Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part two). Or is *Believe Me* a work of history?

Why Study HistoryRead part one here.

This post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Here are five suggestions for those who want to pursue Robert Gleason’s idea that the historian should always ask whether or not what happened in the past was “good.”

First, the historian’s primary responsibility is explanation and understanding, not moral criticism. They are not called to give their opinions about the past. Such activity is better left to the ethicists, theologians, and politicians. Those who do want to offer some level of moral reflection on the past should do so only after they, their students, or their readers have fully grasped what happened in the past and why it happened the way it did. Sometimes this kind of moral reflection works better in the classroom than it does in a book, article, or museum exhibit.

Second, when historian do speak and write ethically about what happened in the past, they should do so with caution so that preaching does not trump historical interpretation. In other words, historians should speak as historians to the moral concerns of the public. Historians, like everyone else, have opinions, and in the United States they are free to express those opinions, but when speaking to the public as historians they must do so with the goal of bringing historical thinking skills to bear on the issue at hand. As James Banner has noted, “Reform may arise from historical knowledge, but bringing about reform is the province of others–or at least historians on their days off.”

Third, when a historian engages in moralizing about the past, it should be characterized by mature moral thinking. Let’s think about this from the perspective of the Christian historian.  The Bible and church tradition provide Christians with a source of truth that enables them to shed moral light on all of human life, regardless of the era. But for Christian historians to engage in moral criticism well, they must have an adequate theological and biblical understanding of the Christian tradition. Sunday school Bible proof-texting will not cut it. Nor will moral platitudes (Hitler was “evil” or “The Declaration of Independence should be praised because it mentions “the Creator”) that are not grounded in deep theological or ethical thinking. At least one historian has even suggested that historians interested in doing “moral history” should first be trained in the discipline of moral philosophy.”

Fourth, historians should make moral judgments in an implicit rather than explicit manner. Christians who write history should take to heart the words of Adrian Oldfield:

If the historian litters his account of the past with explicit, stentorian, moral judgments, then the result is likely to be a very ugly piece of historical writing indeed, however much attention he scrupulously pays to evidence. But more judgments do not have to be delivered in such a thunderous manner. Historians can make clear their moral positions implicitly, in terms of the language they use, and in the tone and style of composition.

Historians should also avoid explicit moralizing because we, like the historical actors we write and teach about, are flawed humans. This belief should always be on the mind of historians as the thunder their moral prophetic condemnations on people in the past. George Marsden summarizes it well: “We can point out that we ourselves probably have similar blind spots and that, even though our mistreatment or neglect of our neighbors may not be as notorious or spectacular, we share a common humanity with those whose action we deplore.” This can be the most difficult part of writing moral history and it must always be balanced with the Christian’s or citizen’s responsibility to speak truth to power. Individual historians will strike this balance in different ways.

Fifth, and finally, historians should also remember to see historical actors as morally complex individuals before casting judgment on them. Thomas Jefferson might have been the champion of the ordinary farmer, religious freedom, public education, and small government, but he was also a slaveholder. Or to put this differently, Jefferson owned slaves, but he was also influential in promoting the democratic ideas that eventually led to emancipation. The complexity of the past will often trigger our moral imaginations. In a time when our politicians and students rest too comfortably in certitude, history’s moral turn may help “create productive confusion and a willingness to recognize that behind all our moral choices, whether past or present, lurks paradox, tragedy, and irony.”

Several people who read Why Study History? have asked me how my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and my regular criticism of Trump and the evangelicals who support him intersects with what I have written above. It’s a great question. Let me try to explain.

What I have written above is how I approach teaching and writing history–my primary vocation. But I also engage the public–especially here at the blog–as a father and husband, son of the working class, white educated male, seminary graduate, professor at a small college on the margins of academia and, most importantly, as a Christian. All of these identities inform my opinions, commentaries, and moral critiques. Often times they merge in such a way that makes it impossible to break them apart. As one of my favorite writers Richard Rodriguez once told the graduating class at Kenyon College, “life is a whole.”

