Setting Free Our History


| 12/13/2012 10:49:48 AM


Tags: Commons, Enclosure Movement, Displacement, Public Land, History, Education, Climate Change, On the Commons, Tim Swinehart.,
Classroom-Teacher

This post originally appeared at On the Commons.  

In the wake of superstorm Sandy and a presidential election in which both candidates essentially ignored climate change, it’s time that our schools began to play their part in creating climate literate citizens.

Hurricane Sandy, and the superstorms that will follow, are not just acts of nature—they are products of a massive theft of the atmospheric commons shared by all life on the planet. Every dollar of profit made by fossil fuel companies relies on polluting our shared atmosphere with harmful greenhouse gases, stealing what belongs to us all. But if we don’t teach students the history of the commons, they’ll have a hard time recognizing what—and who—is responsible for today’s climate crisis.

If the commons is taught at all in history classes, it’s likely as a passing reference to English enclosures—the process by which lands traditionally used in common by the poor for growing food, grazing animals, collecting firewood, and hunting game were fenced off and turned into private property. Some textbooks may mention the peasant riots that were a frequent response to enclosures, or specific groups like the Diggers that resisted enclosure by tearing down fences and reestablishing common areas. But they are buried in chapters that champion industrial capitalism’s “progress” and “innovation.”

Some texts, like McDougal Littell’s widely used Modern World History, skip the peasants’ resistance entirely, choosing instead to sing the praises of enterprising wealthy landowners: “In 1700, small farms covered England’s landscape. Wealthy landowners, however, began buying up much of the land that village farmers had once worked. The large landowners dramatically improved farming methods. These innovations amounted to an agricultural revolution.”

This is a disturbing narrative, as much for what it leaves out as for what it gets wrong. Students could fairly assume that enclosures involved a fair exchange between “wealthy landowners” and “village farmers,” instead of the forced evictions that removed peasants from land that their families had worked for generations. Take the account of Betsy Mackay, 16, when the Duke of Sutherland evicted her family in late-18th-century Scotland: “Our family was very reluctant to leave and stayed for some time, but the burning party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to ashes whatever remained within the walls. The people had to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their back. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away like dogs.”

torn halves
12/13/2012 8:53:00 PM

Brilliant! On the subject of the commons wouldn't it be good to add things like culture and knowledge and ideas? With intellectual property we know have the enclosure of the collective mind, do we not?