Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?


Please help me think through this.

In my last post, I embedded a video of Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and writer Leon Wieseltier discussing the role of humanities in everyday life.  In the course of their discussion they talked about the way in which the humanities teaches empathy.  Faust is a historian.  She suggested that the study of history challenges students to see the world through the eyes of others.  Wieseltier agreed.  Empathy is needed for democracy to thrive. It is cultivated through the imagination.  And the humanities trigger the imagination.

As readers of this blog know, I have been arguing this for a long time.  On Sunday I gave a lecture on this subject at a local church in my area and have led similar public discussions on this topic in the past.  The relationship between historical thinking, empathy, and democracy is at the heart of my book Why Study History? and, in many ways, at the heart of my vocation as a historian who takes seriously my responsibility to the public.

When I teach I want my students to empathize (not necessarily sympathize) with the so-called “other.” I want them to understand people in the past on their own terms.  I want to do the best I can to get my students to walk in the shoes of people who are different than them.  (I know, I know, you have all heard this from me before!) Yesterday I was laboring in my American Revolution class to get students to understand Shays’s Rebellion from both the perspective of the men in Boston governing Massachusetts and the perspective of the rural Massachusetts farmers who were getting squeezed by the breakdown of a moral economy and high taxes.  I wanted them to grasp why those in power articulated a language of republican virtue.  I also wanted them to understand the sense of desperation, hopelessness, and anger that the farmers felt. Primary documents, of course, were our guide in this exercise.

As I write, I am reminded once again of Sam Wineburg’s words about historical thinking and how this practice relieves us of our narcissism:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

If humanities and history education is about leading students outward then what do we do about students in our class who only want to see themselves in the past?  What do we do with the students who only want to look inward?  What do we do with students who (whether they realize it or not) only want to see the world through the lens of identity politics? What do we do with the students who resist this kind of humanities education because they are angry and resentful about the way their people have been treated in the past?  (These students don’t want to hear a lecture about empathy).  What do we do with the privileged student who could care less about such an exercise?

I started thinking about these things more deeply after I read Columbia University historian Mark Lilla‘s  New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  Here is a taste:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Read the entire piece here.

After this piece appeared, Steve Inskeep interviewed Lilla on National Public Radio.  In this interview Lilla said that he is anti-Trump, a supporter of transgender rights, and a liberal who wants nothing to do with identity politics.  We learn that one of his colleagues at Columbia, after reading his piece, called him a white supremacist. (Another one defended him).

Here is a taste of his NPR interview:

LILLA: Identity liberalism, as I understand it, is expressive rather than persuasive. It’s about recognition and self-definition. It’s narcissistic. It’s isolating. It looks within. And it also makes two contradictory claims on people. It says, on the one hand, you can never understand me because you are not exactly the kind of person I’ve defined myself to be. And on the other hand, you must recognize me and feel for me. Well, if you’re so different that I’m not able to get into your head and I’m not able to experience or sympathize with what you experience, why should I care?

INSKEEP: Who were some of the groups that liberals have appealed to in ways you find to be counterproductive?

LILLA: To take one example, I mean, the whole issue of bathrooms and gender – in this particular election, when the stakes were so high, the fact that Democrats and liberals, more generally, lost a lot of political capital on this issue that frightened people. People were misinformed about certain things, but it was really a question of where young people would be going to the bathroom and where they would be in lockers. Is that really the issue we want to be pushing leading up to a momentous election like this one? It’s that shortsightedness that comes from identity politics.

INSKEEP: I’m just imagining some of your fellow liberals being rather angry at you saying such a thing.

LILLA: Well, those are the liberals who don’t want to win. Those are the liberals who are in love with noble defeats, and I’m sick and tired of noble defeats. I prefer a dirty victory to a noble defeat. The president who did the most for black Americans in 20th century history was Lyndon Johnson, and he got his hands dirty by dealing with Southern senators, Southern congressmen, horse trading with them, cajoling them, learning what not to talk about. And he got civil rights passed and Great Society programs. That should be the model. Get over yourself.

I am inclined to agree with Lilla here, especially when he talks about identity liberalism in terms of narcissism, isolationism, and navel gazing. If Lilla is right, then how do we teach history and the humanities (more broadly)?  Identity liberals want white people to empathize with people of color. I am entirely on board with this.  But is it wrong to challenge a student of color to empathize with white people?   If education is about looking outward, what do we do about a form of identity politics that teaches students (of all identities) to look inward or to always see themselves as victims? (And in the wake of the election of 2016 I have found both whites and people of color seem to be playing the victim).  Can I expect a black student to empathize with the writing of a 19th-century pro-slavery advocate in the same way that I expect a white student to empathize with 19th-century enslaved man or woman?

My thinking on this issue is complicated by the fact that I am an American historian. I know, as the late historian Edmund Morgan put it, that “American freedom” has always gone hand-in-hand with “American slavery.”  I am convinced by scholarship that connects the rise of American capitalism to slavery.  I know the history that people of color, women, and the poor have inherited.  This makes teaching empathy through history a task fraught with difficulties.

