Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Students of history

At Slate, Fred Kaplan notes that Condoleeza Rice often invokes her status as a "student of history" to evade criticisms about the Bush administration's policies. As I've argued before, Rice is not the only member of the administration who relies on this formula. Both of the president's press secretaries -- as well as the president himself -- have often deferred judgment about the administration's mistakes to some distant day, when future historians will supposedly tell us whether Bush was right or wrong.

Kaplan is right to criticize this maneuver as basically evasive. On a deeper level, though, it's incongruous with other aspects of the Bush administration's worldview. When Rice or Bush defer to historians to judge their present actions, they seem to be endorsing a ramshackle version of epistemological and moral relativism. What seems right now, they seem to be saying, may not seem right later. And implicitly, they are also saying more than that. What seems wrong now may be judged right later, which means that what seems wrong now may actually be right.

It's a species of argument -- a kind of radical historicism about judgments of value -- that you would expect President Bush and his intellectual affiliates to oppose in the culture wars. In fact, while the administration strikes a skeptical historicist pose about its own shortcomings, it simultaneously makes broad claims about the universal birthrights of all peoples in all ages. But if Rice and Bush were aware of the tension between these two lines of argument, they would find themselves in the same kind of philosophical dilemma that has long bedeviled liberal pragmatists like Richard Rorty. The dilemma is this: if the "right" course of action is defined by nothing more than the consensus of a social group in the present, so that normative judgments can always be revised later just by virtue of it being later, then how does one simultaneously affirm certain values as transcendently valuable, no matter where you live or what year it is? Rice and Bush are willing to allow future historians to judge the wisdom of their policies, but they are unwilling to allow future historians to judge the rightness of their ideals. But you can't have it both ways forever: at some point you have to make an argument for why others -- even future historians -- should share your ideals, and by the same token, at some point you have to defend your attempts to realize those ideals. The fact that historians often reevaluate past decisions cannot justify abstention from judgment in the here and now.

Probably, though, I'm reading too much substance into what is basically a form of spin. Still, it's a seductive kind of spin because I think it resonates with the views of many Americans about history. History, in a very common view, "just goes to show you" that "you never know." That's the thesis of many an undergraduate history essay. Once upon a time everyone thought abolitionists were crazy; now they are heroes. Go figure! Once upon a time alchemists were geniuses; now everyone thinks they are crazy. Wild, huh? In other words, the Big Lesson that history teaches is basically banal: things change, time passes, opinions shift. As long as this is the only lesson we're allowed to learn as "students of history," we've really learned nothing except that "you never know." You think I'm crazy now, but maybe one day I'll be considered a genius. You think you're a genius now, but look out! Historians may think you're crazy.

I'm drawing a caricature here, of course. In reality there's something to admire even in this caricature. It's true that history should inspire humility about ourselves and a readiness to admit that our own cherished ideas could prove to be wrong. All critical thinking -- not just history -- ought to cultivate those virtues. But those virtues do not vitiate the critical thinking that brought them to fruition. Recognizing our fallibility as thinkers does not render thinking futile.

I'm afraid, though, that more than one student walks away from contemporary history courses with the opposite impression. Our job as history teachers is, on some level, to impress our students with how different the past was from the present. And we are happy if they also make the leap to realizing that the present will soon be past, and potentially very different from the future. But as a teacher, I will also have failed if students therefore throw their hands in the air as Rice seems to be doing. If it's possible for highly educated people to still believe that being a "student of history" just means "you never know," then in some sense we are failing as teachers of history.

So, in what started off as a piece of political commentary, I'll close by asking for pedagogical suggestions: I think most history teachers are adept at bringing students to a realization of how much things change over time, how different now is from then, and how different the future may be from the now. That's probably the easiest thing for us to do. It's the next step -- teaching students how to use the past to understand or influence the present -- that is harder, pedagogically, to take. But if we're not taking that step, or articulating to our students clearly what we think being a "student of history" is, then we risk creating a future generation of leaders who continue to invoke "history" as little more than a covering exculpation for all their mistakes. So I'll ask you, as someone just beginning a teaching career, do you address the Big Questions about what history teaches in your undergraduate classes? If you do, please share how.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Collective Improvisation:
Excellent blog. Stumbled upon it today by accident while googling jazz-related items. I'll be back though. You and I have a number of interests that intersect.

Posted by Blogger The Whining Stranger on 8/10/2006 05:34:00 PM : Permalink  

The trick is to teach true humility, the kind that says "I might be wrong". It is a false humility that takes the lesson "I might be right after all, even though everyone else around me is telling me otherwise." I'm no history teacher, but I think the trick is to somehow convey not just how different things were previously, but how those people got there, why they felt justified in what they thought, how others came to believe differently, how they leveraged other background beliefs and values to eventually persuade people differently, and ultimately, how we here and now got to be here as we are on a continuous (if not always even) path from there and then.

P.s. If you want to see how to get past Rorty's dilemma, you should read Stout on pragmatism.

Posted by Blogger Tom Chatt on 8/12/2006 03:11:00 AM : Permalink  

First, this is a fine and interesting post. And I think you rightly frame an important failure of historical education: the kind of quasi-nihilism/relativism it may induce in some people.

Second, I think one notable thing that Irving Babbit talks about in "Democracy and Leadership" is that liberals and ideologues of all stripes often argue in a hypothetical and ahistorical fashion. If we don't have welfare, children will starve. If we permit discrimiantion, soon every college will be "all white." One thing history permits is refutation of these kinds of ahistorical and deductive ways of thinking; history teaches us that things were neither as good, nor as bad, as they are made out to be by various ideologues. History may not easily permit us to predict the future, but history does permit us to refute the arguments of those that would proffer policies on the basis of false premises of one kind or another.

All ideology hinges in a sense on a certain view of history. I discuss this extensively here in a discussion of what may be called "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions.

It seems to me the mark of any educated understanding of anything is understanding in greater detail how things are the same and how they are different in two cases. Ignorance consists of fewer examples and cruder, less refined judgments. Consider the mantra-like invocation of Munich by neoconservative advocates of worldwide interventions. Have they never heard of Algeria of WWI or any of the other examples of failed interventions and too-aggressive responses to so-called aggression and would-be aggressors?

Posted by Anonymous Roach on 9/23/2006 03:36:00 PM : Permalink  

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