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.