not being Mother Teresa? To have gone against the tide at Versailles (at the age of 14) she would have had to be a young Joan of Arc. Instead, she was exactly the kind of girl she was raised to be. So yes, let’s leave her in peace. And she lost her head, so isn’t that enough?

But that was all a digression, because this was a rough week. Now lying in bed with a tissue up my nose and two cups of hot tea by my side, I realize that I was coming down with something and perhaps trying to fight it off. My students came across as really spoiled. Not all of them of course, and there wasn’t any one thing that anyone did, but I would listen to NPR on the way to work and hear stories of ISIS executing children and Boko Haram invading Nigeria, and I would cry. And then I would go to school and hear whining about the room being a touch too cold or the amount of homework they had to do that would interfere with club sports schedules. And then the Valentine’s Day party involved a thousand emails until I was ready  to scrap the whole thing. Anyways, all this culminated in me telling my students that they were the aristocrats of the world.

They were stunned. Of course, they see themselves as peasants, but we’re not. Of course, we have to be in the wealthiest most privileged population of the world. I don’t know how successful this was, but I had to say something. I don’t want them to feel guilty (although I feel guilty all the time), but I just want them to be aware, to look outside themselves for two seconds. I want to look outside myself for two seconds.

This week my goal is to go to school with a better attitude. In the same way I want my students to be more grateful for their privileges, I also want to reflect that gratitude. I get to teach in a country where education is valued. My school gives me a lot of autonomy. When I run in the late afternoon, I want to appreciate the fact that not every woman (even in the US) has this opportunity. So I guess, that’s  what I’m taking away from the French Revolution. Inequality exists, right or wrong. I may not be able to fix those inequalities, but at least I can appreciate my good fortune. And I don’t have to be ignorant about the plight of others.


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