Empathize with Racists? Really?

Historians—especially K-12 teachers and public historians—have been struggling with the challenges of teaching the history of slavery. It is time for us to learn from the dearly bought experiences of our science-education colleagues. The hardest lesson of all? Sometimes it’s not about being right.

BBC slave plantation

Sometimes tourists say some nasty things. What should we do about it?

First, some background: You’ve probably seen the disturbing stories lately about how difficult it can be to teach tourists about the history of slavery. At Monticello, for example, tourists ask guides not to focus so much on the negative stuff. In South Carolina, tourists sometimes actually defend the institution of slavery. As the BBC reported recently,

“Slavery was not that bad – it’s probably the number one thing we hear,” says plantation tour guide Olivia Williams.

“To my face, people have said: Well, they had a place to sleep. They had meals, they had vegetables.”

It’s not only museums that are having problems. As one contributor to the NYT’s 1619 project described, the history of slavery in the USA has long been ignored by schools, at best. In her words,

It’s ugly. For generations, we’ve been unwilling to do it. Elementary-school teachers, worried about disturbing children, tell students about the “good” people, like the abolitionists and the black people who escaped to freedom, but leave out the details of why they were protesting or what they were fleeing. Middle-school and high-school teachers stick to lesson plans from outdated textbooks that promote long-held, errant views. That means students graduate with a poor understanding of how slavery shaped our country, and they are unable to recognize the powerful and lasting effects it has had.

So what are history teachers to do? There are a lot of resources out there to help students understand the history of slavery, like Teaching Tolerance, PBS, and Stanford History Education Group materials.

But there’s another place to look that might not seem obvious at first. Like historians, science educators have been struggling for generations to break through popular hostility toward central scientific ideas. Most powerfully these days, many people have a strong visceral distrust of any ideas about human evolution and human-caused climate change.

How have science educators grappled with these challenges? What can historians learn?

In the latest edition of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Kate Carter describes the ways she trains tour guides at the Smithsonian. Carter knows that many visitors will come already hostile to the messages of mainstream science. They are often already convinced that concepts of deep time and human-caused climate change are bogus. For example, she describes one typical couple that walked away from the information concluding, “There are two sides to every story.”

rncse empathy

Can history educators learn from this kind of science-ed training?

What are educators to do? We can’t just throw up our hands and conclude that some people are just not willing to learn about science or history. Carter suggests we avoid a simple “rookie mistake.” Instead of preparing to bombard our students or visitors with the evidence for our cases—whether it be about human evolution or American slavery—we should start with a very different idea: EMPATHY.

Make no mistake: Carter is not suggesting we avoid the subject, or agree that there are simply two sides to every story. No, she agrees that communicating the best information about science is our main goal. To get there, though, she suggests beginning by trying to understand the people with whom we’re speaking. As she explains,

While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

Seems obvious, right? But when it comes to teaching the full, unvarnished, unpleasant history of American slavery, empathizing with resistant listeners can be extremely difficult. If a tour guide tries to understand a visitor who doesn’t want to learn about Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, is she continuing the lamentable tradition of overlooking the truth? If a teacher spends time trying to understand why her students reject the evidence for the brutality of slave markets and slave labor, is she guilty of contributing to the long, shameful silence of those crimes against humanity?

In short, it seems like the time for polite empathy about the history of American racism and slavery is over. Teachers and tour guides might blanch at the prospect of bonding with racist tourists and students.

In spite of these important challenges, we can still learn from our science-ed colleagues. No one is suggesting any kind of watering-down or truckling, either to neo-creationists or neo-confederates. All we want to do is begin a conversation by filling in culture-war trenches and building connections so that a real conversation can take place. If we don’t start with that, no amount of proof, evidence, or explanation will do any good.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

School’s back in session, so here are a few education-related gems from around the interwebs from the past week:

An old (2017) essay proving an old universe. HT: JM.

So, could God not have created the world 6000 years ago and just made it look like it was very old? Personally, I believe he could have, had he wanted to, but does that idea fit the traditional Christian view of the character of God?. . .

In a world where cause and consequences are arbitrary, no evil can be committed and in a world without knowledge no evil can be understood. A universe that pretends to have been evolving and to have continually grown in size, but instead was made in discrete unrelated steps, would be such a world where cause and consequence are not to be trusted anymore.

