Humility and acts of understanding

John Fea has a podcast and it is good. I’ve long been a fan of Professor Fea’s work, particularly his efforts to bridge the divide between disciplinary history and the public (in his case, chiefly, the evangelical public.) In the current episode Fea lays out approaches to history education that he has encountered in his work in the classroom and beyond: some folks want “just the facts,” others go for history as civics education, and many promote the value of historical thinking skills to life and society in general. These are not exclusive categories, but I prioritize the historical thinking aspect. I believe Fea does, too. You scratch the surface on him and you see the influence of Sam Wineburg, director of the Stanford History Education Group, interviewed in this latest episode. Fea calls the interview provocative and I suspect it’s because of Wineburg’s strident critiques of the Teaching American History program.

I’m struck, however, by Wineburg’s powerful explication of the value of historical thinking skills. Allow me to quote extensively:

Historical thinking is training for the mind, training for dealing with the cacophonous voices of a democracy. Training to think through a reasoned position that is supported by evidence. The alternative is uninformed opinion, some of which we’re experiencing right now.. the claims of the leading contender for the Republican nomination, who makes claims that can’t be supported at all, and yet people are credulous and believe in him and I believe that’s a testament in many ways to the failure of our educational system.

The social and political world in which we live is shades of gray, we [historians] do not have the kind of certainty that you can find in a discipline like mathematics, clearly where evidence and proof are constructs that are used in the discourse of that discipline. We deal in probabilities, we deal in shades of gray, we deal in corroborating evidence and the uncertainty of everyday life…. the kinds of matters that occupy our attention are matters of interpretation… They create a type of ambiguity that … we’re lacking in contemporary political and social life at this point. People want concrete black and white answers—build a wall, make the Mexicans pay for it—this is the kind of thing that appeals to a need for certainty and a lack of exercising the muscle that can withstand ambiguity. That’s what historical thinking is all about, creating the muscle to deal with ambiguity. [My emphasis.]

On the connections between history and theology, Wineburg reflects, “…it cultivates, it should cultivate, a sense of humility, a sense of the imperfection of the human species. It should soften us in the face of unremitting judgment….

What you tend to see in people who are uncultivated in historical thinking is a kind of finger-wagging toward the past. The notion that somehow we are superior… Sustained study of history creates a sense of humility… what it does is, the more we study a particular time period, the more our understanding grows in the kinds of ways of thinking and logics that are not our own, and that itself is a mind-expanding activity, it gets us out of narcissism. It’s the kind of thing, if you will.. .travel, not as a tourist, not looking through the window of a bus, but extended time …living in another nation, with a different set of beliefs, also cultivates.

Side note: my mantra for undergraduate history classes is that we are charged to understand and explain the past, and not argue with it. This came out most forcefully in my Old South class a few semesters ago where I challenged my students to view both enslaved people and enslavers as possessing internal conflicts, reasons, emotion, morals, faults, aspirations, etc. They found it easier to do so for enslaved people. They were not particularly interested in understanding slave owners. I think it’s a necessary skill to exercise because in real life you are going to have to sit down and do politics and society with people you don’t care for and you have to make human connections with them to make it all work.

Wineburg goes on,

Similarly, that’s what happens in an uncultivated view of the past, we’re not looking at the past, we’re engaging in an act of judgment not an act of understandings. So I think that at their best, historical thinking and theological thinking bring one to a point of fear and trembling, bring one to a point of one’s own smallness in the face of the vastness of what there is to know.

I feel this so hard. I am so fully invested in this sensibility of ambiguity, of humility, that I’m sometimes crippled in my ability to act or believe in this present world. It’s not a bad sense, I think, as every horrible thing in our current situation is marked by righteous certainty. Why would I want to feed that? History makes me humble. It makes me appreciate shades of gray, and thus I find it hard to identify and condemn moral failings and bad actors in the past and in the present. It makes me comfortable with not knowing and inaction as valid positionalities. (However, I’d strongly argue against inaction, in this case, being consent or compliance.)

I think there is some tension here for public historians. We do have to acknowledge the priority and validity of presentist—Wineburg would call it narcissistic—worldviews in our audience, but that’s another post.

This sensibility is what draws me so much to Patterson Hood’s song What It Means. In it, Hood begins by traveling through the frustration and outrages of a rational observer to Michael Brown’s and Trayvon Martin’s killings. He expresses a wider sense of bafflement at larger culture war skepticism of science and tribalism in politics. Yet it contains no certainties and no calls-to-action. I think that simple recognition; acknowledgment of the fucked-upedness of things today is a potentially transformative act from people like Patterson and me. Saying I don’t know is not a shrug of the shoulders, but signal that inequalities and injustices must be confronted. It is an act of understanding. But history teaches me that being certain and righteous about how to proceed may not be the best course. Others will do so, and contingency will happen.


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