Earlier today we met eight-grade history teacher Zachary Cote and heard about his trip to “intellectual Disneyland.” Tonight Zach discusses the AHA session “Historical Expertise and Political Authority.” (You may recall that we did a post on this session earlier today).–JF
When I saw AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman would be chairing the panel entitled, “Historical Expertise and Political Authority,” I figured it would be smart to attend. Apparently so did many others. It has been the most attended panel that I have been to thus far. The conversation was centered on the open letter released this past summer entitled,“Historians Against Trump” and Stanley Fish’s critical op-ed of that letter in The New York Times.
The panel opened with Fish, who has pages of academic achievements, ardently declaring that historians can analyze politics, but should not “dispense political wisdom.” Fish was adamant that the historian is paid to analyze the past, write about that analysis, and teach others how to do both successfully. They are not in the business of engaging in politics.
Jonathan Zimmerman also disagreed with “Historians Against Trump,” but did so for very different reasons. He argued that historical knowledge should inform the present and engage with politics, but in a way that does not ostracize those of differing opinions. According to Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, it is important to acknowledge that people with equal levels of historical expertise can examine politics and arrive at different conclusions. By using language that harshly critiques the President-elect and those who voted for him historians, Zimmerman argues, are not practicing the historical virtue of “listening to diverse voices.” Zimmerman concluded by stating, “As an educator, my job is to try and understand people who have opinions different than my own.” This is a sentiment I resonate with greatly.
Professor Jacqueline Jones (University of Texas at Austin) came prepared to oppose Fish’s argument. She acknowledged that the teaching of history is often highly politicized. She cited examples of the Texas history standards and the backlash against her own department for the perceived “politically correct” curriculum that is taught. Jones acknowledged that simply choosing what to teach can often be interpreted as a political statement, and thus, by the very nature of the profession, historians are engaging in political discourse.
The final presenter on the panel, Steven Conn of Miami University (yes, that’s Miami, Ohio), took a more practical approach. He pointed out that if historians do not offer political wisdom, the vacuum will be filled by economists and in his words, “I just can’t stomach that.” There is a vast public who look to historians for their opinions on the present based upon their expertise of the past and historians should not ignore those people. After all, if history is to be more than “dry antiquarianism,” and we are serious about “Jefferson’s informed electorate,” then historians should engage in public conversation, even if they are polarizing.
After these presentations I had a lot to think about. How did this dialogue impact me as a middle school teacher? During the Q & A session Zimmerman noted that the majority of graduate students in history will not be able to have the same type of academic career that he has had. There simply are not enough positions in academia in proportion to the amount of graduate students earning PhDs. Grossman further illuminated this idea in his closing remarks by distinguishing between “history the discipline” and “history the profession.” By the nature of my job, in that moment, I felt like I had voice in this dialogue.
While I understand Fish’s point about the history profession, I do think that historians should break out of the profession at times and dialogue with those outside university walls on issues in which they can provide expertise and further dialogue. This is why I take pride in my job–a middle school teacher in Los Angeles. I work with students whose opportunities are much slimmer than mine were when I was growing up. I see it as a duty to give my students the tools and resources to overcome the odds and move toward success. As a result, if I see a prominent public person who directly speaks against their heritage and culture, I believe it is my duty to not only stand with them, but give them the analytical tools to disprove the misconceptions that this person, who probably has more resources, is disseminating to the public. My profession may not be academic history, but it does use the discipline of history to equip and inspire today’s youth to make positive changes in the world.
Is “Historian’s Against Trump” too broad? Is its language too strong? Perhaps. Should I teach my students to understand the perspectives of those who use rhetoric that disrespects them? I must. But one can be empathetic and still voice opposition.