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.

Painted in Bright Colors

Photograph of the cover of the book Everything Happens for a Reason

I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer had made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

—Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (New York: Random House, 2018), 123

Teaching for Hope

George_Frederic_Watts_Hope_1886

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.

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

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.