The Importance of Looking Forward

By Whit Altizer

I had the pleasure of teaching American History this semester to Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese students. Like all American history surveys, we studied from the beginning to Reconstruction in a whirlwind.

It had been a while since I really thought about American history and I had never studied it from the perspective of a foreigner. But as a professor of Asian students, I felt like I was looking at American history with fresh eyes. I would fluctuate between proud and embarrassed often within one class period.

My class was particularly intrigued with the history of slavery. They understood that America continues to deal with the sticky residue of slavery. We talked about how people actually still exist that lament the failure of the South to secede, and that black Americans still don’t have as easy of an avenue in life as I had as a white male. Even though it is a reality I have known, I still couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth. “We, as a country, are still dealing with the impacts of slavery.”

My students would nod knowingly. America is a well-known contradiction to them. How can a country that is considered a world leader still struggle to have an intelligent debate and do something about climate change, guns and the usage of hurtful symbols in our history? I know things take time, but damn, isn’t all of this a no-brainer?

Living in Asia has allowed me to see America from afar, and has afforded me conversations and interactions with people from all over the world. We’re all the same wonderful and flawed people. It is universal to hold a grudge or to cling too tightly and take pride in our nation’s history. So many of us obsess over tradition and fear change. There was a time where I bought into all of that too.

But I’ve learned that clinging to the past especially when it stunts our growth is just plain wrong. It shouldn’t be tolerated even if that somehow offends those who subscribe to it. Life should be like driving a car. While it is important to glance behind you, the more important and pertinent stuff is happening in front of you. Observe, adapt, react, and if needed, don’t be afraid to change course.