Historical correction (and Ruskin)

Over two years ago I wrote a post that got no comment nor many readers. It was one of the only posts where I shared my discomfort with today’s identity politics.

Then this week, I received an announcement of some workshops at the college designed to engender “cultural sustaining pedagogies”. I wrote a five paragraph response to the ideas contained within this concept, explaining my views supporting universal principles over the perceived needs of particular groups, be they racial, age-based, cultural, gender, or otherwise. Having spent several hours writing, I realized there was no one to whom I could send it, and nowhere I could post it, without endangering my job and quite a few working relationships that were important to me. At the same time I realized that this was what was wanted, my refusal to engage, because the entire pretext is that I am not worthy to discuss any of these issues.

But when one attacks history, however, as a discipline, I do feel a professional responsibility. I did some reading about culturally sustainable pedagogies (cuz I’m always in for good pedagogy), and at one point was led to this article on How Racism and Patriarchy is Taught at School, published just a few days ago. It was about truth versus distortion in history textbooks and class materials, and cited as heinous examples phrases like black slaves were people “who came to work on plantations” and “[s]ome slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly”. Now the first of these is distorted enough to be an untruth: slaves did not “come” to work — they were forced and they were brought. Factually, they did not “come to work on plantations”, either — they were sold for whatever the buyer wanted them for. But the second quotation is not factually incorrect. Some slaves did report that their masters treated them kindly. There are primary sources where they say so, and I assign them. I then discuss with my students why they might have said so, what influences there might have been on their perceptions and testimony. But the truth is that they did report this kindness. So we are not replacing lies with truth. We are replacing nuanced views requiring discussion, with untruth.

The article mentioned how teachers should use the website Teaching Tolerance to teach “the truth” of the past. So I went to the site (which is sponsored by the ever laudable Southern Poverty Law Center), and it recommended a “formative assessment” for students. I link it here. Several of the questions are loaded or misleading. For example:

In the Declaration of Independence, what percentage of enslaved people were included in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

You are supposed to answer 0%, or you’re wrong. This question demonstrates the same sort of oversimplification argued against in the article, just to the other side. Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, were intellectually and morally conflicted by slavery, but stated in a number of places that men may be created equal, but were then subjected to unequal environments, treatment, birthrights, intelligence, etc. Some included women in “men”, while others did not. 18th century intellectuals argued the many sides of these issues. The “line” about equality was likely written by one man, approved by a committee of five, and agreed to and signed by the 2nd Continental Congress. Some had slaves, some didn’t, some had never owned slaves, some made money off the slave trade, some had vowed to release their slaves within a year, others had promised to release them upon their death, and many worried about slavery in its various impacts, discussing its moral, economic, and intellectual problems. To say that slaves were definitely included would be false. To say that they were all excluded would also be false.

The included Teacher Guide says: “The promise of equality and liberty in the Declaration did not extend to any enslaved people. ” But the passage from the Declaration does not promise equality or liberty. It declares them as natural rights. In fact, the Declaration of Independence doesn’t promise anything to anyone — it lays out an argument and justification for breaking away from Great Britain.

Later on the quiz there’s this question:

Which was the reason the South seceded from the Union?

To preserve states’ rights
To preserve slavery
To protest taxes on imported goods
To avoid rapid industrialization

You’re supposed to answer “to preserve slavery”. Yes, indeed. But the reason? The only reason? The main reason? There are no historical events with only one cause, and even the extremes of post-modern historicism admit to multiple explanations if not causation.

The Teacher Guide to this question says, “Every secession document cites slavery as the main reason the southern states seceded.” I have not reviewed every secession document, and I’m not sure whether this means official documents from the states, or whether it also includes letters, diaries, etc. Quite a few both official and unofficial documents also talk about states’ rights, but not always in those terms. A great many talk about freedom and independence, particularly in the context of the American Revolution. Preserving slavery was often discussed within a context of property and ownership, even by people who didn’t own slaves or didn’t care for it as an institution. To not understand and discuss these complexities is to commit presentism (the application of the values of ones own era to the circumstances of the past). Presentism, although increasingly popular, does not actually lead to a rational understanding, but rather a “stand”.

