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.

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

Teaching the Long-Term in a Time of Crisis

We live, as the imprecation says, in interesting times.

In part because most American historians are now on a summer break—a time for rest, research, writing, stock-taking, and other critical activities we set aside during the regular teaching year—many of my friends have been reflecting on their need to feel their work is somehow significant to the world. Do the things they write actually matter? Is academia a worthwhile use of a short lifetime? And how does anybody find a way to focus in this environment?

A few friends have commented, however, that their sense of living in a time of crisis makes them eager to return to the classroom. They can’t wait to talk with students again, to tell a story about how we reached this point and explore the turning points along the way and encourage students to take action.

I wouldn’t say I’m eager for summer to end. There’s a lot to do before the end of August. But otherwise, I’m as eager as anyone to teach through this moment. The question is, how should I approach that task? This autumn, as usual, I will be teaching mostly first-half survey courses that end with events of either 150 or 500 years ago. My spring courses usually involve a lot of direct commentary on current events, simply by virtue of their chronological structure, but most of my autumn courses don’t—unless by careful design.

There’s a lot to say about how I can engage in that kind of design, by highlighting certain topics and training students in certain critical tools. I will probably write about that on other occasions.

In the past few years, however, I’ve grown more conscious that these first-half survey courses are also crucial for understanding our own time in less direct ways. Here’s how I’ve shifted my teaching approach to make the most of the opportunities they present.

First, I’ve been trying to cover more material in more detail—of all kinds. When I began teaching college, my overriding concern was to capture the imagination. I wanted to make history interesting and cultivate habits of mind that would keep people studying history after the course was done. I haven’t abandoned that commitment at all. Now that I have a repertory of techniques for meeting it, however, I’m working a lot harder to cover many different topics that may come up later as background for the news, and to test my students’ factual knowledge about them. Basically, this means I’m trying to do a better job dispelling (or anticipating) all kinds of misconceptions and myths about the past, not only the ones that seem most salient right now. (In some ways, I suppose, this makes my teaching approach more old-fashioned than it used to be.) So far, I’ve been very happy with the results.

Second, I’m trying to show my students the difference between the myth that “history repeats itself”—a notion that tends to make people easy to manipulate with bad analogies—and the truth that humans in different times and places tend to have similar concerns and make similar mistakes in all kinds of different combinations, but in ways that cause long-term structural changes. I haven’t come up with a pithy way to say this, but I do like the joke that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I think this insight is crucial for preparing students for creative action in the world.

Third, I have become more conscious that students need to understand how slow, hard-fought, and fragile most great historical changes have been. This means, for example, that instead of grouping everything about a topic in one place—an obvious and infamous case would be the way some US history courses throw everything about slavery and abolition into one week—I try more and more to scatter references to any particular struggle across the course so that it pops up repeatedly in something more like real time. I think this is something I’m still learning how to do well; I have a long way to go.

Finally, in times of obvious crisis, I think it’s more important than ever to demonstrate the existence of mundane beauty, goodness, and resilience in past times and places.

The way we teach history can promote apocalyptic habits of mind: If anything interesting is happening in a human society, our students infer, it’s either a catastrophe, a marvelous deliverance, or a slow steady march of progress into utopia. When students perceive themselves to be living in a time of crisis, the last option is completely unavailable. I believe this is corrosive to healthy attitudes. It’s not simply that this way of teaching nurtures paranoia and makes ordinary life more difficult. For many people, a bit paradoxically, it’s also destructive to political willpower in the long term.

Of course, there certainly are plenty of truly apocalyptic moments to talk about in any history course, and they’re crucial to cover well. But most of human experience, and indeed, most of the human struggle, consists of people trying to make meaningful and reasonably happy lives together under difficult conditions. All people—from the most vulnerable to the most powerful—do this in circumstances that, when everything is accomplished, lead to their deaths. Mortality is the most reliable historical fact, the most insurmountable social problem. Apocalyptic thinking (as a general state of mind), oddly enough, is based on the implicit denial of its universality.

Nobody gets out of the past alive, but that doesn’t make the past a desert. We have to find ways to honor this fact. That task is critical if we want to avoid pessimism. The ultimate lesson of history must include the insight that everybody lives, not only that everybody dies. So I’m trying to get better at finding ways to portray the everyday vibrancy that’s there in the past. I want my courses to have more voices, more experiences, more forms of happiness and quotidian triumph.

I think that attending to these long-term, structural features of any history course can be as important as anything else teachers do. It may well be as important for teachers as for students.

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Image: Front page of the New York Tribune, June 29, 1914. Library of Congress.

Facing Facts (and Avoiding Alarmism)

pewreport-factopinion-1This morning, I saw a Reuters story with an alarming lede: “Only a quarter of U.S. adults in a recent survey could fully identify factual statements—as opposed to opinion—in news stories, the Pew Research Center found in a study released on Monday.”

Well, that doesn’t sound good, I thought.

This seems like important territory for history instruction to address. It might also provide a useful reading for students. So I pulled up the Pew report in question: “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News” (by Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel and Nami Sumida, dated June 18, 2018).

There’s a lot to like about the way this study was conducted. But I have concerns.

Continue reading “Facing Facts (and Avoiding Alarmism)”

Free Minds at Middlebury

MiddleburyCollege-

Shawna Shapiro, a professor at Middlebury College—where Charles Murray was shouted down during a talk last year—has supervised an undergraduate research project on Middlebury students’ attitudes toward free speech and ideological differences. What the researchers have found might seem surprising—unless you know many college students.

The project is called “Middlebury Students Engaging Across Difference”:

Students want to engage with ideological difference. As many as 89 percent of all survey participants, including 83 percent of left-leaning students (who made up 71 percent of the sample), said that it was “important” or “very important” to them to have conversations about controversial issues with people who have a viewpoint distinct from their own. …

Many students (58 percent) are having such conversations on at least a weekly basis. We asked those we surveyed to note all of the locations where such interactions tend to occur. They reported that they are more prevalent over a meal (78 percent) or in the residence halls (65 percent) than in classrooms (53 percent) or at public lectures (38 percent).

The majority (almost 80 percent) reported that such conversations, when they do occur, can be difficult to navigate. Many survey participants said the discussion too quickly devolves into a debate where, as one put it, “We’re talking at people instead of with them.” An interviewee said it’s easy to forget to “see the person as a person and not just a clump of ideas.” Students expressed a keen desire for interactions centered on empathy—not just “being right.” Many said they don’t feel heard, but they also admitted that they struggle to listen fully to others as well. …

A further complication is that fear of social marginalization is pervasive, particularly on a small, residential campus like ours. “The fear of ostracization is terrifying … of being the only one and a social outcast,” one interviewee explained. Some students claimed that this fear created a dynamic of “bandwagoning” in which “many people just seem to agree with one another for the sake of having the correct opinion.” One student framed the situation as “rhetorical gymnastics.”

Unsurprisingly, some students decide only to engage in these conversations with close friends, recognizing that probably limits the range of perspectives represented since “friend groups … often have similar ideas and opinions [as] mine.” Others feel differently: “I do not want to create a conflict with friends,” one said, adding, “It is also difficult to be in a relationship with someone when you disagree on most things political.” Students in this latter group expressed a preference for conversations in a more structured environment like the classroom.

I have no idea how representative the sample is, and of course this could capture only how Middlebury students think they think. But eighty survey respondents would be about three percent of the Middlebury student population. In any case, if this description is accurate, the typical respondent sounds … pretty much like everybody else who talks about politics under free conditions in a small community.

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Image: Postcard, “Lower Campus, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont,” mid-20th century. Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection, Boston Public Library.