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Friday, April 04, 2008

Has there been a change in human acceptance of human brutality over time? - a debate at H-WORLD and the issue of historian activism...

Over at H-WORLD, an online forum for teachers of world history, there is an interesting discussion going on about the general acceptance of brutality in history and whether it has decreased. Some are arguing that things have indeed gotten better. Others are pointing out that progress has not been made, that improvements have cut both ways and that liberal democracies, the societies in which brutality is allegedly lowest, have a poor record. I would perhaps emphasize that liberal democracies have perhaps developed to the point where they do not like to see the brutality they inflict. We don't approve of torture (or bombings, or slavery, etc.) when we see it. We have developed weapons and institutions, however, which allow us to avoid that visual encounter and deal with these issues mainly in the abstract - a context in which we can have a great variety of opinions about different forms of brutality.

I bring this issue up here because the discussion is beginning to have normative overtones and has had from the get-go implications for teaching. Here are practicing historians dealing with brutality in history and asking themselves how it should be presented and taught. Issues which have come implicitly or explicitly include such questions as Do we confront our students with it? and Do we teach progress? I have the sense that lurking just below the surface is an issue that I hope to address - from my own "pen" or by recruiting fellow historians with more experience in it than I have: the issue of "history as science" vs. "history and activism":

- How far do we allow the old trope about history teaching us "lessons" to actually lead us to teach those lessons? Do we then include those lessons in what we explicitly teach? Are those lessons part of the classroom lesson?

- What does it mean for a practicing scientist (I am schooled in the German tradition, where history is a science: Geschichtswissenschaft or Geisteswissenschaft) to take a normative stand about the use of the knowledge she produces or teaches?

- Does she do so "on the side" or also in the classroom? (I heard an interview with a professor of journalism in Texas about teaching about race and class in the classroom in which he stated that he considered it one of his best strategies as a teacher to make the students feel miserable by destabilizing their idealized notions about who they are.)

- Is what we teach empowering? If so, is it part of our job to encourage a particular use of that power?

- An issue of less likely importance, but of potential theoretical interest: What if we, in a certainly less dramatic or deadly way, but like Oppenheimer, were to discover that the knowledge we produce is dangerous? Do we forge on? Do we publish it and then apologize? Would it be against our ethos to ignore or hide it?

These issues confront us daily. Sometimes, the state senses that something is afoot and tries to pass legislation limiting the teaching of history to the teaching of "facts" or packages of pre-canned narratives. Not only does that make history boring, but it calls our whole enterprise - as historians, as activists, or both? - into question.

We have among our membership people who have worn both hats for a long time, in some cases decades, the hat of the activist and that of the historian. I would encourage them to bring their perspectives on these issues to the Hawblog.

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