Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Back in the day, the most frequent source of argument was the epistemic gap that separated more old fashioned, empiricist historians such as myself from the purveyors of a fashionable form of nihilism called postmodernism. The "posties" liked to insist that history was not merely untenable as a discipline but really quite boring. My usual response was something to the effect of "physician, heal thyself" and to point out that their problem was that they viewed history in such a narrow light - a trait that, ironically, they shared with the most conservative members of the historical profession.
On the contrary, history is the most expansive and broadly encompassing of all scholarly disciplines. Whatever else it may be, history will always involve the study of the past, and there are therefore few matters that fall entirely outside its purview: the totality of the human experience is ripe for historical study. Historians can examine much more than politics and war: they can profit from reading the literature, listening to the music, and studying the art and architecture of the past, and it provides yet another avenue in which to explore the eternal questions of philosophy, science, and religion that serve as bridges between cultures and between bygone eras and our own. It would pose no difficulty for an historian to propose a plan of research that involved the study of 19th century biology; a biologist who was predisposed to study the history of the 19th century would have an uphill battle to fight for funding.
Small wonder, then, that history is one of very few academic disciplines that also has a huge lay following. One seldom meets amateur epidemiologists, and there are very few differential calculus "buffs", but history enthusiasts are everywhere to be found. True, there are many effective popularizations of science (anyone who has not read the late Stephen J. Gould really should) but science at the cutting edge is seldom accessible to non-specialists. By contrast, any interested lay reader can make her way through the latest history journals without much difficulty. Moreover, the casual reader of history has one supreme advantage over professional historians: he can read solely to satisfy his own curiosity about the past, and need not justify his preferences to hiring committees and funding agencies. To be sure, there is a decided preference in public tastes for military history, but the less sanguinary of mind can visit any good bookshop and discover works to satisfy any interest: from biographies of presidents to culinary history.
How stultifying by comparison is the way history is taught to young people - as a vast accumulation of immutable facts: names, dates, and places, to be committed to memory, allegedly for the purposes of producing better citizens - as if historians can claim to be better citizens than, say, dental hygienists. Were it up to the kind of people who run the dull and dour Dominion Institute, whose annual "history quiz" is nothing more than an exercise in trivial pursuit, there would be more rather than less of this sort of thing: nothing will satisfy such people until Canadians have memorized the "facts" of history - whether or not they understand them, apparently, is incidental.
Orwell's dystopia was terrifying in part because the state was able to manipulate history for its own purposes (much as the Dominion Institute would have history taught for the purposes of promoting Canadian nationalism) but Huxley's vision of totalitarianism was more frightening still, because it envisioned a society without a history at all. Fortunately, any argument about what history is, should be, or what purposes it serves, cannot definitively be resolved, for history is too expansive a discipline to be bounded within the confines of such concerns. Rather, good history, like good food, is a source of wonderment and delight in and of itself.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Lately I've found myself thinking about the bad lecturers I had, the ones whose course evaluations say that they are "brilliant, but can't teach", as if any given undergraduate is qualified to be the final arbiter of either of those distinctions. One bad lecturer who made an enormous impression on me was a shambling calamity of an English professor, a woman whose daily shuffle to the classroom left marked and half-marked student essays strewn in her wake – they tumbled from the overstuffed plastic bags she carried everywhere she went. Once, while discussing an assignment with her in her office — imagine the interior of an antiquarian bookshop after a sizeable earthquake and you have some sense of the place — I heard a piteous ringing from beneath the rubble. She regarded me rather blankly and said, "Can you help me find my phone?" I've met professors who consciously pantomime a sort of absent-minded shtick, but this one was the real deal. Sitting in one of her lectures was like listening to someone talking in his sleep. Barely audible, only vaguely aware of the presence of others, she lectured in fits and starts. I recall thinking resentfully that we were watching a woman working out her own anxieties about the literature on the spot. How I hated her class. What I wanted was a bill of facts suitable for regurgitation on the final exam and thankfully there were plenty of "good" professors willing to oblige.
