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.
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.
When I began teaching history, I would jump into the course narrative as early as possible. My key goal was to avoid boring the students. A secondary goal was to cover a full textbook chapter each week. So after syllabus-and-roster preliminaries, I would launch directly into a lecture that introduced, e.g., the peoples of North America prior to European contact–often in our very first class meeting.
The first time I taught a survey of premodern world history, however, I decided to try a different approach. Starting out in World History I, it seemed, my students needed less a flood of specific historical information than insight into anthropology, sociology, and historical reasoning in general. Also, my textbook and document reader were a couple of chapters short of the usual fifteen, so I needed to add material. Thus, almost on a whim, I inserted something new to the schedule: “Week 1: Prologue and Basic Concepts.” It introduced my students to the rudiments of historical research and writing.
I had been worried about boredom, but my students responded well. They seemed to find it interesting to talk about history as a process of investigation, to puzzle out strategies for telling truer and more creative stories about the past. I was lecturing, yes, but these were topics that lent themselves to an interactive sort of lecture; students could directly engage with these questions without much background knowledge at all.
Taking the time to discuss basic theory made for an excellent first week in the survey. I was also amazed to note that some students brought up concepts from the first week later in the course.
These days, I start all of my survey courses this way, even when it requires some fancy footwork later in the semester to make up the “lost” time. At first, this seemed a bit more awkward in U.S. history courses than in world history courses, but I think I’m over that now.