Testing the West at Howard University: Thoughts on a Very Strange Op-Ed

I have mixed feelings about a widely shared Washington Post opinion essay published Monday by Cornel West and Jeremy Tate. The current headline: “Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe.”

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The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements

There’s something I want to get off my chest. It’s about whether Blue Book Diaries is a left-wing blog, and about whether my teaching is left-wing instruction.

I have been ruminating on this since I discovered recently that a stranger on Facebook has repeatedly called me a “commie”—ironically, because I said the Trump era is a good time to teach history.

Similarly, my most popular post here, which has drawn more than 10,000 hits, has been denounced as leftist propaganda. After I posted it in June, during the protests after George Floyd’s death, it elicited a stream of angry messages. An email I received from Greg, who was using an IP address in West Texas, will give you a pretty good idea of the general mood. Here is the full text:

Message: Your article on how to teach the civil war is as far left as any I have ever seen. I to have grown up in Texas and calling us insurgents is offering to me. My son went to Iraq to defend us against them we are not those kind of people. The wanted to live it's on way weather you think it was right or not and the the north or union would not let them. I my self do not think it was about slavery but about not letting the government tell them how to live. You want insurgents and rebellious people you should have watched the looters on tv.

I’m not sure how extensive someone’s intellectual exploration can be if something I wrote is the leftmost thing they’ve encountered. Nevertheless, that seemed to be a common impression among those who were displeased—even though the blogpost in question is overtly patriotic and even pro-military.

To be thus politically pigeonholed, in such disregard for the actual content of work I spend a lot of time crafting? It rankles. I have been successfully rankled. And I think it’s time for me to address this problem.

What I write today is unlikely to have much positive effect on Greg—or on anybody else who believes insurgent is an ethnonym. But it might be soothing to other history teachers who are feeling a bit out of joint.

You see, I suspect that many of us working in U.S. educational institutions see our own work as deeply conservative, at the same time that today’s organized political right is attacking us for supposedly “hating our country” and “breeding contempt for America’s heritage.”

Such attacks notwithstanding, many of us are proudly doing exactly what our predecessors have done for generations. We are teaching history in a politically conscious but nonpartisan way, out of a sense of respect for the past and concern for our communities in the present, and we are using methods pragmatically adapted to the needs of our students and the results of historical scholarship.

With that in mind, let me identify some of the aspects of my own history teaching that I think are fundamentally conservative.

But first, I should explain what that term means.

Continue reading “The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements”

Teaching Controversial History: Four Moves

Inspired by some recent conversations and experiences, I have been thinking about how I approach the task of teaching controversial topics.

Much of my approach, I think, is directly inspired by having been a fairly prickly kind of student myself. I still see a lot of myself in students who aren’t prepared to buy what their instructors are hoping to sell. (Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that we instructors are correct, though of course that is not universally the case.)

I think I can reduce my approach to four basic instructional moves. These moves strike me as both pragmatic and principled; I make these moves because they tend to work, but they work because they’re the morally right thing to do anyway.

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The Invisible Storyteller

A storyteller should be invisible, as far as I’m concerned; and the best way to make sure of that is to make the story itself so interesting that the teller just … disappears. When I was in the business of helping students to become teachers, I used to urge them to tell stories in the classroom—not read them from a book, but get out and tell them, face to face, with nothing to hide behind. The students were very nervous until they tried it. They thought that under the pressure of all those wide-open eyes, they’d melt into a puddle of self-consciousness. But the brave ones tried it, and they always came back next week and reported with amazement that it worked, they could do it. What was happening was that the children were gazing, not at the storyteller, but at the story she was telling. The teller had become invisible, and the story worked much more effectively as a result.

—Philip Pullman, “Magic Carpets: The Writer’s Responsibilities,” Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group Conference, Leeds, Sept. 2002; in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, ed. Simon Mason (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 9-10. Ellipsis in original.

The False Choices of Pedagogy Critics

Framing the instructional situation as a set of either-or choices, such as abandoning textbooks in favor of primary sources or substituting student inquiry projects for teachers’ lectures, ignores the perennial challenges that history students and, consequently, history teachers face in trying to learn history and develop historical understanding. History is a vast and constantly expanding storehouse of information about people and events in the past. For students, learning history leads to encounters with thousands of unfamiliar and distant names, dates, people, places, events, and stories. Working with such content is a complex enterprise not easily reduced to choices between learning facts and mastering historical thinking processes. Indeed, attention to one is necessary to foster the other.

—Robert B. Bain, “‘They Thought the World Was Flat?’,” in M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds., How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2005), 180

College Students Mostly Feel Comfortable Speaking in Class, Study Finds Despite Itself

This week, Heterodox Academy—an organization founded in 2015 to promote “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement” in universities—released the results of a survey conducted in the fall of 2020 on U.S. college campuses.

This second annual Campus Expression Survey, in a report authored by Melissa Stiksma, a doctoral student in industrial-organizational psychology at George Mason University, purports to substantiate Heterodox Academy’s claim that “students and professors have been ‘walking on eggshells,’ censoring their opinions and thereby depriving others and themselves the opportunity to learn from counterarguments and constructive debate.”

Republican students are especially susceptible to self-censorship on campus, according to the report. To be sure, the report attributes this self-censorship primarily to the fear of other students’ opinions, rather than to fear of reprisals from professors or administrators. But Stiksma told Inside Higher Ed that it shows “that Republican students are not part of the conversation on some of the biggest issues” on American campuses.

These are bold claims related to heated public debates about the future of American higher education. But I find that the survey—on the whole—does not support these assertions.