Judging from what I read about pedagogy, the modern "good" professor mounts a weekly multimedia extravaganza designed to compete with the lure of the wireless web, gives lectures organized around PowerPoint slides that are distributed on paper ahead of time, makes frequent, precisely-calculated pop-culture references engineered to get a laugh, in short, does everything and anything necessary to seize the attention of students for whom the promise of electronic amusement is only a click away. And so dutifully the students transfer their professor's lecture notes into their lecture notes (the notes pass through the brains of neither), make some effort to memorize them for the final, and then forget about them forever. We call this process "excellence in teaching" and reward it.
As time has passed, I've begun to realize that when I was my students' age it simply never occurred to me that there might be a disjuncture between what I liked and what I needed. In the geocentric universe I inhabited at age twenty, I sought nothing more than the maximum possible gratification for the least possible effort. I never considered that there was something to be said for groping my way through the wilderness of an intellectual's verbalization of an ongoing thought process, as opposed to the unthinking passivity of taking notes from PowerPoint (or, in those days, an overhead) presentation read by a scholar reduced to being an academic clerk. It never occurred to me that if it's hard it's because it's supposed to be; never occurred to me that the brain is like the bicep and that it won't grow unless you progressively overload it; and certainly it never occurred to me that getting smarter and not just getting through it is the goal of an education. Looking back, from the distance of eighteen (!) years, and having myself spent a great deal of time occupying the high ground on the far side of the podium, I wish that I could once again sit in my hated English professor's class, for I am certain that there is a great deal that I missed the first time around, and the fault was mine, not hers.
Well, I may not be an intellectual, but it is within the compass of meager abilities to pitch that ball higher and harder, and I intend to do so. I am resolved that to do otherwise is to do the one thing that no teacher should ever do – condescend to students. I don't know what students are getting from some of the biweekly edutainment recitals that I see them attending now, but more and more I'm of the opinion that calling it "learning" is like calling it "traveling" when you take a ride at Disneyworld.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Historians flatter themselves that if people understood the past they would know how to act in the present, self-important reasoning utterly belied by the fact historians don't all vote the same way. The problem is that our imperfect glimpses of the past seldom afford us the opportunity to make firm conclusions about history, let alone to derive clear lessons from it. I prefer to think that history's lessons are of a more general sort, so please indulge me as I don my robes, assume my position behind the podium, and convey three lessons about American history that I think every American ought to know.
First: Americans have never agreed about how their country ought to be governed, how it should conduct itself in the world, or what their foundational documents mean. These matters have been the subject of incessant debate since the Continental Congresses met in Philadelphia - before there even was a United States. There never has been an American consensus, there has been a series of compromises. The Constitution of 1787 itself was the result of compromises that fully satisfied none of its authors, and those compromises have been the beating heart of the great republic and its ongoing revolution for 232 years. Only once did the constitutional order fail to yield a working compromise — in 1861 — and then over the one issue about which compromise was not possible. It is therefore altogether wrong for Americans to bemoan "partisan politics", for such politics have been a vital part of American life from the beginning. It is doubly wrong to impugn a fellow citizen as "un-American" without very good cause, for it presumes that there is one archetype of an American citizen, one correct interpretation of the Constitution, one indisputable version of what America means. There is not. There never has been. Such things alluded the Founding Fathers themselves.
Second: the American Revolution was not merely political, but also intellectual. Thomas Jefferson spoke five languages, and lived a life of ceaseless critical inquiry into the great questions of philosophy, politics, science, and religion. Should you accept less from your leaders today?
Third, and above all, the person who you choose to be your President — and in any given Presidential election, only about half of you bother to make a choice at all — affects not just the United States but the whole world. It is of no particular consequence to anyone other than Canadians who the Prime Minister of Canada happens to be. But individual Presidents have changed the world; the choices made by Wilson and Roosevelt and Johnson and Reagan had reverberations that were felt — indeed, are still felt — by every living person on the face of the Earth. Remember always that your right and duty to choose your chief executive is a duty to humanity as a whole.
