Do Humanities Teachers Know How to Deradicalize Students?


This week, the Guardian and the BBC claimed to have uncovered the identity of an apparent neo-Nazi who may be responsible for some recent alleged terrorist plots inside the United States.

For my purposes, what’s most interesting is the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s report that this man attended an elite boys-only Catholic preparatory school (which offers a traditional college-preparatory liberal arts curriculum to help the young man develop the knowledge, skills, integrity, and sensitivity that distinguishes a self-renewing educated person“). Then he went on to study philosophy at Villanova University, another Catholic institution near Philadelphia. He apparently attended Villanova for three years and left without graduating, though a lot of things about his background are unclear.

I have no independent information about this story, and I’m approaching it with caution. Some aspects of the reporting are confusing and raise the possibility that things aren’t what they seem. However, other aspects of this story seem stereotypically consistent with other recent stories about the extreme rightincluding the man’s background in the humanities.

That’s what I want to focus on.

Continue reading “Do Humanities Teachers Know How to Deradicalize Students?”

Humanities Education’s Limits

One-room schoolhouse with flagpole, Seward County, Nebraska, 1938

I’ve seen this thought expressed a lot in the United States recently:

I shouldn’t speak for the author of that tweet, but typically (and in view of last night’s news) “this” would refer to some combination of political chaos, success by demagogues, bigotry and racism, and maybe voter apathy. (I’m guessing the author does not identify with the current president, in any case.)

In other words: Humanities education keeps democracy healthy. Conversely, poor funding and inadequate emphasis on humanities education contributed to the current lamentable state of political affairs in America.

As much as I share the goal of increasing public funding and support for humanities education―and I really, really do―and as much as I believe that humanities education does have a critical role to play in the health of a democracy, I’m skeptical of this causal claim. It may not be entirely wrong, but it’s far too simple.

It reminds me too much of other declension narratives about the American education system, from globalization-inspired stories about American children “falling behind” other children in the 1990s to the notion that Supreme Court decisions about school prayer and Bible-reading led to rising crime in the 1960s. Our schools absorb a lot of anxiety about the future of American society, and perhaps that is inevitable. But we should remember that the education system is only part of the institutional environment we live in.

(Also, on average, I suspect that the voters who strike Rebecca Makkai as the most easily manipulated didn’t get their formal education in the last twenty years.)

What larger institutional environment should we consider in this case?

First, more important than formal humanities education, or at least more pervasive in eligible voters’ thinking, are the cultural master narratives that different subcultures embrace. In our time, various groups of voters and nonvoters tend to envision American history—and calculate its urgency—very differently from each other. They also imagine that critical thinking and reading will lead to very different sets of conclusions about the aims of human life.

Continue reading “Humanities Education’s Limits”

The Snowflake Myth



Today, Vox published my first-person essay about safe spaces and trigger warnings. There’s a lot more to say—including some things that were actually in the longer draft. But I think what I wrote is a pretty good encapsulation of the reasons that I (and a lot of other American college instructors) find the current public discussion of these topics to be misdirected.

Here’s what I see as the heart of the matter:

None of them asked for a trigger warning. None asked for a safe space. If they had, they would not have been avoiding ideas. All my students have ever requested is a way to keep engaging with the content — all the content — of my courses, in spite of setbacks. In other words, they want to finish the work they started.  …

Whether the debate over trigger warnings involves criticism within the academy or attacks from outside, it has contributed to popular clichés and ideological grudges that have little to do with what most students learn. Its stereotypes about students are mostly slander. Worse still, it promotes cynicism and closes minds.

Membership Has Its Privileges


Today the Chronicle of Higher Education released new data on 2016 presidential compensation at nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States.

When Kenneth Starr left Baylor University in disgrace, his golden handshake made him the highest-paid university president of 2016—with total compensation of $4.95 million for the year. (We should all have such a discrediting.)

As Bloomberg points out, however, Starr has plenty of company in the millionaires’ club. The average college president, of the hundreds who are included in the Chronicle data, made $560,000 in total compensation for the year.

In the age of adjuncts, online classes, and lethal levels of student debt, university presidents’ compensation packages are only growing—and rapidly. Together with the toadyism of the many people who defend such avarice in “nonprofit” institutions, it’s one of the most ludicrous and transparently self-serving elements in the general crisis of American higher education.

Why I’m Thankful I Teach in the Age of Trump


This is a cross-post of today’s content on Teaching United States History, where I am blogging during the current academic year.

The 2016 election launched countless anxious responses from American academics. Many instructors reworked their syllabuses. Some worried about being targeted for harassment. Many became more explicit in the classroom about their political views. A creative writing professor, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, declared that “expanding the study of history could be an essential bulwark against the rising tide of misinformation, manipulation, and lies.”