Continue reading “College Students Mostly Feel Comfortable Speaking in Class, Study Finds Despite Itself”

“Remember the Roots of Our Discipline”

William Cronon’s presidential address, delivered on Jan. 4, 2013, in New Orleans.

In a distracted world …, and at a moment when there seems to be widespread public doubt about whether to continue supporting the study of the past as this organization has traditionally understood that activity, what is the future of history? There are many answers to this question, of course, and it is the job of the American Historical Association—and all of us—to offer those answers as effectively as we can to defend in public the continuing importance of history both in the United States and in the wider world. But for me, there is one answer that is arguably the most basic of all, and that is, simply: storytelling. We need to remember the roots of our discipline and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to us. Although the shape and form of our stories will surely change to meet the expectations of this digital age, the human need for storytelling is not likely ever to go away. It is far too basic to the way people make sense of their lives—and among the most important stories they tell are those that seek to understand the past. …

[T]he undergraduate classroom, far more than the graduate seminar, is where we take the results of our monographic research and place them in a much larger interpretive frame where we can show our students—and, by extension, our non-professional readers and ourselves—the larger meanings of our work. Original research is of course indispensable and lies at the cutting edge of disciplinary growth and transformation. But no one else will ever know this if we fail to come back from the cutting edge to integrate what we have learned into the older and more familiar stories that non-historians already think they know and care about. This is where we join other historical storytellers—journalists, novelists, dramatists, and filmmakers, as well as our academic colleagues in all the other historical disciplines—to keep asking what the past means and why ordinary people should care about it.

—William Cronon, “Storytelling” (presidential address to the American Historical Association), New Orleans, 2013

U.S. Adults Want Teachers Vaccinated

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in mid-February, adults in the United States have grown more concerned (since July 2020) about the effects of K-12 school closures on student academic progress. They have grown less concerned about the risk of SARS-CoV-2 spreading among students or teachers.

The risk of losing academic ground is now the leading factor cited by American adults as a determinant of whether schools should return to in-person instruction—ahead of students’ emotional wellbeing as well as pandemic transmission risks.

However, almost three in five American adults still say that K-12 school buildings should not reopen for in-person instruction until teachers have the chance to get vaccinated.

That becomes an overwhelming consensus among Black, Hispanic, Asian, and lower-income adults, as well as among Democrats, all of whom say, at least two-to-one and as much as four-to-one, that teachers should be vaccinated before K-12 schools return to in-person instruction.

In other words, statistically, the most vulnerable Americans are also the ones who most want teachers vaccinated before K-12 school buildings reopen.

You can find the news release about the report, along with links to the full data, at the Pew Research Center’s website.

A Century of PPE (the Other One)

I missed this article when it appeared in 2017, but I’ve just caught up with it thanks to the Guardian’s excellent Audio Long Read podcast.

Last year marked the centenary of PPE—not personal protective equipment, but the Oxford undergraduate concentration in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. As the headline of Andy Beckett’s story puts it, this is the “degree that runs Britain,” the university education of the UK’s political establishment.

Oxford PPE is more than a factory for politicians and the people who judge them for a living. It also gives many of these public figures a shared outlook: confident, internationalist, intellectually flexible, and above all sure that small groups of supposedly well-educated, rational people, such as themselves, can and should improve Britain and the wider world.

In Beckett’s telling, PPE’s history embodies the paradox or tragedy of western social democracy since the early twentieth century: What began in egalitarianism and emergency reform, in the wake of World War I and its attendant revolutions, became the province of a complacent rationalist-technocratic elite.

From the start, for some ambitious students, Oxford PPE became a base for political adventures as much as a degree. Hugh Gaitskell arrived at the university in 1924, a public schoolboy with no strong ideological views. There he fell under the spell of GDH Cole, an intense young economics tutor and socialist – the first of many such PPE dons – who was ‘talked about’, Gaitskell wrote excitedly later, ‘as a possible leader of a British revolution’. …

Yet during the postwar years, PPE gradually lost its radicalism. … By the late 1960s, despite the decade’s global explosion of protest politics, PPE was still focused on more conventional, sometimes insular topics. ‘The economics was apolitical,’ [Hilary] Wainwright remembers, ‘questions of inequality were not addressed. In politics, the endless tutorials seemed so unrelated to the crises that were going on. PPE had become a technical course in how to govern.’

Today, of course, PPE is the quintessential training for an elite that many observers consider moribund and insular in an age of global reactionary populism, hyperconcentrated capital, and institutional failure.

It seems to me that Andy Beckett’s essay offers a number of interesting points for American educators today to reflect upon. Many of us pride ourselves on educating “future leaders,” or something similar, and offer an expensive education to a relatively small section of U.S. society while also espousing egalitarian values. The history of PPE suggests what may come of such a paradox, for better or for worse.

The essay is especially interesting when we consider the nature of PPE as a course of undergraduate study:

‘PPE thrives,’ says [David] Willetts, a former education minister who is writing a book about universities, ‘because a problem of English education is too much specialisation too soon, whereas PPE is much closer to the prestigious degrees for generalists available in the United States.’

You can read the full story here, or you can listen to a narrator reading it—along with a new audio introduction by the author, who wryly observes that Oxford’s PPE might be relevant to Britain’s failures with respect to medical PPE during the current pandemic.

The Political Consciousness of the Teachers Who Made Black History Month

The creation of Negro History Week did not occur in a vacuum. It reflected a continuum of consciousness among Black educators, channeling an intellectual and political tradition long practiced in the private spaces of their classrooms. This class of teachers placed the needs of their students above protocols imposed by white school leaders. …

[T]hese educators insisted on the importance of providing students with cultural armor to repudiate the racial myths reflected in the nation’s laws, social policies, and American curriculum.

—Jarvis R. Givens, “The Important Political History of Black History Month”