I do not teach the way I write at this blog. Nor do I teach with the same political and moral tone that readers encounter in Believe Me. In fact, I don’t really understand Believe Me as a work of traditional history. It is too overtly political to call it that. Of course all of my books have some political dimension to them. I do not pretend that politics does not play a significant role in every historian’s work.  (Although I do lament that only one form of political thinking dominates the academy). But whatever kind of politics inform my other books, I made every effort in those books to read the record as honestly as possible and keep my own moral voice limited. In Believe Me, however, I let it rip. I stepped outside the historian’s traditional role and tried to speak as a Christian to my own tribe of Christians.

One more thing. Though Believe Me was unlike any of my other books, I think I still approached the subject as a historical thinker. As I tell my students, when a person learns to think historically it is hard to think about the world any other way, even when you are offering opinion and commentary.  In Believe Me I did my best to understand Trump and his evangelical supporters. I tried to interrogate claims like “Make America Great Again” from my training and expertise as a historian. I tried to marshal historical evidence to help readers see why evangelicals flocked to Trump. I also tried to take a long view and situate Trump’s evangelicals in a larger context that spans several centuries. This makes Believe Me different from other books about Trump and evangelicals. I tried to understand my subject historically and then, and only then, offer moral criticism in accordance with my training in Christian theology. In the end, I think I was somewhat consistent with what I wrote above and in Why Study History?

I am currently working on another book of history. But I also think I have some more historically-inflected opinion and commentary in me as well. Thanks for helping me think through this in public. For those familiar with Why Study History? you know that these last several paragraphs have moved the discussion beyond what I wrote in that book.

History as “Moral Science”

The City-State of BostonCheck out this article on Mark Peterson, author of The City-State of Boston and history professor at Yale.  A taste:

Yale historian Mark Peterson believes that history is best told by abiding by the Golden Rule.

The accurate representation of the past is “a kind of moral science,” says Peterson, the Edmund S. Morgan Professor of History, adding that the age-old adage “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is as relevant in writing history as it is in our daily behavior.

Historians should represent their subjects accurately and take their stories and their positions seriously. They were just as human, just as fallible, and just as uncertain of what was going to happen in the future as you and I are, and we owe them the kind of respect that we would want future historian to have towards us,” says Peterson. “This is not to say that we can’t be critical of the actions and beliefs of historical figures, but rather to remember that our capacity to assess the limitations and shortcomings of historical actors can help us to become conscious of our own.”

We frame our sense of identity in part by drawing on the stories we tell about ourselves — each of us has a historically structured sense of identity and purpose, says Peterson, a specialist in early North America and the Atlantic world. “I think the same is true with respect to societies and cultures. There is a kind of social sanity, an ability to operate effectively in the world, that comes from knowing who we are, how we got here, and what kinds of human decisions — or lack thereof — were made that framed the circumstances, the limitations and opportunities, in which we live our lives.”

Read the rest here.

Hayden White on the Humanities

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Hayden White (1928-2018)

Hayden White, the author of Metahistory and the champion of narrative history, died in 2018.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a transcript of a radio interview he did in 2008 with Stanford literature professor Robert Pogue Harrison.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Harrison: A few weeks ago, Stanley Fish posted an article on The New York Times titled “Will the Humanities Save Us?,” which got a lot of attention. Would you like to begin by telling us the gist of Fish’s argument and why you think it is so misguided?

White: Fish, who likes to be provocative, insisted that the humanities have no practical utility at all, that it is merely a matter of taste whether one wanted to either teach them or practice them. I don’t know how you could practice them exactly without teaching them. As far as I’m concerned it’s not a matter of utility versus pleasure, but a matter of practicality. The humanities are eminently practical and belong to the practical life, by which I mean the ethical life….

Harrison: On the question of love, do you think Socrates was the greatest teacher in the history of the world? Because love was not only the medium that he used as a teacher, but he thought it was one of the foundational ingredients of philosophy.

White: No, I think Jesus was the greatest teacher of all time.

Harrison: Because of his doctrine of love?

