History recalls how great the fall can be

26 10 2017

My teaching has changed.

Not that it’s obvious: I’m still teaching the same subjects (politics, bioethics) and assigning the same (-ish) readings, still presenting much of the same material, still asking many of the same questions, and still assigning papers and take home essays.

But I’m also less, mm, neutral than I used to be.

Again, not in terms of conclusions I expect students to reach or questions they may ask—I invite disagreement—but in stressing what is at stake in these questions and conclusions. I want them to know that everything we study has happened, is happening, or could happen, and that these happenings matter. They must be able to think in order to deal with what is and what’s next.

What was that old Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones quote? Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict!

I don’t say that directly to the students, but, yes, that’s the attitude I now take in teaching them.

This started awhile ago, in teaching bioethics. Bioethics is not neutral: there is explicit value placed on human life, health is a good, and biomedical research is in general (although not always in the particulars) to be encouraged. Those who work in bioethics make commitments to the values of the field, and while there is little consensus on how best to uphold those values, there is a sense that, yes, to work in bioethics is to pick a side.

I think that exists in other fields, as well, although in much older fields (bioethics is quite young), those values may be submerged beneath a veneer of professionalism, i.e., what matters is what is done rather than what is valued in the doing. That doesn’t mean those professionals are value-free so much as value-assumed.

Shit, I’m not getting this right. What I want to say is: read the last chapter of Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler.  Really, read the whole thing—it’s a terrific takedown of David Irving’s Holocaust-denying, Hitler-apologizing, so-called historical work (an evisceration performed in service to Deborah Lipstadt’s defense against Irving’s libel claim)—but in that last chapter he goes all-in on the necessity of standards in historical research, and of the necessity of historical research itself:

Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account and if necessary amend their own case accordingly. They do not present as genuine documents those that they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious but implausible and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments if this is the case or abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources which, in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite. They do not eagerly seek out the highest possible figures in a series of statistics, independently of their reliability or otherwise, simply because they want for whatever reason to maximize the figure in question, but rather, they assess all the available figures as impartially as possible in order to arrive as a number that will withstand the critical scrutiny of others. They do not knowingly mistranslate sources in foreign languages to make them more serviceable to themselves. They do not willfully invent words, phrases, quotations, incidents, and events for which there is no historical evidence to make their arguments more plausible to their readers.

At least, they do not do any of these things if they wish to retain any kind of reputable status as historians. [pp. 250-251]

Irving, of course, did all of these.

Now it could be said, fairly, that what Evans presents is an idealized version of what is a good historian, and that, as with idealized versions of scientific inquiry, the reality falls rather short. Still, he is making the argument that we can, with much effort, learn, come to know something of the past, and that this knowledge matters enough for historians to put in that effort.

I am more leery than Evans of speaking of the truth of various events, but, really, if I believe—if I know—that Holocaust denial is false, then aren’t I saying that the truth is, in some way, out there?

Anyway, in last week’s politics & culture course we went over the early career of Hitler; I made a point to highlight that his eliminationist antisemitism was there from the outset (1920) and that those who would deny that Hitler knew anything about or wanted to kill all Jews were not credible. The evidence is there, I said, in documents and speeches, in the recollections of others and in his own book, and these can’t just be dismissed.

You can’t just make shit up.

They tittered when I said that, but I was dead serious. Yes, there are legitimate interpretative differences of agreed-upon evidence, and not everything can be known, but if you want to know—if you value knowledge—then you have to take reasoned account of that evidence. You can’t, I repeated, just make shit up.

And that, I guess, is how I take a shortcut to this post’s end: I have until too recently been too cavalier about the value of knowledge itself. Ye gads, yes, the post-structuralist in me is screaming and the epistemological nihilist rolling her eyes, but I can’t, or really, won’t, in this moment, say Lol, nothing matters.

I never really did teach as if nothing mattered, and I’m (almost) always enthusiastic about what I do teach—it is not uncommon for me to interject Isn’t this cool!—but, yeah, I have had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude with regard to what the students get out of a course. I wanted them, sure, to get something out of it, but I don’t know that I ever thought it necessary that they do so.

Now, I think it’s necessary, that it was always necessary.

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