Welcome to this week’s slack chat about the toughest beliefs/narratives that we encounter in our jobs as historians.
Erin Bartram: So the inspiration for this topic was your post yesterday on the one cause of the Civil War.
Chris Bouton: Yes, it was the quickest post I’ve written so far. It took me about 40 minutes to write it, just because it’s a subject that I’ve encountered so often and it’s so, so wrong.
It had been kicking around in my head for a while because living in the South, I see a lot of Confederate flags. But I saw this one bumper sticker a few weeks ago that read something like “Both sides fought for what they believed in.” and we should respect that.
Erin: ::endless scream::
Chris: As if the fact that southerners really believed in their cause somehow justifies it.
Or makes it worthy of respect.
The morons who believe in the PizzaGate nonsense really believe it, so do I have to respect the guy who brought a gun to that DC pizza place? No, I don’t. He’s a criminal who deserves to go to jail. (As you can tell, I have a lot of feelings on this subject)
Erin: What I thought was important about your post was not only that you said “let’s look at what the people at the time said” but also “let’s look at why this other view exists, when it came to exist, and what work it does”
Chris: I go back to Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Rising, if you want people to “respect” the Southern cause, that’s understand it for what it was–a government built on exclusion. And these bumper stickers and narratives continue that history of exclusion.
It got me thinking about what other narratives it seems so hard to budge, in teaching and in public engagement.
In teaching, one thing that compounds the difficulty of shifting this narrative is that Reconstruction seems to get lost at the end of the survey.
Even at my university, the course name is “US to the Civil War Era” and “since the Civil War Era” and while I can make my two versions of the survey link up, conceptually and chronologically, it’s really unclear what will happen if you have two different profs for the two different halves.
Chris: Yes, it does. The middle of the 19th century gets compressed to the end of the semester or the beginning of it, so you lose Reconstruction and a lot of teachers (at least in my experience) preferred to start with the Gilded Age and Industrialization.
A long 20th century approach.
Erin: I’m also noticing right now, teaching the expansion of slavery in the Southwest and the 1960s in parallel classes, that it’s just so difficult for most students to comprehend the virulence and violence of American racism, even if they might articulate it themselves when they see a news story.
Chris: Yeah, violence is something that’s really hard to understand because it seems so distant and impersonal.
Take the teaching of lynching, you can talk about the campaigns against African-Americans across the United States, but the students don’t really get it. Show them a picture of a lynching and it clicks a little more because they see the white crowd celebrating or having a picnic.
It’s the old Stalin line about 1 death being a tragedy and a million a statistic.
Erin: And yet when you talk about the direct action of the civil rights campaign of the 1960s, most people will offer the argument “it worked because now people in other places finally saw how bad it was.” But they saw lynching postcards too…
So it can lead to a more complex discussion of how power is actually leveraged in that moment.
Chris: Right and the discussion about power is key. Who has it at this historical moment and why do they use it or not? What are the circumstances that prompted action or inaction.
So, we’ve done the Civil War and civil rights, as a historian of religion what’s the biggest misconception that you face in your field?
Erin: I have different issues with my two main fields, the history of women/gender/sexuality and the history of religion/spirituality.
The thing I have to push back against the most in the former category is the idea that there was a point in time when women “started” working.
Chris: They always worked.
Erin: The same students will tell you week after week, that whatever time we’re looking at is when women started working – the 1790s, the 1830s, the 1880s, the 1910s, the 1940s, the 1970s…
Chris: It’s absurd to suggest that women never worked. Of course they did. I always used to ask my students, have you ever tried doing laundry without a washing machine? Or baked bread? Or gone into the woods to chop down a tree to get firewood for your family?
Erin: The key is pushing people to reconsider what they consider labor.
Chris: It’s the “invisible” labor that women have done for centuries that doesn’t get recognized because it doesn’t fit into our understandings of labor being related to wages and working outside the household.
And still do today.
Erin: The other thing, though, is that it’s very hard to budge a couple of related narratives. A) That earning wages is inherently better than whatever came before, and B) That things have always been getting better for women.
Chris: The progress narrative is the toughest one to kill.
Erin: It’s so so hard.
Chris: We like to think that history has this teleological goal, towards civil rights for all or whatever else. It doesn’t.
Erin: And the idea that industrialization=progress means it’s hard to shift cause and effect ideas when it comes to industrialization. I joke with my students that the answer in my US I class is almost always “land,” but it’s mostly true, yet it’s hard to shift the idea that working in a factory wasn’t what people wanted out of life.
We can all articulate the same ideas about “small business owners” today even as we cling to narratives about industrialization, wages, and progress in the past.
Chris: For one thing, working in a factory was horrible labor. That belief in the yeoman farmer, free of dependence is ingrained in the American mythos.
