Progressive Historians

Yesterday I took advantage of an opportunity to post over at Progressive Historians and today I did the same.  They make it possible for practically anyone to cross-post in a diary which appears on a sidebar.  The title of the post appears and once the viewer clicks on it it functions just like any other blog post.  Every once in a while a diary entry is moved up to the main page.  Both of my posts have ended up on the main page and I just accepted an invitation to contribute directly to the blog. 

History As An End In Itself: A Categorical Imperative?

I plan on commenting on Phillip S. Paludan’s contribution to Brian Dirck’s edited collection of Lincoln essays at some point, but for now I want to say a few words about one particular passage where the author references the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  Paludan’s essay focuses on three moments during Lincoln’s presidency that shed light on the question or problem of his racial views.  The first of the three is the August 1862 letter to Horace Greely followed by his comments on colonization and finally his meeting with a group of African Americans in the White House.  In setting up his essay Paludan rightly points out the importance of treating historical figures on their own terms.  He rightly criticizes those people (he mentions Lerone Bennett, but I assume that one could easily throw Thomas DiLorenzo into the mix) who seem to have little interest in exploring Lincoln as closely as possible on his own terms as opposed to using him to help further the agenda of the writer. According to Paludan, "Far too often, as most of the Lincoln discussion reveals, writers and speakers line up Lincoln to march in their parade, to substantiate their arguments, treating him as the same kind of partisan that they are." (p. 32)  Before proceeding let me say flat out that I am under no illusion that the divide between these two goals is clear as if to suggest that we can clearly articulate the "Noble Dream" of historical objectivity.  At the same time this does not necessarily imply historical relativism. 

What I find intriguing about Paludan’s position is that he references Kant as a way of introducing a moral obligation of considering historical figures as "ends in themselves."  In other words that we have an obligation not to simply use the past to further our own ends or interests.  While Paludan does not engage in serious philosophical analysis (that would be silly) his brief reference does warrant some consideration.  First a little background on Kant’s moral theory which is outlined in a number of places, but most clearly in his Metaphysical Foundations of Morals (1785).  Without getting into too much detail Kant argues that the moral worth of an action resides in the intention of the agent rather than the consequences of the action which the agent does not always control.  According to Kant: "That an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined."  In short moral worth cannot be understood as an accident, but must be the result of a "good will" of the agent whose actions have intrinsic value.  The maxim must be the result of the exercise of reason:

Only this conformity to law is to serve the will as a principle; that is I am never to act in any way other than so I could want my maxim also to become a general law….’Can you will that your maxim should also be a general law?’  If not, them my maxim must be rejected, not because of any disadvantage in it for myself or even for others, but because my maxim cannot fit as a principle into a possible universal legislation, and reason demands immediate respect from me for such legislation.

This first formulation of the Categorical Imperative gets us close to Paludan’s point, but it’s Kant’s second formulation that gets us home.  According to Kant people inevitably view themselves (insofar as they are rational) as ends in themselves and as sources of value. Yet the reason each person has for viewing himself this way is equally a reason for him to value others similarly.  It follows that our viewing ourselves in this way constitutes a sufficient reason for viewing others as ends in themselves.  Thus "reason requires that you "act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means."

The question is whether we can use Kantian theory as a way to understand our moral responsibilities to historical figures. According to Paludan:

It seems like a close question, but I believe we owe the dead a different fate: to try to reveal them as they would reveal themselves in moments of complete honesty and as they, and we, would have our stories told, as molders and victims of a time and place.  Make no mistake, the dead have almost certainly lied about themselves from time to time; the historian’s job includes catching those prevarications, putting them in full context.  There are a few (if any) circumstances whereby our duty becomes the creation of a story about the past that hides a complex world behind the slogan. (p. 32)

It may be more than a "close question" since we have to find a way to make sense of a moral duty to treat the dead as ends in themselves.  Simply put the dead don’t have any self-regarding interests that the living can make sense of.  However, perhaps we can see historical figures as if they had interests.  I’m not quite sure what this qualifier involves, but there may be something close to analogous that we can use here.  Keep in mind that according to Kant an individual’s ends or goals are formulated by rational thought – the feature that distinguishes humans from other species and gives rise to the Categorical Imperative.  Notice, however, that we do treat certain people as ends in themselves who cannot do so for themselves.  I am thinking of babies and the mentally impaired.  It is in no way a stretch in assuming that most people would have a moral problem with treating members of both categories in ways that benefited others rather than in ways that acknowledged the individual’s welfare. My point is simply that we can assume that members of both communities have self-regarding interests even if they can’t communicate those interests; assumptions would include the desire not to be harmed and perhaps other desires that relate to survival. 