White: Well, his doctrine of love is a very complex one, is it not? “Love your parents, but follow me.” His whole notion, at least as Saint Paul explicates it, that the fulfillment of the law is to recognize that love is the dominant principle in the quest for both knowledge and life.

Harrison: I was thinking more just specifically in terms of the process of learning.

White: I tell my students, “Look, we’re here to discuss the meaning of life.” The meaning of life is that I’m alive for the time being. I’m in a world which is making contradictory demands upon me. What do I do?  

Read the entire interview here.

In Defense of Empathy

Why Study History CoverIn a recent post at The Anxious Bench, Elesha Coffman of Baylor University asks, “Why was [Robert] Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at the C[onference on] F[aith and H[istory]?”

As the person who invited Orsi to deliver a plenary at the CFH, I am the one responsible for his appearance. Due to other CFH commitments, I only heard half of Orsi’s address on “disgust,” but what I heard was a real barn-burner.   You can get a sense of what he said in Coffman’s post.

I had originally asked Orsi to talk about his most recent book History and Presence.   I thought his reflections on “real presence” in the American Catholic experience would resonate with CFH members.  I was just as surprised as anyone by the talk, although I also realize that this often happens in academia.  Nevertheless, my role as program chair is to invite plenary speakers who will provoke conversation and discussion.  Mission accomplished!  🙂

Coffman writes:

For many of us who attended the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, the heaviest moments in a consistently weighty gathering came during Bob Orsi’s concluding plenary, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” The address was rooted in his current research on clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent at least 20 minutes recounting in excruciating detail the exploits of Father Paul Shanley, a predator whose superiors allowed him to abuse young people with impunity for decades. Not just allowed—empowered and paid by the church to run what one lawyer called a “pedophile paradise.” Why was Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at CFH? Why was he telling us this appalling narrative? And what were we supposed to do with it?

I can only speak of my own reaction. For me, this was a painful but necessary step in moving away from my own scholarly formation toward something that feels more true in our historical moment.

I was trained to see the historian’s foremost ethical task as the cultivation of empathy. For years, I talked about this virtue on the first day of class. We historians, I used to say, “resurrect the dead and let them speak.” We listen to voices from the past humbly. We refrain from pronouncing anachronistic sentences on our fellow human beings who could not know what was coming next, and who did not have the benefit of whatever enlightenment we have gleaned since their passing. My white, male, Southern doctoral adviser used to say, “If I had been born in the early 19th century, I would have been a racist slaveholder, too.” Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Read the rest here.

Actually, Coffman was not the only one who criticized the idea of “empathy” in Grand Rapids last week.  Margaret Bendroth, the conference’s first plenary speaker, also criticized the pursuit of empathy in historical inquiry.

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Of course some folks will now say something like, “Hey Fea, you just wrote a book criticizing Donald Trump!  How is that not preaching or moral criticism?”  It’s a fair question and it is one I have been wrestling with ever since I agreed to write Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I think Believe Me draws heavily upon my work as a historian, but I am not sure I would call it a work of history.  It is instead a work of social criticism targeted at my fellow white evangelicals.  This, I should add, is the primary reason I decided to publish it with Eerdmans, a Christian publisher with connections to the evangelical world.  Wherever I go on my book tour I talk about this.  There are times in Believe Me when I write as a historian and there are times when I do not.

I should also add that I do not bring my approach and tone in Believe Me to the history classroom.  My direct criticism of white evangelicalism and Donald Trump have no place there.  In the classroom we are in the business of understanding and empathy.  If we want to move past empathy and understanding in our classroom, as Coffman suggests we do, them we are doing something other than history.

Of course I have been arguing for this for a long time and still stand by my central thesis in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In this polarized society we need more empathy for people with whom we disagree.  I still think history is the best way of cultivating this virtue.

Princeton’s Robert George on Intellectual and Ideological Diversity in the Academy

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While I was visiting a big state university a couple of weeks ago I had a robust, spirited, and civil conversation with the history faculty about how to teach controversial or morally problematic issues.  Many of the history professors in the room said that they use their classrooms to advocate for certain political causes (all on the left) or see no problem giving their personal opinion about a particular issue or idea that arises from the study of the past.