“On a superficial level,” wrote Frank Cogliano, who teaches in Scotland, “Trump’s good for the business of teaching history. We’ve got more students than ever in our courses. … One of the unforeseen consequences of his election is that there’s probably not been a time in recent memory when it has been more to vital to be an historian.”

As others pointed out, though, there was nothing really new about the urgency of U.S. history in the age of Trump. What was new, perhaps, was the attention white Americans were paying. As my fellow Teaching U.S. History contributor Robert Greene observed this summer, “African Americans have led the way in this fight for over a century, refusing to yield to an explicitly white supremacist interpretation of the past.”

My modest contribution to this genre in the summer of 2017 was to argue a bit peevishly that the main job of college history teachers hadn’t changed at all.

* * *

Now two years have passed, and another general election has taken place in the United States, altering the political scene a bit. And this is the week of Thanksgiving. So I’m going to take stock and give thanks for one of the blessings I’ve received.

Continue reading “Why I’m Thankful I Teach in the Age of Trump”

Teaching for First-Time Voters


With a U.S. general election coming up on Tuesday, I’ve been encouraging my students to vote. I included voter registration information in my syllabuses, sent out email alerts as the state registration deadline approached, and explained the basic registration rights of college students in class.

I’m sure some students are voting by absentee ballot in home counties or states. (Pennsylvania does not offer early in-person voting.) For those who registered locally, it’s time to do what I can to encourage personal turnout.

Continue reading “Teaching for First-Time Voters”

Teach September 11


A traditional undergraduate entering college this fall was probably an infant on September 11, 2001. Across my courses, most of my younger students no longer remember the day itself. They remember fragmented impressions of its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of older family members and teachers. Or they remember only the impression that something really bad had happened. They summon up images of adults in tears, holding mysterious school assemblies or sending them home early, trying vainly to comfort themselves by offering comfort to uncomprehending kids.

September 11, which I do remember vividly, now occupies the same role for many of my students that the late days of the Cold War had for me. It was a moment of tectonic power, causing frequent aftershocks ever since, that defines their lives without their really being there for it. But there is a difference.

Continue reading “Teach September 11”

National Museum of Brazil


For the U.S. survey, I’ve just updated tomorrow’s usual lecture on human migration to the Americas to include a specific discussion of “Luzia.”

Having lived about 11,500 years ago, she was one of the oldest sets of human remains in the Americas. She has been a subject of ongoing study, a crucial piece of evidence for researchers debating human arrival and migration patterns in the hemisphere.

She may have been destroyed in the fire that consumed Brazil’s Museu Nacional last night—perhaps one loss to scholarship among millions. I hardly know what to say, but I hope to use the fire as a terrible occasion to emphasize the fragility of historical knowledge, its interconnectedness across regions of the world, and the necessity of robust public funding to protect it.


Image: A cast of Luzia’s skull at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Ryan Somma. Shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

History, Liberalism, and Myth-Making

Detail from Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Windows on the City, 1912

In the Chronicle Review, Patrick Iber has an essay called “History in an Age of Fake News.” I think it describes an excellent approach to teaching history. Overall, it’s concerned with how to respond to contemporary attacks on the expertise of historians. How, Iber asks, can historians justify their work as something that is politically potent—carrying urgent implications for public policy and social debates—but also grounded in, or at least undertaken in pursuit of, objective facts? How can we show that good history is different from partisan historical hackery?

Just beneath the surface, though, Iber’s essay also raises questions about how far good historical thinking can go toward producing (not just interrogating) our political commitments. I sense some ambivalence on that score, and I’d like to talk about it here.

First, I really like Iber’s take on the implicit politics of the historical profession. He argues that there’s a sort of self-doubt inherent in the historical enterprise, and therefore a “soft liberalism” among professional historians as a whole. He says this transcends scholars’ individual political commitments:

To think historically is also to see things from multiple perspectives; it is a necessary skill to think through the actions of others. When we look into the past, we see that people held views that were compatible with the way they lived. We see that their outlook on the world was a product of their time, their position within society, and their character. What seemed right and what seemed wrong to them had a great deal to do with their time in history, the society in which they lived, and the kind of power they had, or did not have. Historical thinking demands that we recognize that the same is surely true of us. Our present will soon become someone else’s past, and nothing puts us outside the influence of the social forces of our own time. We too will one day be judged as flawed, and as products of our own time, just as we now see those who lived in past decades, centuries, and millennia.

The study of history often imparts a kind of humility about what actions will produce the kinds of social changes that might be judged desirable. That humility, along with the ability to grasp the logic used by even those we find disagreeable, is why historical thinking, as the scholar Nils Gilman put it, tends to ‘sand off the rough edges of ideology.’

