Who Gets Historical Empathy?

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On Sunday, the Nebraska political scientist Ari Kohen learned he had been mentioned in a former student’s white-nationalist chat messages. I heard about this when Matt Gabriele, a medievalist, pointed out Kohen’s news on Twitter.

“They’re in our classes y’all,” Gabriele warned historians. “What’s your pedagogy?”

It’s a good question.

Teachers of history (and related fields) who imagine we can argue students into rejecting white-power ideology are mostly mistaken. Although white power involves many false beliefs, it amounts to nothing less than a conception of basic human social bonds and the nature of personal selfhood. Freeing oneself from such a hell of the imagination requires more than hearing refutations.

(That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t refute false ideas. The “backfire effect” is probably overblown. But refutation is only going to get us so far.)

Work of the imagination is required.

In this context, I’m among the historians who think the most powerful specialized tool we have for combating toxic ideologies is “historical empathy.”

But there’s an important problem with the way some of us try to use it.

Continue reading “Who Gets Historical Empathy?”

Goodness Happened Here

Map from inside the back cover of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

In the introduction to Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, his account of the rescue operation run by the villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during the Holocaust, Philip Hallie relates a story about the importance of allowing oneself to be moved by goodness:

For years I had been studying cruelty, the slow crushing and grinding of a human being by other human beings. I had studied the tortures white men inflicted upon native Indians and then upon blacks in the Americas, and now I was reading mainly about the torture experiments the Nazis conducted upon the bodies of small children in those death camps.

Across all these studies, the pattern of the strong crushing the weak kept repeating itself and repeating itself, so that when I was not bitterly angry, I was bored at the repetition of the patterns of persecution. When I was not desiring to be cruel with the cruel, I was a monster—like, perhaps, many others around me—who could look upon torture and death without a shudder, and who therefore looked upon life without a belief in its preciousness. My study of evil incarnate had become a prison whose bars were my bitterness toward the violent, and whose walls were my horrified indifference to slow murder. Reading about the damned I was damned myself, as damned as the murderers, and as damned as their victims. Somehow over the years I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape.

On this particular day, I was reading in an anthology of documents from the Holocaust, and I came across a short article about a little village in the mountains of southern France. As usual, I was reading the pages with an effort at objectivity; I was trying to sort out the forms and elements of cruelty and of resistance to it in much the same way a veterinarian might sort out ill from healthy cattle. After all, I was doing this work not to torture myself but to understand the indignity and the dignity of man.

About halfway down the third page of the account of this village, I was annoyed by a strange sensation on my cheeks. The story was so simple and so factual that I had found it easy to concentrate upon it, not upon my own feelings. And so, still following the story, and thinking about how neatly some of it fit into the old patterns of persecution, I reached up to my cheek to wipe away a bit of dust, and I felt tears upon my fingertips. Not one or two drops; my whole cheek was wet.

‘Oh,’ my sentinel mind told me, ‘you are losing your grasp on things again. Instead of learning about cruelty, you are becoming one more of its victims. You are doing it again.’ I was disgusted with myself for daring to intrude. …

But that night when I lay on my back in bed with my eyes closed, I saw more clearly than ever the images that had made me weep. …

Lying there in bed, I began to weep again. I thought, Why run away from that which is excellent simply because it goes through you like a spear? … [Cruelty] I knew. But why not know joy? Why not leave root room [sic] for comfort? (1-4)

—Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened Here. New York: Harper & Row, 1979

I came across this account when I was a teenager, at a critical time in my early historical education. Hallie’s story became part of the way I came to terms with what I was learning—part of the way I fended off a creeping sense of nihilism.

I revisit this story from time to time, and I’ve come to think it plays a crucial role in my understanding of the job of a history teacher. I’ve written before about the conviction that stories of goodness and defiance must be part of teaching. But this isn’t simply a matter of finding a way to have hope. Hallie explains how personal the stakes are. To allow a sense of joy in the face of goodness is necessary for remaining—or finding—ourselves.

The Snowflake Myth

 

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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

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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.