I like the point about small business owners, that’s a great way to think about the modern applications of this idea.
Erin: The trouble, though is that we have this amazing ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time. Most people could tell you “Squanto and Samoset taught the Pilgrims how to farm” and “Indians were hunters and gatherers and didn’t own land like the English” at the same time, and not till you pointed it out would they see the contradiction.
Chris: And we like to impose narratives onto events because they offer us explanations as to why things happen. They satisfy our need for stories that reify our own beliefs and values.
Erin: I talk a lot with my students about why that second idea exists, when it came to exist, and the work that it does, but it’s so fundamental to their idea of the past. I can shift it in their engaged brains, but it is like instinct when it comes to taking an exam.
Chris: More generally, we as human beings understand our world through narratives and stories with clear causes and effects. Challenging those ideas is difficult, because it’s for us to accept the Sqanto myth than challenge it. Or in a general sense accept that the world isn’t easily explainable.
Erin: Or that people were as awful as they were
Chris: Narratives give us the illusion of control, that we are in charge of what happens in our lives, when in fact, unknown factors (luck or whatever you want to call it) have a lot more to do with it than we’d like to acknowledge.
People are always awful regardless of the time period.
I know that historians are known as being cynical, but I’d challenge that by saying, have you looked at the past? People are awful to one another, all the time. They’re kind, generous, and considerate as well. But don’t think just because you’re living in 2017 that you’re morally better than anyone else at any time.
Erin: And that leads us to teaching the history of religion
::climbs up on my soapbox::
I have written on some parts of this before:
Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics
I read Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ piece “Teaching True Believers” last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In it, Thomas discusses the difficulty of getting students to think critically about religious belief. Here’s a taste, but I encourage you to read the entire piece. We do not tell our students what to believe, nor…
But in general, I’d say region matters a lot in what your challenges are. Here I’m not teaching courses in the history of US religion to students who’ve chosen that, I’m teaching it in my survey courses and women/sexuality courses.
The largest challenge is one that I think historians are often complicit in perpetuating.
Put bluntly, it’s the idea that Martin Luther said everyone could read the Bible, then everyone read the Bible, realized it was nonsense, and then science happened and no one was religious ever again. So much about the way the “western” survey gets taught perpetuates this.
Chris: Oh, in the South, they don’t think the Bible is nonsense. It’s the literal word of God.
Erin: Should we be surprised students think religion was in a death spiral from the 16th century on when they don’t see anyone continuing to be religious in the material presented for the rest of the semester?
Chris: That touches on the narratives question we were discussing earlier. It’s really easy to point to Luther and say okay that’s what you need to know.
In my experience, students have a hard time accepting the sincerity of the religious beliefs of people in the past.
Erin: And when we start there, it’s easy for students to get the impression that there’d never been religious controversy before that and that the Church had never changed before that (parallel to the idea that all native people in the Americas had been in a cultural holding pattern for centuries, just waiting for colonialism to shake things up)
Oh absolutely. I bring in the line my conductor uses: “You don’t have to believe it, but you have to believe it while you’re singing it.”
Chris: Right, there’s a tendency to portray the past prior to what you’re talking about as static and then suddenly EVERYTHING CHANGED.
Erin: I mean, the thing that’s the real challenge with all this is that people don’t want to admit that “irrational” ideas in the past held sway because they’d have to grapple with the fact that they are as ideologically driven and their ideologies are as shaky and problematic as those in the past.
This is not just a student problem, it’s a people problem.
Chris: The complexity that we find in history is the complexity that we find in the human experience. History isn’t simple, neat, and linear because people aren’t simple, neat, and linear. We’re complicated, we change our beliefs, we behave well, we behave badly.
Erin: One thing that really encapsulates how unsettling this can be is teaching about labor conditions.
The outrage that people feel about Triangle Shirtwaist virtually evaporates when you’re talking about similar conditions in free trade zones in Jamaica. (HT to Micki McElya in whose US II survey I saw this dynamic for the first time)
When it’s the clothes you’re wearing, and the system you’re complicit in, the excuses you make sound just like the ones people made in the 1910s
Chris: Exactly, and that should be a way to bridge the gap between the present and the past, but it requires students (and people in general) to point a critical eye towards themselves. And that’s tough to do.
Erin: I suppose what I really struggle with in the classroom and in this project is the fear that it’s unshiftable. I had a lot of these ideas and somehow they changed but I was in a really rigorous challenging environment and read thousands of pages and still have blind spots.
Chris: I think it points to a more general issue (and perhaps we should end here), that changing our perceptions and our assumptions requires a lot of hard work that may not always pay off. We can try, but we’ll fail a lot. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth the effort because what’s the alternative?
Erin: Exactly. There is no alternative but to keep trying and keep reflecting on how to do it better.