The article also says that our country was “quite literally founded on the slaughter, colonization, enslavement, segregation, and ongoing systematic oppression of millions of indigenous peoples and people of color”. Yes, indeed. But it was also founded on ideals, some of which are worthy discussing and defending. We might want to start with representation, open debate, or any of the rights listed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

So none of this is really about truth. It’s about correction. It’s about grievance. It’s about telling the other side, because it isn’t being told. A worthy goal, certainly. Telling the stories that haven’t been told is a main responsibility (and joy) of historical work. It’s why we’re here. But the goal isn’t to replace Storyline A with Storyline Z. It’s to understand how both storylines interact, to whose benefit one side takes precedence, and to what extent evidence supports the stories.

But lest we think these issues are new, I’ve also encountered them in reading today about the man I cannot avoid in my work, although I don’t like him: John Ruskin. In Judith Stoddart’s article* on his Fors Clavigera, I learned about Ruskin’s push to develop cultural literacy in working people with whom he admittedly not only had little in common, but didn’t know very well as individuals. What he did know, however, were big social and political trends, and what he saw was a lower class that was forming into groups to create solutions for their grievances.

In brief, Ruskin saw a grievance culture, and radical groups loosely based on socialist ideals without actually examining them (he was likely thinking of the Paris Commune, for example). Their grievances focused on class-based social hierarchy, even though that was not, to Ruskin, the root of the problem. The problem was moral, not structural. Some people may have more of some things in society, and others less, but the people with less simply taking the things from those who have more does not create a moral system. In fact, it just puts the lower classes into the immoral position that the upper classes had occupied. The problem of capitalist, industrial exploitation cannot be solved by the exploited becoming the exploiters. It is solved by doing away with exploitation.

Ruskin thus had just as much sympathy for the conditions of working people as 19th century radical politicians did. Education was the solution, but it was moral education that was needed. This was not “character education” or brainwashing, or even Christian education (though Ruskin himself was pretty darned devout). Subjects like music, astronomy, and botany, for example, could teach that things in life have an order that can be understood (p53). Understanding the universal concept of order could thus underpin the planning of political action. Basic principles could then be applied in a rational way according to the needs of both society and the individual. Ruskin aimed to “replace class consciousness by cultural consensus” (p45). Movements that engaged in action without any philosophical underpinnings were dangerous, because they displaced morality, elevating the same greed and selfishness that had been protested against in the first place.

Even before Stoddart began comparing Ruskin with Alan Bloom’s ideas of cultural literacy midway through the article, I saw connections to today. We have political and social movements, on both left and right, that are not based on moral philosophical underpinnings, except in their insistence that they are. The oppressed may become the oppressors, claiming their own truth and the inadequacy of all other truths, but that does not solve the problem. It is oppression itself that must be eliminated. The problem of people being silenced necessitates eliminating silence, not applying it to those who speak. Kindness, goodwill, and understanding are universals, not privileges withheld from some groups and given to others. It is not only unnecessary to prevent talking about incomplete ways of understanding the past, it is essential that we encourage such talk to make the historical picture more complete.

If one is trying to create Ruskin’s cultural consensus, then the intention of education should be to examine views based on what human beings have in common. The elements that bind humanity together should be openly available to discuss and to use. These elements may change over time, but to abandon a search for larger truths in a headlong drive to redress grievances will be of no more help now than it was in the 1870s.

 

*Judith Stoddard, “The Formation of the Working Classes: John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera as a Manual of Cultural Literacy”, in Culture and Education in Victorian England, Patrick Scott and Pauline Fletcher, eds. Lewisburg: Buckness University Press, 1990.

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