Religious Beliefs in History: Viewpoints versus Conclusions

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In the wake of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s recent annual conference, L.D. Burnett presents historians in the society with a question that relates to teaching as well as research. It’s a question about treating religious ideas with respect:

[S]hould we treat religious thought differently, as a special case, from other kinds of thought? Should we refrain from critiquing arguments as racist, or sexist, or anti-gay, or anti-woman, or anti-intellectual, because they proceed from a position of deep religious conviction?

That was the suggestion offered to me in conversation at USIH. …

These are the kinds of questions I have to think about as the editor of this blog. For, at the conference, someone suggested to me that religiously conservative intellectual historians feel unwelcome in this space.

I wasn’t a party to the original conversation and can’t address its particular context or nuances. But the question is important, and I think it comes up a lot in different forms.

For example, this question is part of the subtext of current academic debates over “viewpoint diversity.” (I hate that term, but it’s fairly widely used now.) In my understanding of the term, a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as a scholarly conclusion, so viewpoint diversity is different from what academics usually mean by “academic freedom.” It describes a much greater degree of intellectual openness and tolerance.

Continue reading “Religious Beliefs in History: Viewpoints versus Conclusions”

Teaching for Hope

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I try to end every history course on a contemporary note. Either we bring a second-half survey right up to the present (or to things my students can remember well) or we finish on a long-ago topic that has strong contemporary resonance. The best history courses leave some unfinished business. They tell a long story whose outcome we don’t know. There’s power in that.

That power comes from anxiety—mine as much as theirs. “Authenticity” or self-revelation usually doesn’t play much of a role in my conception of pedagogy, but at the end of a course, I try to let my personal apprehensions show a little. We’re living together in a time of obvious instability and change, and I don’t know the future any more than my students do.

If I’ve done my job well, my students now have an enlarged sense of how very bad things can get. (One of the things that has changed since I started teaching a decade ago is that I no longer have to fight my students’ naïve optimism to do that. A lot of today’s undergraduates are scared.)

But as I tell my students, historians dwell in the tense space between two realizations. First, we spend our time documenting how evil humans can be to each other, and how vulnerable every society has been. At the same time, we spend our time documenting how people have responded to danger: often foolishly, often oppressively, but also creatively, charitably, humanely, heroically.

At our best, we don’t tell stories about bright sides and silver linings. We tell stories about defiance.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Courage consists not of lacking fear, but of acting in spite of your fear. It’s in that sense that I try to make sure that my parting thoughts (as well as many moments earlier in the semester) are a call to courage.

I want my students to understand that the next part of the past, the part we haven’t covered because it hasn’t happened yet, is up to them and all the people they know and all the people like them.

They are the material of the histories of the future. That’s what hope means.

_______________

Image: Detail from George Frederic Watts, Hope, second version, 1886. Tate Britain via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Adjunctification by the Numbers: Two Real Scenarios for a History Education

We talk a lot about an adjunct crisis in America’s universities, and we talk a lot about a hiring crisis in the academic humanities. Today, despite a certain amount of trepidation, I would like to get specific. I’m going to talk about the history instructors at two real universities. There are a lot of institutions like them. I have chosen not to name them, but all of the numbers from them are real, and all of these figures come from the current semester.

Their differences as well as their similarities are instructive.

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Cass Sunstein’s Curiously Contradictory Case for Conservative Professors

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This week, the legal scholar and sometime Obama-administration official Cass R. Sunstein published an essay arguing that American professors are mostly liberals and that this is a problem. Notwithstanding the banality of that claim, his essay seems worth a reply, if only because Sunstein is a famous example of the liberal professors in question.

But upon closer inspection, the essay is remarkable for another reason: Sunstein has co-opted boilerplate conservative talking points about academic bias in order to make what appears to be a liberal argument for changing nothing about the liberal academy at all.

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The Most Misunderstood Purpose of Higher Ed

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Ask undergraduate students about the reasons for college, and you’ll probably get a mix of answers heavy in “to get a good job” and “to learn.” Ask academics and policy makers, and the answers will include “critical thinking skills.” And if you ask what makes a college education unique, critical thinking may top the list.

The truly distinctive goal of higher education, however, rarely gets much discussion.

Continue reading “The Most Misunderstood Purpose of Higher Ed”