I believe that the voices of all people need to be heard. I teach them because I believe that all human beings are important.  (I guess you could call this my own version of identity politics). My faith tells me that human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  I am committed to a Christian narrative that understands the human experience through the interplay of the Imago Dei, sin, and redemption. This narrative shapes my teaching.  To me this narrative is more important than liberal identity politics informed by race, class, and gender. And since I teach at a college that claims to celebrate this narrative, and defines itself by this narrative (I hope it does), I want my students to come to grips with the meaning of this narrative as the most important source for understanding their lives and their identities. This narrative should shape how white students understand students of color and how students of color should understand white students.  It best explains our shared destiny as people of Christian faith.  This is part of the reason I find myself turning over and over again to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “spiritual discipline against resentment.” His approach seems to provide a real way forward.

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

So, in the end, how do I teach students–all students–the kind of historical thinking that relieves them of their narcissism in an age of liberal identity politics? How do I teach my subject of expertise to students who are too often grounded in an approach to the world that trains them to always look inward? How do I teach history to students conditioned to see only themselves in the stories I tell about the past?

I am sure I will take some heat for this post.  But I am really interested in an honest dialogue. I realize that I don’t have this all figured out and would really like some help in thinking it through.  Thanks.

8 thoughts on “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?

  1. All politics are identity politics. But the politics of the ruling group are considered “regular” politics while everything else is considered “special interests.” But they are all identity politics.


  2. Lilla’s commentary created a firestorm of response, including ridicule and a Soviet style shutting down of the discussion, so I really appreciated seeing it here. I think that maybe we need to focus on the intermediary steps to empathy. We cannot always see things from the perspective of others, especially when they are repugnant to us (now, and as we look at this past), but we can understand that they do have a perspective, and are not just cartoon villains. (Sheesh, a picture of Trump just jumped into my mind).


  3. Michelle: Thanks so much for this post. You gave me a lot to think about here. Let me try responding. You write: “How do you reasonably ask a black student, whose ancestors were likely held in bondage, who has almost certainly experienced racism in his life to empathize with a plantation owner?” It is question I wrestle with all the time. In fact, it is a question I talk about a lot when I work with American history teachers. Yes, it is a “tall order,” but I don’t know any way around it if we want to educate all students in a history classroom. Of course it needs to be done sensitively and with skill, and it may not be a suitable exercise for younger grades (educational psychologists will need to help me here), but I am not sure if there is an alternative beyond simply saying that some students shouldn’t learn about certain things. I talk about this a bit in my book *Why Study History?* where I deal with my own daughter’s inability to empathize with slaveholders as she read a slave memoir in her 8th grade history class.

    I deliberately did not excerpt the part of Lilla’s piece dealing with bathrooms because I am not sure it had anything directly to do with the teaching of history and I thought this issue was so raw that it would detract from my larger point. But I do hope that future historians might empathize (walk in the shoes, understand, etc.) both sides of this debate.


  4. Gabe: I like this a lot. It allows students to begin by expressing what Wineburg calls their “psychological condition at rest” and then move them toward historical thinking, the so-called “unnatural act.” Thanks for this post. Let’s take it up over coffee at Planet Perk the next time I am in Osh Kosh! If Calvin College make it to the national finals again in 2018 I will be back!


  5. Two points about this post jumped out at me. First, the point about civic religion and how to rise above identity politics to teach a national narrative. I understand and agree with the point that there is value in whites understanding the black experience and blacks understanding the white experience, but this is so fraught that I don’t know how you go about it and I don’t think it’s narcissism that is the problem. How to do you reasonable ask a black student, whose ancestors were likely held in bondage, who has almost certainly experienced racism in his life to empathize with a plantation owner? The power deferential is astronomical. Framing it in the sense of guaranteed rights and the ongoing struggle for civil rights doesn’t make this any less of a tall order to ask for empathy from the black students. On the issue of women’s rights, I’m a little more sympathetic. As a white woman, I can understand the context of 18th century life and understand why woman weren’t given voting or political rights. I don’t really have an answer to the question, but thinking through some of these scenarios, it does seem a bit of a case-by-case basis. Second, Mark Lilla’s point about the bathrooms and framing as “identity politics” is upsetting to me. Liberals did not start the bathroom fight. It came about because of the North Carolina bill. How could the Democrats look away from governments dictating to citizens which bathroom they can use? This is a civil rights issue. We shouldn’t abandon the trans community because the fight makes people uncomfortable. I appreciate you highlighting these issues, not easy answers for sure.


  6. This is a thoughtful post, John. It tackles some difficult issues. It seems to me the crux is this: should we teachers of history expect students to empathize with people they would prefer to hate. I would argue that judgment, hate even, are important first steps in engaging with the past. I would argue that it is good for a student of color, let’s say, to feel strong personal antipathy towards slaveholders. That is engagement with the past. The next step should be this: let’s try to understand what that slaveholder was thinking, so that we can better understand the world that slaveholder made for us, who are living in the present. I am not sure undergraduates need to get to empathy in every undergraduate class.

    But I too am thinking aloud here.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post. Really great post.

    To answer your question–“how do I teach students–all students–the kind of historical thinking that relieves them of their narcissism”–I’d say, you can’t. Plato, if I recall correctly, was quite ambivalent that virtue can be taught (and rejecting narcissism is being virtuous). Jesus and St. Paul were even more skeptical. Let’s not even discuss Augustine.

    All you can do is put the facts you have at hand out there–say, about Shays’ Rebellion–and be honest about your own reactions. You can marshal your arguments, as you have done here, for the necessity of empathy, as we all should.

    But at the end of the day, their lives and their choices are their own. As much as we’d sometimes like, we can’t remake them in our own image.

    I suspect that’s actually a good thing.


Comments are closed.