A Short Follow-Up on Bennett and American History

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According to Bennett, American history is knowable as a set of facts that point to a progressive or whiggish view of this nation’s past.  Included in this story is a short list of heroes that exemplify or embody the moral characteristics of the broader interpretation.  Notice the reductionist approach implied in this view:  Whereas I would argue that moral conclusions are not historical in form, Bennett fails to acknowledge a distinction.  In other words, moral facts are objective and discernible through historical study.  But are they?

As I mentioned last week my American history classes are currently reading Masur’s 1831 which begins with Nat Turner’s insurrection.  We read a number of primary sources including sections of The Confessions of Nat Turner.  At one point I asked my class whether they considered Turner to be a hero.  The class was split over a number of issues which they debated.  The central issue was whether the scale of violence disqualified Turner from such a status.  Some students argued that the fact that Turner’s followers killed "innocent" women and children could not be ignored while others suggested that the concept of innocence could not be understood within the slave system.  One student argued that the institution of slavery was maintained through violence and intimidation which itself rendered the idea of innocence untenable.  A few of my African-American students had little trouble identifying Turner as a "freedom fighter."  My point is that I didn’t end the class by suggesting some fact of the matter as to Turner’s moral status.  As I stated yesterday that’s not my job.  My job as a teacher is to train my students to interpret the evidence and arrive at their own conclusions. 

2 comments… add one

  • Paul Taylor Nov 14, 2007

    Kevin,

    Kudos for the well-deserved Cliopatria Award! Count me as one of many who thoroughly enjoys your postings. Though I may not always agree, your discussions are always thoughtful, rational, and reasoned. I especially admire your view that as an instructor, teaching moral relativity is not your proper role but that “My job as a teacher is to train my students to interpret the evidence and arrive at their own conclusions.” Given the various debates and accusations in today’s media, one could be forgiven for concluding that such a professional view is rather “old school.” Alas, it appears that many of your colleagues in academia take a markedly different perspective; that it is in fact their duty to inculcate the students with their particular worldview.

    Best wishes for continued success!

    Paul

    Paul

  • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2007

    Thanks for the kind words Paul.

    You said: “Alas, it appears that many of your colleagues in academia take a markedly different perspective; that it is in fact their duty to inculcate the students with their particular worldview.”

    I know that such a view is widespread, but beyond some high profile cases I don’t buy it. I’ve been in school on and off for 20 years and I interact a great deal with people who teach on college campuses. I don’t get the sense that the problem is widespread at all. The issue itself is so politicized I often find it difficult to wade through.

    Thanks

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