There are still too many problems with this formulation to help historians make sense of their moral obligations to getting the past right or treating historical figures as ends in themselves.  Perhaps if we could ask Lincoln he would say that he is just fine with being used for partisan purposes.  Perhaps in the end our moral obligations as historians are to be found elsewhere.  What is clear is that the use of the past to further our own agendas does involve some notion of using the lives of others as a means to an end.  In that space there are no rules and in that sense everyman really is his own historian.  More importantly, if everyone were to practice history in this manner there would be no discipline of history. 

How in the end can I will that maxim to be a universal law without noticing that the discipline would be rendered otiose?

Welcome New Readers

A hearty welcome to my new friends from Shelley the Republican blog.  I am the author of that "deranged" post that you clicked on which brought you here.

"They spout all their nonsense about hate and moan on about equal
rights – as if that’s what the war was about – but really they’re just
mad for destruction and tearing down all that is good and holy."

Yes, I am "mad for destruction" and my goal is nothing less than "tearing down all that is good and holy." I was wondering how long it would take for someone to discover my true intentions.

A Collection?

Is it just me or is Dimitri Rotov obsessed with James McPherson?  I find it incomprehensible as to why he pays so much attention to one historian.  I count five posts over the past two weeks, including this little gem which appeared today, that mention McPherson one way or another.  This most recent post is totally off the deep end.  Perhaps a collection for some kind of psychological counseling is appropriate.  :)

Enough already. 

Training the Next Generation of History Teachers

The AHA blog has a link to the report "The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and Universities" which is the result of a conference that took place here in Charlottesville in the summer of 2006.  The conference brought together history professors, high school teachers and others who are interested in the quality of history teaching from K-12.  Reading through the report reminded me of some of my own questions regarding the responsibilities of college history departments in preparing their students not simply to do research and contribute to their respective fields, but as teachers who have some background in pedagogy.  The central observation of the group is the following:

Past debates aside, today no one denies that history teachers need to know history. No one denies that teaching is a professional practice that can be developed and improved. No one denies that the best history teachers are driven by a passion for their subject as well as by concern for their students. And no one doubts that passion for history often comes to young teachers from their history professors.

As a result, we believe that departments need to create new opportunities for the people in our classes to begin thinking like history teachers as well as history students. They need to be exposed to historiographical thinking sooner rather than later, explicitly defined and carefully elaborated. Underlying this recommendation is the conviction that the best preparation for future history teachers is the best preparation for all history students. By performing this central task more effectively we can improve all the teaching we do. [emphasis in the original]

At first glance this is a tall order for history departments across the country.  As the report indicates most history departments have little to no contact with their departments of education which means that students in both camps are ill-served.  For graduate students in history one can expect that little formal training in how to conduct a classroom – apart from the old lecture format – will be introduced, and students in education departments may have little training in how history is actually done.  As a result these students enter classrooms unable to apply or teach the kinds of analytical skills that are necessary in understanding the past.

The report offers some practical suggestions for those departments that are interested in taking a critical look at their programs.  Their first point struck home for me as it indicates that history department rarely ask their students about their future plans.  I don’t ever remember being asked as a graduate student in philosophy about my future plans and I suspect that this is the case in graduate programs across the board.  Since the professors in the department have made careers teaching on the college level it is assumed that their students will do the same.  Although it is anecdotal at best, over the past year I’ve had a number of graduate students contact me through this blog for advice about teaching in private schools or on the high school level generally.  Taking one step back it is rather shocking that not more is in place to help young history graduate students take stock of their options apart from the traditional route of research and college teaching.  More importantly it is disappointing as I am convinced that many of our best teachers could be pulled from this pool of passionate and well-trained students of history.  Other suggestions from the report included:

If history departments are in institutions with schools of education, for example, the departments should open communication and establish collaboration. Joint advising has been successful at many schools and some historians might propose cross-listing their courses or team-teaching classes of the sort described below. If history departments are on their own, without schools of education, they have an even greater responsibility to think about preparing the future teachers in their charge.

A third step is for history departments to learn more about the situation in the K-12 classrooms of their community. Our conference showed how much historians in colleges have to learn from teachers in high schools. Inviting history teachers to visit to talk about standards, curricula, and local resources would help historians be better allies. By offering to help evaluate pre-service teachers in their practice teaching, in turn, historians could focus on disciplinary content and help students recognize the connections between what they teach and what historians teach in their own classrooms . By working with new history teachers in local schools in induction programs historians could make an immediate impact on the quality of history instruction in their communities and on beginning teachers’ success in the field.

This is an ambitious report and one that I would like to see departments across the country consider.  That said, I am skeptical that it will make much of an impact.  I say this because the first thing that must change is what I perceive to be a deeply ingrained assumption that the essential goal of graduate programs (specifically graduate programs with a PhD) is to train historians.  And that is different from training historians who can teach. 

There is an excellent short bibliography of sources that address historical thinking in the classroom.  I highly recommend Sam Wineburg’s, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001). 

I applaud the members of this conference for their work in preparing this report and I look forward to reading updates.