The issue of education tipping midterm congressional races, at RCE.

The Left eats its own poets, at IHE.

silent sam podium

Even more silent now…

Why not pull down racist statues? At AG.

History is . . . not kind to statue smashers.

Uh oh: A majority of young religious people prefer to worship with people who share their politics, at CT.

How do state standards look after the Common Core dust has settled? Common-Core-loving Fordham reviews the current state of affairs.

Is there a “college cartel?” NR says yes, and it’s weakening.

Peter Greene: What school privatizers are really after.

Modern venture philanthropy doesn’t have nearly as much to do with profiteering as it does with buying influence and compliance.

The country-club set comes out as “solidly secular,” at FA.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Hot, dry summer weather. Just right for flat-earthism…? All that and more in our weekly round-up of ILYBYGTH-themed stories from around the interwebs:

“In God We Trust:” Six states have laws approving motto banners in public schools. At Fox.

in god we trust

Why outsource your religion to your government?

Can a medieval scholar defend white men? Conservatives say yes, at RCE.

How many people think the world is flat? Discussing the poll numbers at SA.

Anti-white racism? Or free speech? Rutgers agrees to punish white professor for anti-white screed, at IHE.

Tearing down statues at UNC: The long history of protests over “Silent Sam,” at HS.

 . . . on June 2, 1913, Silent Sam was dedicated on commencement day with speeches from then Gov. Locke Craig and Confederate Civil War veteran Julian Carr. Carr praised the Confederate Army as the saviors “of the Anglo Saxon race in the South” and recalled “horse-whipp[ing] a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” for offending a Caucasian woman on Franklin Street.

New federal lawsuits hope to provide more tax money to private religious schools, at WSJ.

Is this a big deal? Historians weigh in on Manafort and Cohen rulings at HNN.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

From “creationist” neo-confederates to whiskey-drinkin tooth-pullers, this week had it all. Here are some of the articles that riled us:

Is there an intellectual wing to Trumpism? Daniel McCarthy reviews some conservative contenders at American Conservative.

Should college students have to PAY for speakers they disagree with? Hechinger looks at the fight over mandatory student fees.

Wow! Whatta week for in-depth profiles of ILYBYGTH personalities:

John Kelly’s comments generated a lot of culture-war heat.Bart reading bible

Does THIS count as school segregation? Or is it just a reasonable attempt to reward good behavior?

Ouch. The Nation profiles the painful lengths people go to in Tennessee when they lack dental insurance. Spoiler: It includes “pliers, chisels, and whiskey.”

Stuff It, Perfesser: The DINE Response

Cross-posted from Do I Need Evolution

What do we do when we can’t agree?  Evolution, US History, sex, prayer . . . there’s a lot we can’t agree about.  A few days back, I asked what a historian like me should do when challenged and insulted.  Should we fight back? Or try to understand why we’ve been insulted and make some connections between disagreeing sides?  Prajwal Kulkarni of the must-read Do I Need Evolution has offered a response:

I can understand why both historians and scientists get angry and feel they must fight. But to fight or not to fight is not the only question. How we fight matters as whether we fight. It’s possible to fight fairly and treat your opponents with respect, something sorely missing with creationists.

Scientists and educators themselves disagree which topics in science are critical for people to learn, and especially non-scientists. Moreover, pretty much everyone agrees that there are many paths to science literacy. Since the experts don’t think evolution is absolutely necessary, and since there are many different ways to cultivate science appreciation and literacy, “fighting” over evolution seems particularly inappropriate.

History is different. Adam can comment more authoritatively, but I get the impression historians agree on a canon that everyone should be exposed to. There also aren’t easy substitutions in history education. You can’t legitimately teach mid-19th century US history and avoid the civil war. But as medical schools all over the world demonstrate, you can teach biology and avoid evolution. “Fighting” might actually be a more appropriate response for history. And even then, we can make sure to to fight fairly and respectfully.

Living in a democracy requires us to draw these types of lines. When it comes to public education, it may be okay to concede on evolution but not history.

