Saturday Night Live Tackles Susan B. Anthony

Watch the sketch from January 14:

This is an amazing sketch. We must not miss the lessons about historical thinking embedded in it.  I will use this over and over again in my classes.

Most of the commentary on the sketch that I have seen has focused on Anthony’s closing line: “Abortion is murder.”  For example, after the sketch aired on Saturday night the Susan B. Anthony Museum tweeted:

Of course the pro-life camp seemed pretty pleased by the portrayal of Anthony.

Obviously the sketch writers were trying to say something about the disconnect between Anthony’s heroic work on behalf of women’s rights and the rather self-absorbed millennial women visiting her historic house.  While Anthony shares her wisdom (“A woman can only be in chains if she allows herself to be in chains” and “An idea is the most dangerous weapon can have.”), these modern women, even as they seem genuinely excited that Anthony has appeared before them, are obsessed with food, technology, and their own comfort.

But there is an even larger point to made here.  It is about the way we encounter the past. Our society spends millions and millions of dollars each year traveling to and visiting historical sites, but we often fail to have any real encounter with the past on its own terms.  We do not want to be confronted with the claims of the past on our lives.  It is too annoying.  We want nostalgia. We want an entertaining tour with a lot of fun facts. We want to make the past fit comfortably within our world. Sadly, when the past asks us to take a harder look at ourselves we fall back into our present-day narcissism.

It seems to me that history education–at all levels (K-12 and at public sites)–is not merely about visiting cool sites and spending time “oohing” and “ahhing” about what happened in those places. It is about teaching our students to move beyond tourism and nostalgia toward empathy, understanding, an even personal transformation.