Monday, March 16, 2015

"That's Stupid": Dismissal versus Understanding

Do take the time to read John Fea's short post on "Thinking Historically With Pro-Slavery Documents." Sam Wineburg reminds us, historical thinking is an unnatural act. Historical thinking requires my students to understand [pro-slavery] figures from the past before they pass moral judgment. I tell them that such moral criticism is certainly possible in a history course, but it is not the primary goal as it might be in one of their Bible or ethics courses. I want my students to suspend judgment and make every effort, through the help of me and the other historians who they read, to place themselves in the world of the antebellum south. This kind of thinking cultivates virtues such as empathy, intellectual hospitality, and humility--virtues that my students will soon need when they leave the Messiah College bubble and engage a world where they will run into people with whom they do not agree. 
Arguing about Herbert Butterfield's The Whig Interpretation of History with Richard Gamble in Hillsdale inaugurated a transformation in my historical thinking. As an undergraduate, my first impression of Butterfield was that this was some wishy-washy amoral relativist who lacked the courage to name evil where he saw it--a rather hilarious conception in hindsight. Fortunately, Dr. Gamble was willing to set aside a significant portion of his time to discuss the book with me outside of class. Remarkably, I don't recall any eye-rolling or even a hint of impatience in his demeanor throughout what must have been a pretty old-hat conversation.

Later that year, reading John Lukacs' writing--especially Historical Consciousness--instigated the next step, which was grasping that it is not objectivity but understanding that the historian seeks. Lukacs helped me understand that the pursuit of perfect objectivity requires distance from the object of study, whereas the pursuit of understanding (and here is where Lukacs gets compared so strongly with R.G. Collingwood) requires intimacy.

There's much more to be said about all that, of course, but I just wanted to note how much Professor Fea's post resonated with me--even though he teaches at Messiah College, whereas I teach middle school. I find that most of my students have one automatic response to anything unfamiliar: "That's stupid." One of my goals is always to get them to put that judgment aside and seek to understand before dismissing. I make a point of doing so with slavery advocates.

But I've also found that antebellum South is far from the only historical subject that provokes this response. The issue of "state and church" relationships often brings out the same dismissive incredulity. Virtually all of my students assume the givenness--the naturalness and inevitability--of religious pluralism and, perhaps more significantly, the private individualism of religion. That a government would ever feel the need to intrude on private religious practice seems not simply wrong but flat-out absurd. And that a state would not only censure religious beliefs but even execute heretics and pagans is practically inconceivable.

Given that most societies and civilizations in human history have assumed the opposite--that the public has a vested interest in an individual's religious beliefs--this premise naturally creates a certain barrier to historical understanding. Getting students to do the work to understand why so many in the past had such different assumptions--rather than dismiss those differences out of hand as stupid--is the challenge.