Stuff It, Perfesser…

Ouch.  This is what biologists and geologists must feel like when young-earth creationists get aggressive. In the past, I’ve chided mainstream scientists for their unwillingness to sympathize with creationists.  Now that the topic is US History and I’m the one under attack, I feel more sympathetic to the biologists in the room.

Here’s the story: A couple days ago I posted a short essay in the pages of the History News Network.  I compared the history of neo-Confederate attacks on mainstream US history to the decades of creationist attacks on mainstream science.  Why do textbooks still include hackneyed old myths, I asked.  Why insist that slavery was not a leading cause of the Civil War?  Why claim that thousands of slaves fought loyally for the Confederacy?  Such things just aren’t true, and I reminded my history colleagues (and myself) that we must remain active supporters of real history in America’s classrooms.    

A few commenters took me to task for swallowing the myths of false history.  “Whoever this Laats character is,” one James Bendy remarked,

he’s definitely drinking the Kool-aid of the history revisionists. What he calls “revised history’ is actually the unvarnished truth. Yes, there were thousands of free blacks who fought FOR the South, along with thousands of Asians, Spaniards, Jews, Italians, all kinds of Europeans, and several entire tribes of Native Americans. It’s all documented and proven beyond any doubt.

Another commenter accused me of “egotistical presumption and condescension” along with “narcissism and moral blindness.”

Really?

I hadn’t meant to be provocative, really.  I hoped to remind other historians that they needed to remain actively involved in history education in their local communities.  It was an historian from William and Mary College, after all, who discovered woeful mistruths in a textbook used by fourth-grade public-school students in Virginia.  All of us need to serve as this sort of watchdog.   

My surprise reminds me of the ways generations of mainstream scientists felt after engaging for the first time with anti-evolutionists.  As I note in my 1920s book about the first generation of Protestant fundamentalists, when University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge disputed the scientific accuracy of anti-evolutionism in 1921, he found himself under political attack by the wily William Jennings Bryan.  President Birge went on to warn Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin, if you mention evolution, “you will receive an enormous number of letters and much fool printed stuff.”  

President Birge was one of the first mainstream scientists to tangle with anti-evolutionists.  His lesson to Conklin has been repeated by generations of mainstream scientists who engage with the issue of creationism.  Lamentably, in these durable culture-war controversies, conversation has always taken a backseat to accusations.

The same certainly seems to be true in this case.  There really isn’t a controversy here; not a real one.  Neo-confederate histories rely on half-truths and outright fabrication to “prove” their preferred stories.  Activists rely on political pressure to crush out dissent and promote politically palatable myths instead of real history. 

To be fair, I don’t dispute the notion that this sort of anti-historical meddling goes on from the left, as well.  There’s also not much disagreement among historians that the leftist history peddled by the late Howard Zinn is full of misleading half-truths and exaggerations as well.  Yet Zinn’s People’s History continues to be used by activist teachers in America’s schools.  That’s a shame as well. 

So what’s an historian to do?  Do I have to swallow these insults in order to build bridges across culture-war divides, as I have suggested mainstream scientists need to do?  Or is it more important to fight back, to take on neo-Confederate historians and activists on a point-by-point refutation?

What would Bill Nye do?

 

150 Years Without History Are Enough!

It’s not a “conservative” thing, really.  Or a “progressive,” “liberal,” or “traditionalist” thing.  But I’ve mounted up on my high horse in the pages of History News Network to complain about the sad state of American history education.

Specifically, I’m stumped and saddened by the continuing prevalence of neo-Confederate histories in America’s public schools.  Or, at least, by the continuing desire of some activists and authors to keep neo-Confederate histories alive.

In the HNN essay, I argue that there are clear parallels between this sort of history education and the long campaign against the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes.   Just as in that case, I think there are plenty of conservative intellectuals who will agree with me that neo-Confederate myths shouldn’t be taught as real history, just as there are lots of conservative evangelicals who dispute the young-earth style of creationism peddled by Ken Ham.  Just as I wouldn’t want history teachers to use Zinn’s woefully slanted leftist People’s History of America in their classrooms, I bet there are plenty of conservatives who don’t want American kids to learn that the Civil Rights Movement was no big deal, or that lots of slaves fought FOR the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Take a look and offer your comments over there.  Bonus points if you can make sense of my oh-so-clever title BEFORE reading the essay on HNN!