Jonestown and Education

by Craig Foreman

“Real education consists in drawing the best out of yourself. What better book can there be than the book of humanity.” – Gandhi

In the modern high school classroom, it is very easy to teach about Jonestown, very simple indeed. There are stats to talk about and memorize in terms of the year it all took place and the numbers of suicide/murders that occurred. There is even an opportunity to say “drink the Kool-aid” and watch the kids go “Ah…that is where that came from!”

The problem is, as it is with much of education in America today, it shouldn’t be that easy. It should be hard, painfully hard in fact. It should be hard on the teachers and students alike. This true story, although understandably shocking at first glance, is a story entirely about the human condition, about humanity itself. This is a historical event that brings together the deepest good in being human alongside the deepest evil. This is a historical event that should not be bastardized into a mere mention of facts and details and then left as that, because, as in other cases in history, the humanity of it all is lost, and people can easily disconnect.

Unfortunately, the modern classroom finds teachers doing this with many historical topics. Think of how many lessons that are taught on a daily basis about important historical events, and students have no chance to feel any understanding or empathy for what is happening. This is always the result when events are presented as mere data entries on a timeline. In the case of Jonestown, students leave the room thinking, “Oh, that was just a bunch of crazy people that followed a crazy man and they all were crazy…I would never do that.” But have those students heard the words of Debbie Layton which open the documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple? “No one joins a cult,” she says. “Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them.” Have those students seen the clips of mothers and their babies being torn apart in wild last second custody battles? Have these students ever discussed what it means to be human, and what that entails in terms of desires, hopes, and dreams? Have these students ever looked at this story in terms of love, compassion, and wanting the world to be a better place? Probably not. More than likely they have only seen it in terms of Kool-Aid – and even that’s an error, since it was Flavor-Aid – the deaths of more than 900 people, and the assassination of a congressman. Although important information to follow the story, it is not what really the lesson should be centered around.

 As a teacher of history and sociology, I have made it a mission in life with not only Jonestown but all of education that the facts are important, but the humanity of it all needs to be realized and utilized. Without that important side there is no relevance, and it is simple for teacher and student alike to dismiss what happened on November 18, 1978. What should be taught and discussed are the sides of humanity and human nature that were on display there in Guyana, and in California before that, and even in Indiana before that. These same sides of humanity and human nature are found in Guyana and California and Indiana and the rest of the world today, the side of humanity that longs for a better world, the side of humanity that just wants to be, and the side of humanity that wants to feel unconditional love and acceptance. Then there is the flip side to humanity that is there as well: the need to control, the longing for power, the desire to “stick it to the man.” All of these lessons and discussions are important because they are inside all of us, no matter what our opinion is of Jim Jones or his followers.

This is where as a teacher I find myself. I want my students to understand that this was a true story of everyday people longing for a better world, and when it was promised to them, they jumped at the chance. If someone you trusted promised you that, why wouldn’t you follow? What would hold you back? Those are questions that I pose to my students, and allow them to dig deep into their minds and realize that – for each of them – it isn’t a simple discussion of “crazy” people, this is a discussion of people like them, like us, like me. They may not ever know a man like a Jim Jones, but they do know and understand the desire to want a better life, the desire to be with family and friends, and the desire to live in a peaceful, safer world. They also know the feelings of wanting control and the desire to be wanted. Those desires are universal in all of humanity, so that is what needs to be taught and understood.

Here are two short reflections after lessons in my classroom:

From Caitlin, 18, former student:

In Sociology with Mr. Foreman, we approached the Jonestown massacre from a different angle than a typical Sociology class. The entire curriculum of the semester was formatted differently than a standard lecture class. Through every topic in the curriculum we learned, we tried to answer the guiding question, “What does it mean to be human?” Using this question was central when learning about Jonestown, or Peoples Temple. Mr. Foreman challenged us to see the other side of the incident.

When learning about Jonestown for the first time, it is very easy to describe the residents as crazy, fanatical, mad, and other such words. Jonestown has been described as a concentration camp, prison camp, and the like, but when you think deeper into the story, you have to wonder what would motivate the residents to be a part of the community. Within it, some found a sense of belonging, a family, community, a change in lifestyle, as well as some spiritual fulfillment. Within their agricultural community they maintained a sense of purpose. There are characteristics of Jonestown that are similar to various groups that exist today, given they may not be as extreme or radical, however all humans look for, find, or have these things in a group they belong to.

The factors that contributed to the entirety of the Jonestown massacre are endless, and if you look at both sides of the story, there is sense to be found within the rationale of all parties. We were taught to look at the similarities between what we classify as “normal” and the residents of Jonestown, versus the differences. If you look at any historical event with a similar mindset, I have found it is much more interesting and easier to understand the event. Mr. Foreman taught us to look at the issue through a different lens. By doing so, it is easy to see that they were people too, from the same race and species as we, and we are all looking for the same things.

From Tyler, 17, former student:

Ultimately, we are faced with these kind of circumstances on a daily basis. Our decisions determine our future, making humanity purely circumstantial, and as soon as a mass of people make a decision, they cannot break away from that decision. In this case, they were stuck in that situation once they left for Guyana.

So, the lesson was not about the mass suicide at all, or the death, or the aftermath. The lesson is about how humans will react to each other in any given circumstance. They affect each other, meaning the human race as a whole feeds off each other for survival. In this case, survival was not the outcome. So our concept of human nature proves to be more vital to our survival that I first anticipated. If we fight the temptation for power, and other human traits defined by our human nature, survival becomes imminent. Therefore, the lesson of Jonestown can be a tool to reveal the true meaning of human nature: which is concept or which is reality? Which is more beneficial to the human race? That would be my main question for the unit.

There is so much to be learned from this story. But the real learning needs to be centered around the people. The words of the survivors need to be read and discussed, their faces as they are today need to be shown. These are people that are here today, walking on the same planet that we are on. These are fellow humans, no different than any of us. They acted on their human nature in a way that was presented to them, like each of us hope and try to do every day of our lives.

We also need to read and understand as much as we can about the people that did not survive to tell their story. This gets lost in the typical classroom today as well as on current news program documentaries. If there is dialogue among teacher and student focusing words from the people that were actually there, the only label that would be attached to the people from the Jonestown story is a simple one indeed, and that is human.

This is where education is important. This is where teacher and students together can really teach each other an important lesson. Too many times the classroom is a teacher force-feeding their students information and the students regurgitate it back to them on a mindless test. This is an opportunity to understand the societal pressures that act on, with, and against our human nature on a daily basis. As Gandhi said, “Real education consists in drawing the best out of yourself. What better book can there be than the book of humanity?”

And as I put my three young boys to bed each night, I often think that I want the best for them, and I wish they could live in a safer and better world. When I read the stories of the families that went to Jonestown, I know they wanted exactly the same thing for their children. Love is an arguably major tenet of human nature, and love was there in Jonestown. But evil is also an equally major tenet to human nature, and it was there as well. The Jonestown story is not one of murder and suicides and death alone, but one of pure love and the opposite in pure evil. It is a story that is an educational lesson on what really can be found in what it means to be human, or humanity. It needs to be taught that way.

(Craig Foreman is a Sociology and History Teacher with the Expedition Academy at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. The school’s website is www.expeditionacademy.com. His complete collection of articles for the jonestown report appears here.He may be reached at Ke_cforeman@kentschools.net.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 18th, 2013.
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