The Imagination Sets the Terms

Ta-Nehisi Coates in a new interview:

I think we as political writers — and this is one of the reasons why I’ve been making comic books and other things — we can argue with people up one side, and down the other. You confront them with facts, and they’ll just look away. They’ll completely look away.

Because our politics occurs within the imagination of the citizen. If I don’t believe that black people are human, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me about policy. So the question is: How do we decide who gets to be human and who doesn’t? How do we decide who our heroes are, and who our heroes aren’t? All of that is tied together in the stories we tell ourselves. …

Willie Horton, the welfare queen. These things are dangerous because of their impact on policy. But they’re also dangerous because of how they make black people look in the white American imagination. And in some cases, in their own imaginations. Because it’s the imagination that sets the terms for what’s possible in terms of policy. And so popular culture matters. It’s a part of it too.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, interviewed by Eric Levitz in “Ta-Nehisi Coates Is an Optimist Now,” New York, March 18, 2019

Parachutists and Truffle Hunters

Front cover of ‘Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History’

American history educators sometimes find themselves taking sides in a peculiar long-running battle of the culture war.

One side in the battle says that history instruction has become relativistic and impressionistic, discarding coherent narratives for fragmented particular stories. People who take this side believe that history is in danger of losing public support as an integrating force in civic life, and that students have a tenuous grasp of fundamental facts.

The other side says that traditional narratives depict nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic inequality as the natural order of things. People who take this side believe that historians must encourage students to think of history primarily as a critical process. A reliance on unified traditional narratives, they think, tends to perpetuate injustice. And the traditional canon of facts is largely a collection of facts about wealthy white men—what about the facts students should know about other people?

The picture I have just drawn is too stark. Most academically trained history instructors I know actually have a foot in each camp. As a matter of theory, too, both camps make a point that could be valid, and I suspect most well-trained history teachers take the point. But we tend to think one camp’s complaint has been exploited to nefarious ends more than the other’s.

But here’s where I think the battle could be more useful to the profession than it typically is: It should lead us to think about how students construct or question the larger narrative frameworks that they necessarily rely upon to make sense of critical history.

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Pessimism and Primary Sources in the History Survey

My friend Eran Zelnik poses an interesting problem related to students’ “emotional well being” in history courses:

It was, oddly enough, when I went back to my own work on my book, that I finally realized what was troubling me. It was the narrative trajectories I keep employing [as a lecturer]. Virtually all of them start on a positive note and end on a somber one.

From lectures about New England and Virginia during the late seventeenth century, through lectures on the American Revolution, to lectures on Redemption and Jim Crow, they all started with opportunities lost and ended with the retrenchment of power structures of one variety or another to the detriment of the majority.

Since—as I keep saying—narrative is fundamental to history at all levels, I think Eran is right to raise this as an issue.

The problem crystallized in my mind one day a few years ago. In the modern U.S. survey, I was covering 1950s society and mass culture. My young students seemed entranced by the cultural optimism I was describing. I commented on their reactions, and some of them explained that they were fascinated by—and perhaps needed (I’m pretty sure that was their word)—a vision of American optimism about the future. For they had come of age in a pessimistic time. And, I suspect, they had been paying attention to the narrative trajectory of some of my other lectures.

(Don’t worry. I did plenty of things to complicate their picture of 1950s optimism.)

This matters for reasons beyond emotional health. First, historians’ habits of pessimism tend to produce cynicism about public affairs. Second, if left unchecked, our pessimism also does an injustice to the vulnerable and marginalized people of the past—people who built lives of meaning for themselves amid the large-scale public failures we describe.

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