Thinking Historically About the Duke Divinity School Controversy

DukeLast night on my train ride home from Philadelphia I got caught up in a Twitter exchange devoted to the recent controversy at Duke Divinity School.  If you are not familiar with this case, I have assembled some links here.  If you follow these links you will get up to speed.

Most of what we know about this case comes from six documents.  They all appear on Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative.  You can read them here.

Dreher and nearly everyone else who has read these documents have done so in order to figure out who is right and who is wrong.  This is a worthwhile exercise and people are going to have strong opinions on both sides.

But I wonder if we really know enough about what happened at Duke Divinity School to make an honest assessment one way or the other.  It is easy in the age of social media and blogs to rush to judgement and start posting about it.  (I know because I am sometimes guilty of this myself).   Yes, the voices are loud and people seem to be responding with moral certainty, but unless understanding precedes criticism, such statements of moral outrage will be shallow.

Here are some of the tweets from last night’s exchange:

There is a lot to chew on here. I should also add that not all of these tweets connect directly to the point I want to make below.

As I participated in this discussion and read these tweets again, I was struck by the fact that historians tend to approach documents very differently than other kinds of thinkers. The primary documents that Dreher posted tell us a lot, but they don’t tell us everything. (Any historian knows that we need more than just a handful of isolated documents to understand the past).  Any  judgments we make about Duke or Griffiths must be made tentatively and cautiously because we don’t have all the information we need to make a definitive (or close to definitive) interpretation of why this incident happened.  The “why” is important.  Historians are interested in causation.  We are also interested in context.  Does Garret Bowman’s tweet about the racial tensions that existed at Duke before the Griffiths incident help us to better understand what happened in this particular case?  Of course it does.  Do we need to know more about the way Griffith has behaved in past faculty meetings? Yes, that would help.  Does the fact that Griffiths has signed statements and spoken out in defense of marginalized and diverse groups give us any insight into his controversial remarks?  I think it does.

All of this adds to the complexity of the entire situation and should be factored into our interpretation.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Historically About the Duke Divinity School Controversy

  1. Good comments on the historian’s approach. You demonstrate how this type of interesting controversy (as sad as it is) could be used in a classroom (group work micro-labs) to teach principles of historical interpretation–and lots of other things on the side.

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  2. Because I am quoted in the article, and because I want to be fair, I want to clarify that I was not asserting that Griffith’s behavior was the cause of said “tears” at faculty meetings (I am not privy to what happens inside of those meetings), nor do I know that Griffith’s presence contributed to (or didn’t contribute to) the decisions of numerous faculty members to leave Duke for other institutions over the past few years. Rather, I just wanted to make the point–which I think John recognized–that there is a larger context within which these events are occurring at Duke, that is negated by Dreher’s “expose” on his blog.

    What I am most grieved about, as someone who has spent the last several years at Duke, is that this has been brought to light in a way where people seem only interested in reading the sparse (woefully incomplete) details that have been revealed in ways that confirm prior assumptions and narratives. Likewise, I am still befuddled as to why anyone would think Rod Dreher is the person to bring this conflict to light, much less add beneficial commentary.

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