Teaching the complexity of the past

Classroom

Providence (RI) Journal is running a short op-ed from historian Erik Chaput on the teaching of history in these difficult times in the history of our country. It’s worth a read.

A taste:

It is precisely because we are living in such a historical moment that students need to move beyond political soundbites to understand the past in all its vast complexities. It is the job of educators to help young students see all sides, to help them to understand the ironies of history and that historical research is often the best tool when difficult conversations arise. As historian Sean Wilentz rightly reminds us, in “the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth.”

We cannot use a rosy and skewed picture of the past to seek shelter from present tumults. Nor can we ignore the remarkable and heroic aspects of our history that should inspire today. It is the job of the teacher to create a space for open discussion and examination of evidence relating to all parts of the story. A good place to start this fall in the classroom would be the story of the legacy of slavery and freedom during the Revolutionary era. Teachers can bring the state’s history into the classroom by using the digitized back files of Rhode Island History, the journal produced by the Rhode Island Historical Society. In the end, “good history,” remarked the late historian John Hope Franklin, is the “foundation for a better present and future.”

Read the entire piece here.

Is Sean Wilentz the “Intellectual Heir” of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.?

Wilentz

Timothy Shenk, in a review of two Sean Wilentz books, makes the case.  Here is a taste of his review at The Nation:

As the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton rolled forward in 1998, the White House called on the assistance of a longtime ally: the Ivy League. The administration summoned a team of experts to testify on the president’s behalf in front of the House Judiciary Committee that included a Yale law professor, a Harvard political scientist, and a Princeton historian. The historian, Sean Wilentz, was the youngest member of the group, but he was also the most zealous. After the witnesses were sworn in, Wilentz told the committee that if they supported impeachment without being absolutely certain that the president’s transgressions constituted high crimes and misdemeanors, “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness.”

Wilentz’s appearance garnered poor reviews—“gratuitously patronizing,” wrote The New York Times—but it whetted his appetite for partisan skirmishing. He had come to the Clinton team’s attention as the result of a campaign he’d led with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to gather signatures from prominent historians for a petition that charged the supporters of impeachment with endangering the US Constitution. Now it seemed that Schlesinger, the aging liberal giant, had found his successor—a public intellectual, rigorous scholar, and Democratic Party street fighter who would carry the battle for liberalism into the next generation.

Over the following decade, Wilentz cemented his place as Schlesinger’s intellectual heir. Like Schlesinger, he’d begun his career as a specialist in early American political history, then moved on to writing about the entire scope of the nation’s past. Outside academic circles, he was well known for his regular contributions to the Leon Wieseltier–run “back of the book” at The New Republic, where he opined on subjects ranging from the influence of postmodern theory (bad) to the popularity of David McCullough (also bad) in essays thrown down like lightning bolts from Mount Princeton. In 2005, he published The Rise of American Democracy, a 1,000-page opus on the emergence of popular government in the United States, from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil War. Three years later, he followed it up with The Age of Reagan, a survey of American political history from 1974 to 2008 that not so implicitly set the stage for a coming liberal era after Reagan’s. With the 2008 presidential election under way, rumors swirled that Wilentz was poised to follow Schlesinger’s example yet again, this time as the court historian for Hillary Clinton’s upcoming administration.

Read the rest here.