Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story

Last weekend, in my response to Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, I focused on what I think Wilfred McClay got wrong about teaching U.S. history. I wrote that McClay’s version of an American nation-narrative lacks “a sense of real stakes, of divergent possibilities, of the weight of choices and conflicts in their own moments” because it shies away from conflict.

Land of Hope does not want its major American protagonists to have been disastrously, avoidably, mulishly wrong—they can have been badly mistaken, but they must have meant well. It apparently wants history’s apparent losers to have been inevitable victims, doomed by forces beyond anyone’s control or by paradoxes with no way out, rather than to have been acted upon by other people who made choices that could have been made differently, choices against which the oppressed protested and fought at the time. And it does not want national reform to have come through vicious struggles for power.

That last desire, I think, helps explain Wilfred McClay’s strident criticism of the “1619 Project” in other venues, despite the deeply patriotic and humane spirit it shows. The 1619 Project asserted not that America is irredeemably corrupt, as some of its critics seem to think it did, but that everything good about America has come through struggle—specifically, struggle by people who don’t play a very active role in Land of Hope. “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.” That is a contingency Land of Hope cannot seem to face.

The fear of contingency thwarts Land of Hope’s stated purpose of giving students an inspiring and coherent national narrative. Stories without meaningful conflict, without the possibility of different outcomes, are lifeless to everyone except perhaps those who identify most strongly with the actual outcomes. Worse, they are also ahistorical, in the sense that most academically trained historians believe contingency is a core concept of their discipline.

Yet I strongly sympathize with McClay’s goal of producing a student-friendly history of the United States that not only holds together as a story, but also provokes sustained reflection on normative American civic values. I often have been critical of academic training in history that does not teach instructors how to build narratives in the classroom.

I would even say that McClay’s narrative voice is often a voice I recognize in myself. We are both unabashed moralists, at the end of the day, committed to the idea that studying American history can make people better citizens. And frankly, I am quite conservative in temperament; there’s something in the book’s temperature, as it were, that I find comfortable—an inclination to be patient with flawed institutions, perhaps, and a conviction that it is as important to shore up valuable aspects of existing American life as it is to fight for reform.

So what is my alternative to McClay’s approach? How do I think a “great American story” can be told better? How, in fact, do I try to tell such a story in the classroom?

The critical thing is an understanding of historical truth that I think of as “dialogism,” drawing inspiration from the Russian philosopher M. M. Bakhtin’s theory of the novel. With the warning that I am nobody’s idea of a literary scholar, here’s the basic concept, clumsily adapted for my purposes.

To understand what dialogism is, think about the differences between two kinds of literature that have defined human understandings of the world: ancient epic poetry and the modern novel. These two forms of literature have obvious stylistic differences. But what’s really important is that they try to express truth differently.

In an epic, there will be dialogue among characters with different perspectives, but the narrator claims godlike authority to reveal the story’s final truth. “The world of [epic] poetry, no matter how many contradictions and insoluble conflicts the poet develops within in,” Bakhtin writes in a 1935 essay, “is always illumined by one unitary and indisputable discourse.” (286) Characters are only indulged in their fancies for so long before the poet, speaking the stilted and otherworldly language of authority, instructs us in what we should really think. In the epic, dialogue goes only so far.

In a novel, on the other hand, the meaning of the story is allowed to emerge from the “polyphonic” interplay of many different voices, which may freely express perspectives completely at odds with the author’s. Thus, the language of a novel expresses the living social world’s contradictions, oppositions, and plurality of communities. “The prose writer as a novelist,” Bakhtin writes, “does not strip away the intentions of others”; instead, he “welcomes them into his work,” and diverse perspectives “enter the novel and organize themselves within it into a structured artistic system.” (299-300)

It’s important to realize that openness to different voices does not make a novel entirely chaotic or relativistic. A well-defined story is still (usually) being told. But the author’s intentions are “refracted” and distributed among the novel’s characters and situations, and they emerge from conversation rather than from a narrator’s monologue. Indeed, it is likely, even in a highly coherent story, that the author’s own perspective on the events and characters is never explicitly expressed at all.

Novelistic discourse, as I understand Bakhtin’s conception of it, is closer to the modern historian’s understanding of how historical truth emerges from scholarship than epic discourse is.

An academically trained modern historian normally does not want to speak with the voice of God, no matter how sure she is that her interpretation of the past is better than others. This does not mean that she draws no historical conclusions. Nor does it mean that her study of specific “narrow” topics has nothing to contribute to larger stories, nor that her narrative of the past is hopelessly “fragmented” among different perspectives (as critics of academic history often allege). Instead, it means that her larger understanding of the past is refracted and distributed among different topics and perspectives from the past and the present.

You may or may not find this persuasive, but for the sake of the argument, let me carry on to explain what this has to do with teaching.

Here’s the question I’m trying to raise: Is it possible to bring novelistic-style historical discourse into the classroom, where students need larger stories to emerge in a way they can grasp quickly without spending a lifetime studying different pieces of the story?

I believe Land of Hope is basically skeptical that this is possible. Instead of trying to achieve that, it steers in the direction of epic discourse.

McClay seems to think that narrative coherence requires a book’s narrator to have an authoritative perspective on one set of meanings. The nation—as often happens in epics—serves as Land of Hope’s one indispensable protagonist. No matter what other perspectives come into play, and no matter how many contradictions appear among the human perspectives of the past, the narrator speaks for the nation itself, and the nation has a kind of transcendent superhuman authority.

But I want to be clear: McClay never claims that his story of American history is the only true story that can be told. He is an academically trained historian with an academically trained historian’s scruples. The problem is, I suspect, that McClay doesn’t see a way to present the many-voicedness of the historian’s imagination—in which the past is full of real contradictions—in a story that works in the classroom, conveying meaning to students.

In contrast, I do think novelistic discourse can work in the classroom. I think it can work very, very well.

Students can handle a history full of human contradictions. They can cope with this for the same reason that they can enjoy a novel full of human contradictions. They do not need the narrator to tell them which perspectives do or don’t really count.

What they need is an author—i.e., a textbook author or a teacher in the classroom—to give them a framework, a “structured artistic system,” in which past conversations can unfold with realistic openness and realistic effects.

Students need a history where characters don’t know what is inevitable and what isn’t. They need a history where characters can present each other with competing moral claims, some of which are commensurable and and some of which, unfortunately, are not. They need a history where characters can be truly, devastatingly disappointed, and where their disappointment actually matters. They need a history where people, not themes, make things happen. And they need a history where the nation itself, rather than being a transcendent force resolving contradictions through togetherness, is something humans are continuously fighting over, expelling each other from, and redefining.

In the classroom or in the textbook, we can do this by trusting the voices of the past, and by trusting our students. We can do it especially with primary sources—particularly when they were created in literal dialogue with each other—but we can also do it with microhistories, with ethnic studies, with global comparative studies, with biographies of history’s losers, with all the pieces of story that critics deride as supposedly fragmenting the national story, but which students can put to use as the very building blocks of that story.

The choice between small voices and a big story is a totally false choice. We just have to trust our students themselves to be story-making creatures.


Cited: M. M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981): 259-422.