These professional commitments and habits do make a kind of soft liberalism the modal politics of the profession, even as a range of views, from right to left, can be found in most departments. Seeing oneself as a part of history tends to be equalizing: It exposes the radical contingency of your own existence, which usually results in taking the humanity of others as seriously as your own.

That, of course, raises the question of how historians can be radically humble and open while also standing by the knowledge they produce when it comes under attack—especially by people who do not share any of that humility. Here I think Iber concedes a bit too much to the elusive ideal of objectivity, in that he apparently allows a dichotomy between accuracy and political bias:

Nevertheless, we can’t allow politicized attacks on the profession to define our posture when we speak in public. Sometimes journalists are pressured to report ‘both sides’ of a conflict, without trying to sift their way to the truth. That is not how historians can, or should, act. Truths can be complex, but we cannot descend to the point at which ‘describing things as they occurred, with evidence’ is considered politically biased. We have a professional obligation to portray, as best as we are able, things as they are or were.

Sometimes this will have political implications, and that can’t be avoided. Nor do we have an obligation to be ‘balanced’ by the standards of today’s political divisions, because history was not in any way determined by today’s political divisions (the opposite is closer to the case). Some mythologies about the past are more accurate than others.

I think I would put that a bit differently. The struggle is not to preserve or assert the existence of a political-bias-free core to our histories. The struggle is to show that, although every observer has political biases (partialities, prejudices, predispositions, tendencies), even the most biased people can, by committing to factuality and fairness and rigorous research as well, tell the truth more reliably than people in similar circumstances who do not share these commitments. It’s not a lack of bias that makes an account truthful, but its relationship to other dispositions beyond bias.

I don’t know how historians can make a public case for that except by modeling it for people. For most professional historians, in the long run, there are probably only two ways to do that: by writing good opinionated history for a wide audience, and by teaching in opinionated yet fair ways.

Now, when he writes about teaching, Iber describes a method I endorse completely. Here again, though, I have a quibble with the underlying theory:

In classrooms, we have a slightly different set of responsibilities. We will have students who span the political spectrum, and those who are apolitical or undecided. It is our job and our responsibility to teach them all, at a time when they may have trouble agreeing with one another or even conversing across these lines of difference. One way to breach these walls is to explain that we see ideas and ideologies as historically produced. …

To demonstrate that historical methods are frequently counterpropagandistic, we should present the documents that have led us to our conclusions. Classes should become more like labs, with students constructing knowledge out of the raw materials of primary documents. But we can’t imagine that brute empiricism will always be persuasive, because the historical record may provide challenges to personal and political identities that will be hard to overcome. As best as we can, we should strive to be clearer than ever about the ways that remembering (and forgetting) are put in the service of contemporary politics.

My quibble—and it’s possible that I’m simply overreading Iber here—is that I don’t think “brute empiricism” is ever really a thing. Nobody’s political views, or views about anything, ever derive from simply absorbing facts. They derive from what Iber, earlier in the essay, calls myths—”powerful stories that guide our understanding of the world,” which transcend the details of any specific factual case.

Which leaves me with the nagging question I referred to at the beginning: Can good history, produced and taught in the open and fair way Iber describes, help create those political commitments? Can it be a legitimate part of a person’s political “myth-building”? Or is history’s only legitimate function a negative one, calling myths into question?

I could be wrong, but I think Iber himself may be unsure what to think about this question. He implies that our necessary political myths are both empirical and biased, and that this creates a conundrum for the historian: “As these myths are made out of the raw material of historical events, they depend on remembering, but also on forgetting. Yet, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, the historian’s business ‘is to remember what others forget.'”

I don’t think this really works, to be honest. Historians are, at the end of the day, narrators and arguers. However much we may disguise the fact, we are telling stories about cause and effect, about people’s lives over time, about choices, about the emergence of new phenomena, about all kinds of change, and about why they matter. And narration and argumentation always involve omission—”forgetting,” at least temporarily—as well as inclusion. Otherwise no book would ever end.

In other words, I think historians are myth-makers in the sense that Iber uses the term, and I think any explanation of how we are also committed truth-tellers has to account for this aspect of the work.

I find the solution to this problem in the historian’s role as a committed humanist: We believe that perspectives are multiple and partial, but we also believe that there is something that all human beings have in common and can recognize in each other, and we believe it should induce moral commitments in us, however tentative and flawed. Our choices as narrators and arguers flow from this ontology (and from the subsidiary commitments we have developed around it over time through dialogue with others’ work).

That is not an account of history that really lends itself to refuting charges of “political bias” when they come from people who are committed to hatred, oppression, or exclusion. Its legitimacy can only be demonstrated through doing history well, and thus inducing the kinds of humane moral commitments that make the work of fair truth-telling valuable in the first place.


Image: Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Windows on the City, 1912. Kunsthalle Hamburg via Wikimedia Commons.