Two years ago at Thanksgiving, I wrote about my gratitude for the ways Donald Trump’s America had become a great place to teach history. I think what I wrote has held up well.
This year, after another general election—and during a mismanagedpandemic that has already killed some of my friends’ relatives, made the death of one of my friends (from other causes) lonelier and more surreal, forced some students to drop my courses because they couldn’t function for weeks after they were infected, and made effective teaching at any level all butimpossible—I’m taking stock again.
It takes more effort to write it this time. But here’s why I’m still thankful I get to teach history in the age of Donald Trump.
Yesterday, a middle-school (collège) history and geography teacher named Samuel Paty was brutally murdered near his school in suburban Paris. French authorities say the murder was an organized Islamist terrorist attack. The killer, apparently a Chechen immigrant about eighteen years old, is said to have no other connection with the school or the teacher. French police have arrested nine people so far, though it’s not clear how many of those people were actually involved.
According to media reports, Paty seems to have been targeted because of a controversy that began early this month. That’s when showed his quatrième (eighth-grade) students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad—perhaps from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, itself targeted in a major terrorist attack in 2015 and a smaller attack just last month—as part of lessons on freedom of expression.
This outraged at least one Muslim girl and her father, who claimed the teacher had ordered Muslim students to leave class before showing students a “photo” of a naked man, saying it was a picture of the prophet. It’s not clear that this was accurate. Another parent said Paty “simply said to the Muslim children: ‘Leave, I don’t want it to hurt your feelings.’ That’s what my son told me.”
What’s most striking to me, here in the United States, is how the French government has rallied around Samuel Paty as a martyr to freedom and the secular republic.
President Emmanuel Macron said Paty was murdered “because he taught. Because he taught his students about liberty of expression, the liberty to believe and not to believe.” The minister of national education called him a representative of the French republic itself, “a servant of the state” as well as of his students.
In a wider context, some politicians and activists in France (and elsewhere) will certainly use this attack to advance anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim policies. That script is depressingly familiar.*
But the immediate context is also important, and we can reject the false choices offered by all kinds of extremists and bigots.
I don’t know exactly what happened in his classroom. But we can assume Samuel Paty knew it could be dangerous to teach in the way he believed best. He certainly knew about the recent history of Islamist violence in his own country—and knew that it has been connected, probably, with the very images he showed his class. Indeed, he was almost certainly teaching in direct response to a similar knife attack targeting Charlie Hebdo just days earlier.
Samuel Paty was a man of courage who ultimately gave his life for his students’ education.
History teachers everywhere know that doing our jobs well—with moral and civic conviction, with intellectual honesty, and with openness to the complexity of the world—means taking risks. Most of us will never face anything close to the kind of danger Paty faced, but any of us, under the right circumstances, could. And only rarely will any of us receive the kind of full-throated official support that Samuel Paty has received after his assassination.
Samuel Paty’s murder is a reminder that the work of teaching is the work of freedom.
Update: Twitter user Arnaud Léonard, a fellow history educator, points out an exhibition of drawings Samuel Paty’s students produced last year, based on the motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Themes of racial and religious harmony are prominent.
* Update 2: Sadly, in the weeks since I wrote this, it has become clear that Emmanuel Macron and his political allies have chosen to exploit Samuel Paty’s death, in the context of French racism and Islamophobia, as a pretext for authoritarian policies and catering to the French racist right. This shift in Macron’s public posture was alreadyunderway when Paty was killed. But what is striking now is how naked the power grab is—how directly and overtly it contradicts Macron’s claim to be defending the liberty of expression, as the French contemplate criminalizing protests on university campuses, censoring the research of scholars, and preventing public scrutiny of the police. Not only does this make a mockery of the French government’s espoused republican principles; it also dishonors the memory of Samuel Paty.
I have a short essay out now in Contingent Magazine. A couple of teachers have remarked that they have already found it useful for talking with high school students. (It’s probably short enough and glib enough to elicit a number of different kinds of responses.)
In the article, I consider the original purpose of that most mysterious of jury-rigged institutions, the electoral college—and I point out that, despite the stated intentions of some of its framers, the Constitution still does not guarantee Americans the right to vote for president at all.
“Fundamentally,” I argue, “the electoral college failed to work as designed because its design was contradictory in the first place.”
Of all the shameful things about many recent political attacks on The 1619 Project—some of them, more shamefully still, orchestrated by a handful of white historians—is this: Directly contrary to what they claim, The 1619 Project is an explicitly, even militantly patriotic set of documents.
Don’t believe me? Let me quote at length from Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which is the text that most attacks focus on. These passages are crucial to her argument.
My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard. The blue paint on our two-story house was perennially chipping; the fence, or the rail by the stairs, or the front door, existed in a perpetual state of disrepair, but that flag always flew pristine. …
Dad hoped that if he served his country, his country might finally treat him as an American.
The Army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted. He would be discharged under murky circumstances and then labor in a series of service jobs for the rest of his life. …
So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.
I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation. It seemed that the closest thing black Americans could have to cultural pride was to be found in our vague connection to Africa, a place we had never been. That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination.
Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us. …
Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all. …
In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.
My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand …
I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.
We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
That so many white Americans can read passages like these (or pretend they’ve read passages like these) and think they see an anti-American message, an attack on “patriotic history,” probably says a lot about the true nature of their so-called patriotism.
I get the sense that a couple of things aren’t clear to everyone responsible for making decisions in U.S. higher education right now.
Regardless of your opinion of online teaching—and most of us, broadly speaking, are at least mild skeptics—most U.S. colleges and universities will have to move to all-online teaching by the end of the fall semester. (In many states, governors will make that decision for them if they don’t make it themselves. Many may have to switch to all-online teaching before the semester even starts.)
You have to give college instructors months of advance time to plan if you want that to go well.
Granted, if your college or university is like most, it routinely hires adjuncts at the last minute—sometimes a matter of mere days before courses begin—to teach your gateway undergraduate courses. In normal times, it can get away with that, to some extent, because those are usually standard courses; either we have taught them before, or we have seen them taught many times, or we have taught courses fundamentally similar to them before.
But almost nobody has taught all of their scheduled fall courses—general-education, upper-division undergraduate, and graduate—in an all-online format before. And a vanishingly small number have ever taught them in whatever HyFlex panic mode your administration has tried to devise in order to keep campus open.
In general, instructors teaching college courses this fall will have to redesign them—often all of them at once, and often from the ground up—in order to have any hope of teaching in a reasonably effective way throughout the semester.
We needed to have clear, reliable guidance about formats and methods all this spring and summer to make this happen. Had received it, we would still be hard pressed to make things work.
As it is, it’s now July 15. Most U.S. colleges and universities will be in regular session within about a month and a half, and many have opted for early start dates. Right now, most U.S. colleges still claim that they will be open in a traditional face-to-face format this fall.
It was one thing to make an emergency pivot to online teaching in an unforeseeable crisis this spring. What’s about to happen this fall is something quite different.