I pushed back. I wondered whether the history classroom was primarily the place where such moral criticism should happen.  Those familiar with my Why Study History?: A Historical Introduction know that I think there is a difference between moral philosophy (ethics) and history.  Though I obviously have my opinions, and many of them are informed by my understanding of the past, I rarely bring those opinions into the classroom.  For example, the only time I talk about Donald Trump in my classroom is when he gets something wrong about history or uses the past irresponsibly to justify this or that policy.   I do the same thing with any public figure who manipulates the past for political gain.

In other words, my blog and other social media feeds are not the best representations of what my classroom looks like.

Robert George of Princeton University is very conservative.  I have seen him defending moral conservatism in public talks, in writing, and on social media.  But if I read his recent interview with Matthew Stein at The College Fix, I don’t think these conservative political and moral convictions dominate his classroom.  George has some very interesting things to say about intellectual and ideological diversity in the classroom. Here is a taste:

The College Fix: In your Open Minds Conference panel, you mentioned that you don’t think professors should “use their classrooms as a soapbox for advocacy,” and that you and professors like Cornel West make your classrooms as intellectually stimulating and valuable as possible by honestly portraying both sides of an argument. This seems to hit on a big issue with the universities today, as many professors of the “progressive orthodoxy” you later mentioned seem to use their positions to influence their students into becoming activists of related social causes. How do you think society can address this issue, particularly given the system of tenure and the sheer magnitude of the problem?

Robert George: Like most of the problems in academia—and society more broadly—today, what is needed above all is courage. We need the courage to speak the truth even when it is uncomfortable, and even when truth-speaking carries risks. Professors who seek to indoctrinate their students are betraying a sacred trust. They are supposed to be educators. If there is an antonym to “educating,” it’s “indoctrinating.” Professors (and other teachers) who engage in indoctrination need to be confronted. Certainly administrators need to do this. Fellow faculty members need to do it. And students themselves need to do it, too.

Is this risky, especially for students? You bet it is. But that’s where the virtue of courage comes in. All of us—including students—need to muster the courage to call out teachers who betray their sacred trust. In addition, professors who understand the importance of truly educating students, and who grasp the fundamental difference between education and indoctrination, need to set an excellent example for their colleagues—especially younger colleagues. Together, we can establish a milieu that powerfully discourages indoctrination.

CF: You also mentioned that you should create an atmosphere of “unsettling” each other in the classroom. Looking at the campus more generally, there are continually accounts of the opposite atmosphere in regards to discussing “unsettling ideas,” whether it be by an outside speaker being shut down or students on campus being afraid to express unpopular viewpoints. How can this negative general atmosphere on campus be improved to encourage students to act out the ideal intellectual atmosphere that you described?

RG: Again, courage is the key. Students must have the courage to express dissent—even if they are alone or in a small minority in the class in holding a particular view. And faculty members need to model courage for their students—and for their colleagues (especially younger colleagues). All of us must overcome the natural fear we feel in oppressive environments of the sort that too often exist today in college, high school, and even middle school classrooms. And when a dissenter does speak up in defiance of a campus dogma, all of us (and not only those who happen to share his or her dissenting opinion) need swiftly to provide that individual with support.

That is how we will establish an environment in which people are free—and feel and know they are free—to speak their minds, thus benefiting the entire community by contributing to robust, civil campus debates.

CF: Identity politics was one issue you touched on in the Q&A, which you said has a negative effect on both college campuses and society at large. Could you speak a little more on how identity politics and student groups organized around group identity has negatively affected the university? Are there any common issues of identity politics amongst the faculty? Has it had any effects on your or other professors’ ability to create the positive intellectual atmosphere you previously mentioned?

RG: Identity politics, and the dogmas of the phenomenon that has come to be known as “intersectionality,” harm learning environments by encouraging groupthink and stigmatizing dissent.

