Contemporary Political Rhetoric and Teaching History

Earlier this month I did a post on my Hist 100 blog that might be of some interest to readers here, “Contemporary Politics and History.” My audience was primarily freshmen in their first semester at university, most of them too young to have voted in the last election.

I have said this in class, but it needs repeating here: Our contemporary American political discourse about socialism and nazism has absolutely nothing to do with those terms and phenomena in actual history. While we are not in class to talk about American politics, I want to point out how language and history are being abused for political purposes. I am not doing this to undermine the stances of politicians who use hyperbole to make their points. There are perfectly good ideological and policy reasons that one can bring to either side of the health care debate, the energy policy debate, environmental policy debates, and so on. But none of these reasons has anything to do with Hitler, nazism, communism, or socialism—not if we are being honest, and as long as we are willing to see the slippery slope argument for what it is, a logical fallacy.

This abuse of history used to just offend me as a citizen who knew something about history, but addressing the abuse became part of my teaching job this summer when I had a student try to explain Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” That is when I realized that not only was history being abused for political purposes, but our contemporary political discourse was getting in the way of students understanding the past. That’s why I wrote a blog post on my own history blog sarcastically entitled, “What Having a Socialist Nazi in the White House Means for the Classroom.”

I could follow the logic of the student who described Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government,” if I were willing to understand the past in terms of this country’s contemporary self-image, but I am not. We need to take the past on its own terms and try to understand it in some detail before we attempt easy analogies. In other words, my concern relates to historical thinking, that is, that thing I began teaching you with the reading assignments from August 31st, including Gerald Schlabach’s “A Sense of History.”

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.

Fostering Historical Thinking with Brecht’s Galileo

Spring is almost here, which means its time to order books for the summer term. Summer in DC gets hot, and the summer terms are short, so I usually try to assign things that are both reasonably entertaining and not too long for the general audience I get in my introductory survey courses that are mandatory requirements for all majors. Besides covering a variety of themes and genres, I often try to pick one book that will jump-start historical thinking. I want a book that will make students more aware of how much “the past is like a foreign country” that we will not understand, if we do not try to fathom the conditions and assumptions of the time without letting our contemporary worldview get in our way.

Last year I tried Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, which I had first experienced as a TA for Sandra Horvath-Peterson at Georgetown University back in the 1990s. Of course, Brecht adapts Galileo’s story to his own purposes, but it provides a useful point of departure for a discussion about the Scientific Revolution. It also forces students to come to terms with the limits of historical fiction.

It usually goes pretty well, though the first section I did it in was a little rocky, partly because not enough students had done the reading, but also because I was surprised that so few people had any general knowledge of fascism. The paperback edition we used, translated by Eric Bently, contains some excellent material on Brecht’s prejudices, but it spends too much time on material more of interest to specialists in drama. Some students read the first part of it, but most gave up and went straight to the play. So I integrated a mini talk of Brecht’s time into the discussions and got them to reason out how the problems of the nineteen thirties and forties had manifested themselves in a play Brecht had set in the seventeenth century. I also assigned sources from 1615 and 1633, so that they could get a sense of the issues from Galileo’s own time.

One point I tried to make clear was that science was only then beginning to manifest itself as an independent discourse, that it was perfectly natural for the Church to be interested in science at the time and even claim authority on the matter. Of course, I’m no specialist on the matter, but it seems to me that this basic point is worth making. Most students seemed to get it too. Indeed, I felt like cheering when one woman near the end of a class wondered aloud what people would think about our own world in another few hundred years. Sound trivial? Maybe to historians and those for whom historical thinking comes naturally. In our presentist society and with this presentist generation, I think the question was excellent. This student and her classmates were thinking historically.

The success of this discussion was also due in part to another issue. I have begun to “legitimate confusion”1 for my students, that is, I have begun to cultivate an awareness in them of just how hard historical interpretation can be and how important learning how to ask questions can be. With this attitude, students can explore sources and ideas honestly and thoughtfully without fear of getting it wrong and looking bad. With such an awareness, students were willing to attempt the leaps of imagination necessary to navigate among three different time periods, the early twenty-first century, the nineteen thirties and forties, and the first few decades of the seventeenth century.

I might try this book again, though I could also do with a change. Perhaps some of you have some ideas?

Images: Galileo and Brecht

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

  1. I can’t remember where I got this phrase, but the link is now dead or hidden behind the AHA paywall (November 26, 2014). 

Across Generations

When I went to the student coffee shop on Friday, the student at the cash register guessed my order before I could tell him what I wanted. I remarked that I had had similar experiences with regulars when I worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts over twenty years ago. His response: “They had Dunkin’ Donuts back then?”

For me there has always been a Dunkin’ Donuts. Indeed, according to Wikipedia and the corporate website of Dunkin’ Donuts, the first store opened in 1950, which is close enough to “always” for someone born in the early 1960s. So why did the student think Dunkin’ Donuts was new? His own answer was eminently practical: “I haven’t even been alive for twenty years.” Still, his underlying assumption that so much of the world around him was new took me aback.

Maybe I should not have been surprised by his presentism. After all, the current generation of students has grown up hearing that they live in a completely different world than the one into which I was born. They have heard from their parents and teachers about a bygone world in the midst of a Cold War without personal computing, the internet, cell phones, iPods, and global warming. And then there are the many students who have grown up in new subdivisions, schools and strip malls.

What do these thoughts have to do with me and Clio? One of my main goals in my undergraduate survey courses is to teach historical thinking, which in part entails helping students appreciate not only that the world has a past, but that the people in that past saw that world through different eyes. But it is not enough for me to ask them to see how the world looks when it is filtered through the experiences of earlier generations. In order to do my job, I find it helps if I meet them halfway and try to understand how the world looks when filtered through their experiences. Of course, I usually end up looking uncool in the process, but as the father of a teenager I am used to that.

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.