Teaching Angry

I’m angry today. I’ve been angry all weekend.

Sad too. But mostly angry. And my students are going to hear about it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve prepared to teach angry this semester. The term began just days after a special grand jury released a report about decades of child sex abuse and coverups by Catholic priests and bishops across Pennsylvania. I happen to teach at two Catholic colleges in Pennsylvania. As the semester started, I had already heard from people whose faith was shaken—and from a few people whose first impulse, disgracefully, was to explain away some of what the report revealed.

I responded in all my classes by incorporating the report into the first week’s standard orientation discussion—”syllabus day.” First I talked about my general aims for each course and why I think history is important. Then I read part of the report’s amazing preface:

We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. … [W]e are not satisfied by the few charges we can bring, which represent only a tiny percentage of all the child abusers we saw. We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated [because too much time has passed]. This report is our only recourse. We are going to name their names, and describe what they did – both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve. And we are going to make our recommendations for how the laws should change so that maybe no one will have to conduct another inquiry like this one. We hereby exercise our historical and statutory right as grand jurors to inform the public of our findings.

As I told my students, the imperatives in the grand jury report are the same imperatives that should guide us as students of history. We seek to tell the truth about real people’s pasts, both out of respect and in order to build a better world for the future.

Specifically, I offered my students the following guidelines for “Ethics for Living With History”:

  • Have courage to pay honest attention
  • Recognize humanity everywhere you see it
  • Pay special attention to the vulnerable
  • Look for moments of grace–not a bright side
  • Live through, with, and against the contradictions
  • Recognize your complicity
  • Hold the powerful to account

Now I’m preparing to teach angry again.

Today, I’m angry that a white Gentile man, who apparently is terrified of immigrants and refugees—he reportedly called them “invaders,” echoing now-common rhetoric of the mainstream American right—launched a terrorist attack against a synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday, killing eleven people as they worshiped. According to his social media posts, he was specifically obsessed with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s support for Latino immigrants. His hatred of Latinos, and perhaps those “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” that Donald Trump has claimed are part of a migrant caravan now moving through Mexico, apparently fed his hatred of Jews. (To be clear, the Pittsburgh terrorist is said to have denounced Trump for being too welcoming to Jewish people.)

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Eleven innocent people have died because of his obsessions, some of which national politicians and pundits have stoked for political gain.

And that was only the last act of a week that saw a man in Florida send mail bombs to people he allegedly believed were Donald Trump’s enemies, and another man apparently try to massacre a black church before killing two black customers at a grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky.

As somebody who became deeply invested in the history of the Second World War as a kid, I’m angry that I have lived to see such a time in America. I’m angry that I haven’t done more to fight these hatreds, or that my efforts haven’t been enough. I’m angry that—like many white Americans—I know people who have started down the road of racist radicalization, and I feel helpless to do anything to save them or the people they could hurt. I’m angry that I still have friends and family members who make excuses for them.

I don’t do political grandstanding in class. I have strong political views and don’t shy away from controversial historical topics, but I respect my students’ intelligence and know that they have to reach their own conclusions. I respect the boundaries of my courses and the boundaries of my expertise; I believe that what I say in class needs to be directly relevant to the course topics and the disciplinary training I have received. I have never suggested that my students should vote for a particular politician or party. I’m even registered as an independent, despite stressing for my students the importance of the party system, specifically as a way to maintain my professional integrity in the classroom.

But guess what? In my classes right now, I’m teaching the early history of Islam. And the history of religious change and xenophobia in Jacksonian-era America. And the history of anti-Semitism and other forms of immigrant-hatred in the late-nineteenth-century United States.

Independence is not neutrality. Relevance dictates that I do say something.

Here’s the advice I think I’m going to give my students this week for “Historical Ethics for a Time of Hatred.” I’ll boil this advice down for PowerPoint slides, as one does. But here’s the longer form.

First, I’ll tell them, resist xenophobia. Recognize that fear spreads, like water from compartment to compartment in a sinking ship, from one target group to the next—so the demonization of one group of people facilitates the demonization of the next. Fight xenophobia everywhere, not just where you think it matters. Recognize as well that everyone has their own life to live—their own goals, struggles, and fears that almost never have anything to do with you. What does this mean for students of history? It means we must work to look for, and describe, the beauty and the pain in other people’s stories as a way to portray them in their full humanity. That is how we will fight demonization historically.

Second, resist essentialism (a term I introduced early in the course). Recognize that generalizations, even true generalizations, aren’t living people. A generalization cannot tell the full story of an individual, let alone a society or culture. And recognize that we all start from somewhere. We can easily see the dynamism of our own lives; we know that we change over time, that we have ambiguous commitments, that we make mistakes, that we’ve been wrong about things but changed our minds. We must extend that same right to change, that same grace, to other people. For students of history, this means trying to honor and describe the immense variety of people’s past experiences—including especially the ways our own communities have been wrong in the past.

Third, resist paranoia. To do this, we must understand the powerful allure of obsession; we must understand how easily a small untruth, or even a small truth, can stamp every facet of our image of the world with a giant lie. Speaking of which: Telling lies is what fear does. That includes even well-founded fear, if you give it free rein. Your feelings, or what’s happening inside your head, are not the same thing as external reality. And most of the time, things in the world aren’t about you at all. In historical study, we can resist paranoia in ourselves, and discourage it in others, by going out of our way to honor goodness and truth wherever we can find it in the human past.

Finally, resist complacency. We must recognize that everything humanity has accomplished, everything of worth in our lives, is fragile. We are fragile too; we are all going to die someday. This means we can all be hurt by any of the same forces that we allow to hurt other people. And it means we need to make our time on earth count. We also need to recognize the privilege and power we have. However rich or poor we may be in our own terms, we belong to a tiny elite among the humans who have lived. We are wealthy, we are articulate, and we have access to unparalleled information and sources of wisdom. When we have all these advantages, our silence in the face of hatred is complicity. What does this mean in the context of historical studies? It means we need to remind the world, and ourselves, of the true cost of a humane and free society. We must remind each other through historical work that free societies are built, and open societies are maintained; they are not simply inherited.

historicalethics

Also, I’m going to remind my students that they’re adults now, and most of them are U.S. citizens, and they need to act like it. Taking responsibility for their own communities means getting out to vote.

_______________

This post has been updated with some of the slides used in class this week. The background images, taken from news reports for educational purposes, have been blurred out of respect for the copyright holders.

4 thoughts on “Teaching Angry”

  1. Sure, John. That line was specifically concerned with the needs of Catholic students (probably a majority of each of my classes, at least in background) who might be questioning their place in the institution of Pennsylvania Catholicism. Basically, I encouraged them to be honest with themselves, and to face problems and evils squarely — that’s the “against” part — but not to think they needed to have all the answers or solutions immediately. Experiencing cognitive dissonance or divided commitments is part of working through the historical truth sometimes.

    Looking back, I don’t think that line is very clear. I was struggling to find a way to say something like “Be honest about the contradictions you see and how serious they are, but don’t panic (which might shut down your search for the truth) if you don’t have complete solutions yet.”

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