One especially regrettable consequence of the rise of identitarianism is the pressure placed on female and minority students to hold and express opinions that are in line with what women and members of minority groups are “supposed” to think. If you are female, you are “supposed” to hold a certain view on abortion and the status of unborn human life. If you are black, you are “supposed” to express a certain view on the desirability of affirmative action programs of certain sorts. If you are Latino, you are “supposed” to have a certain set of beliefs on immigration policy.

I find this reprehensible. People need to think for themselves. And they need to do that, and need to know that they are entitled to do that, whether they are male or female, black, white, green, blue, or purple.

 

Read the entire interview here.  He also has some interesting things to say about Liberty University.

The Author’s Corner with Craig Bruce Smith

HonorCraig Bruce Smith is Assistant Professor of History at William Woods University.  This interview is based on his new book American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Honor?

CBS: There are a number of factors that led me to write American Honor, but I basically set out to author a book that I would like to read.

I was deeply interested in the American Revolution and ethical questions. While there have been countless works on the Revolution itself, I never encountered a title that explored the connections between ethics and the Revolution—so I set out to write my own. It seeks in many ways to revive the debate over questions of the Revolution’s causes and effects that has largely disappeared in recent historical literature.

It was also an attempt to rehabilitate the concepts of honor and virtue, which seem antiquated and elitist to a modern audience. But my research revealed that these concepts actually became quite democratic and were simply an eighteenth-century reflection of our present understanding of ethics.

Finally, a great deal of recent academic history has taken aim at demystifying or vilifying the Founders to the end that the ideals of the American Revolution are often dismissed as rhetoric. My goal was to invite the reader to take the Founders’ beliefs and words seriously and to see how their understandings of honor, virtue, and ethics were the foundation of the new nation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Honor?

CBS: American Honor is an ethical history of the Revolution, advancing that there was a transformation in American ethical thinking that led to and became intertwined with the Revolution itself. The ideals of honor, virtue, and ethics were a unifying element that became democratized through service to the nation and thus expanded to people of diverse races, classes, and genders.

JF: Why do we need to read American Honor?

CBS: One need only look at the news headlines to see that issues of ethics and honor still matter in virtually every aspect of society. American Honor presents how the Founders of various backgrounds united based on a collective ethical understanding of honor as service to the nation—something that is as relevant now as ever before.

Honor was a major cause of the American Revolution, and omitting it prevents us from fully understanding the motives behind resistance against Britain and the founding of the United States.

Also, while there have been other excellent works on honor (such as those by Joanne Freeman, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and Caroline Cox), this is the first book to explore honor as a changing concept over an extended geographical and chronological period. It is built on primary research from over thirty different archives in the US and UK, which allows it to show an expansive understanding of how honor changed in early America.

Ultimately, the book presents the research and analysis in the form of a narrative that features collective biography (such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson) and storytelling to arrive at its conclusions.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CBS: History was always my favorite subject, but it wasn’t until Ron Vallar’s AP US History class during my junior year at Holy Cross High School (in Queens, N.Y.) that I really became hooked. Vallar was so passionate in presenting history as a story rather than as a repetitive memorization of names and dates. He was the first person to show me what history could be—and without him I would not be an American historian today.

Vallar provided the spark, but starting college I still thought I would be a lawyer or a judge. It was the faculty at St. John’s University (also in Queens) that actually showed me I could make a career of history and David Hackett Fischer (my PhD advisor at Brandeis University) who ultimately helped me to achieve my goal.

Why become an American historian? The simple answer is out of love of the subject. The more complex one is that our past matters and the nation’s founding ideals continue to influence our present and future. The American Revolution and the Founding Era always resonated with me, and my goal has been to try to convey this same connection to students and readers.

JF: What is your next project?

CBS: My next project “The Greatest Man in the World: A Global History of George Washington,” follows different nations’ changing perceptions of Washington from his emergence during the French and Indian War through his death and into the modern day. Named the “Father of His Country,” Washington was indelibly associated with being an American figure. Traditionally, he has been interpreted solely as an American icon, but in actuality he developed into a symbol for humanity through a complicated path of personal, national, and international growth. Framing early America within a global history, this project is the first to examine Washington as a world figure, rather than one that was exclusively American.

JF: Thanks, Craig!