And, finally, my sincere good wishes, my American friends, on this, the 232nd birthday of your country.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Few things are so irrational as the belief that we must love the place where, through no fault or choice of our own, we were born, but it is the essence of patriotism. It is an entirely unnatural condition. A baby is no more born a patriot than she is born a member of the Green Party or a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. We make them these things. Children are taught patriotism growing up, and especially in schools, where every day they are forced to sing a national anthem (and in some cases recite a pledge of allegiance) whose words they do not understand. About the only thing they do understand is that patriotism is compulsory, and it is a brave teacher indeed who will tell them that love is not love when it is not freely given.
Youthful indoctrination makes it difficult to think about the meaning and consequences of patriotism in adulthood (which is, of course, the whole point), and so it's no wonder that most patriots don't really understand what they mean when they say that they love their country, or defy others to "love it or leave it." Do they mean that they love its physical geography? Its people, collectively? Its laws? Its institutions? Its government? Its current chief executive or currently reigning political party? The worst and most dangerous kind of patriotism is the one that cannot distinguish between these.
Paradoxically, the most vocal patriots almost invariably have a long list of grievances against their country, either because they liked it better the way it was or because they do not like the direction it is going. Yet you can be sure that they will be the first to impugn the patriotism of people with a different set of grievances. But people have political allegiances precisely because their love of country is not conditional, because there are things they wish to change or wish to defend against change.
All this stems from the fact that most people in most countries do not have a shared vision of what their country means: they don't agree about what happened in the past and don't agree about the way things ought to be today. And may it always be so, for wherever there has been consensus, or the illusion of consensus, there has been totalitarianism. Citizens of liberal democracies are safer precisely because it's harder for any one group to impose a consensus on all the others.
One consequence of a tolerant society is that it admits to the political arena people who cannot abide the very freedom that it grants them. I write this column on the eve of the 141st birthday of my country, near the downtown of one of the most multicultural cities in the world, on the very day of the Pride parade. I admit that this city — clean, safe, exciting, multicultural — is the source of great national pride for me, but I do not delude myself that amongst whole legions of Canadian "patriots" such things as multiculturalism and a tolerance for diversity are held to be destroying our country. I think that they are wrong, but I agree with them on one point: our freedoms must not be a suicide pact with people who would use them against us.
Almost exactly two years ago, I had a brief discussion with a student who was distributing pamphlets on the U of T campus while the Pride celebrations were ongoing, just a few blocks away. Suffice to say that his pamphlets were suffused with passages about the vengeance that will one day be visited by God (that is, his god) upon the very people who were then participating in — or indeed supporting — the celebrations. I asked him if he would eventually like to see Canadian laws rewritten based on a strict observance of the proscriptions set out in his particular holy text. His answer was an unequivocal "yes", and he went on to say that he had no doubt that that would eventually occur. I then asked if, under such circumstances, I'd be permitted not to practice his religion. He clarified that those currently not practicing his faith were hell-bound anyway, and then told me emphatically that his religion would be the compulsory in the Canada he envisioned.
So let us be clear, readers: that person as good as threatened me, and he threatened you, too. But amongst my liberal and left-leaning colleagues (and take note, my American friends: those two positions are categorically not the same) there are those who would, in the name of tolerance, defend his right to threaten us without the possibility of rebuttal. I insist upon the right of anyone to peaceably express his views - but I absolutely insist upon a right to criticize those views in return, regardless of their source, even if they stem from a sincerely held religious conviction. You cannot claim to adjudicate on all matters of truth and morality and then demand immunity from criticism in return.
I love my country, and for many reasons, the foremost of which is the fact that my love for Canada is a choice that I can freely make. I am very glad to have had, in my youth, some brave teachers who taught me that patriotism must be voluntary or else not be at all. I carry that love in my heart and in my mind - I do not need superficial totems such as flags and lapel pins and a frankly insipid national anthem in order to profess it. And I will, moreover, defend my country against those who would cynically exploit its commitment to justice and tolerance to create an unjust and intolerant society.