More thoughts today on the outlook that historical knowledge cultivates.
First comes the pietist version — the past as pointer to what’s true and right:
In the introduction the authors offer five reasons to study church history: 1) It continues to record the history of God’s faithful dealings with his people and it records Christ’s ongoing work in the world. 2) We are told by God to remember what he has done and to make it known to those who follow us. 3) Church history “helps to illuminate and clarify what we believe” and in that way allows us to evaluate our beliefs and practices against historic teaching. 4) It safeguards against error by showing us how Christians have already responded to false teaching. 5) And finally it gives us heroes and mentors to imitate as we live the Christian life. In this way it promotes spiritual growth and maturation.
History as a means of grace? I’m not sure.
Second, history as perplexity:
… we developed an approach we call the “five C’s of historical thinking.” The concepts of change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency, we believe, together describe the shared foundations of our discipline. They stand at the heart of the questions historians seek to answer, the arguments we make, and the debates in which we engage. . . .
One of the most successful exercises we have developed for conveying complexity in all of these dimensions is a mock debate on Cherokee Removal. Two features of the exercise account for the richness and depth of understanding that it imparts on students. First, the debate involves multiple parties; the Treaty and Anti-Treaty Parties, Cherokee women, John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, northern missionaries, the State of Georgia, and white settlers each offer a different perspective on the issue. Second, students develop their understanding of their respective positions using the primary sources collected in Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents by Theda Perdue and Michael Green.7 While it can be difficult to assess what students learn from such exercises, we have noted anecdotally that, following the exercise, students seem much less comfortable referring to “American” or “Indian” positions as monolithic identities.
Third, history as empathy:
I hope that the young adults who study history with me find themselves cultivating five interrelated values: comfort with complexity, humility, curiosity, hospitality, and empathy. I don’t think Donald Trump is unusual among Oval Office aspirants in his utter lack of humility (here’s a conservative critique of him on that point), his disinterest in learning (see his recent comments on his reading habits), or his impatience with complication and nuance. But if I’m going to tell my students that historical study exists to a significant extent to help them be more hospitable and empathetic to those of a different culture, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., I can hardly stay silent about a candidate who has demonized immigrants and Muslims.
So I think the open letter’s authors are right to characterize the Trump candidacy as an attack not only on the “constructive, evidence-based argumentation” we try to practice in our profession, but on “our values, and the communities we serve.”
What is striking is how even professional historians can make history be what they want it to be.
But why is it that professional historians don’t recognize that the way they frame the historical enterprise winds up making not a scholarly but a political point. If the aim of history is to empathize with others (among other things), where have historians been about developments in Turkey or the real complexity of issues that inform the current discussion of police and crime in the United States? (For some academics, there’s not much complexity about cops shooting people.) I’m sorry, but to be so outspoken about a guy like Trump just doesn’t take all that much insight or courage. Most people who work outside history departments know he is egotistical, bombastic, clownish, and a jumble of assertions and passions. Even supporters see that. Are students so desperate?
Or is it that historians want to present as being on the “right” side?
The thing is, the responsibilities necessary to be president are not the same as the virtues that historical study cultivates. In the case of empathy, a president does need to be empathetic. But that’s not all. Just think back to episode 2, season 4 of West Wing where President Bartlet approves the assassination of a Qumar state official suspected of terrorism. Sometimes prudence trumps empathy. And that’s something that history actually teaches. Or it should. (Why should Aaron Sorkin get all the good lessons?)
To John Fea’s credit, he excerpts Jonathan Zimmerman’s reasons for not signing the letter:
I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.
I speak, of course, of the millions of people who have cast ballots for Donald Trump. According to the signatories of the statement, there’s only one historically grounded opinion on Trump: their own. By that definition, then, Trump supporters are uninformed. When he accepts the Republican nomination this week, the historians’ statement concludes, the party will have succumbed to “snake oil.”
Of course, there are plenty of ignoramuses and bigots in the Trump camp. But surely there are reasoned, knowledgeable people who back him.
The “lessons of history” — to quote the historians’ manifesto — can be read in different way, by equally informed people. And it strains credulity to imagine that all Trump supporters have had the wool pulled over their eyes.
One consolation in all this: it’s not only Reformed Protestants or social conservatives who traffic in outrage.