Rock and Hard Place

When I was in graduate school, I had a strong reaction to Susan Harding’s ethnography of American evangelicals. Partly but not entirely for the sake of argument, I wrote a critique where I claimed that this was a case where an anthropological approach amounted to unilateral disarmament in vitally important social struggles, that accepting the framework of Harding’s scholarship made it impossible to respond oppositionally to the cultural and social political campaigns mounted by religious conservatives.

That was a salad-days argument for me: I’m much more inclined to take Harding’s approach today. But I think there’s still a complicated perspectival choice between trying to study a group of people or an institution ethnographically and engaging them as fellow citizens with whom you intensely disagree. If I set out to understand a group in their own terms, to gain an emic understanding of their rhetoric and practices, if I see the world as they see it, I achieve insight at the potential cost of having a permanently asymmetrical, insulated relationship to that group and its goals. That is, unless they take a similar interest in understanding me and my world in a similarly curious, open-minded, investigatory fashion.

There are times where I think it’s more honest and in a roundabout way more respectful to just come out with your dukes up and straightforwardly fight against initiatives or ideas from socially or ideologically distant groups that threaten your own values, no matter how much their ideas are rooted in an authentic habitus of their own. There’s a kind of equality in that struggle, an acknowledgement that you’re engaged in a fight over institutions or policies with people who have an equal right as citizens to push their beliefs.

I was thinking about this choice while reading this liveblogged account of a meeting of the Texas Board of Education. There’s one part of me that wants to think about why and how history matters to a man like Don McElroy, and to consider how he speaks for an entire constituency’s understanding of how the past and the present relate, to see things from the inside out of that perspective. There’s another part of me that reacts with white-hot anger at my perception that McElroy and his allies have contempt not just for specific historical truths that I think matter but for the entire enterprise of a reasoned, fair-minded, methodologically transparent, standards-driven investigation of the past.

There’s a muddled impulse in me to split the difference, too. If I thought I was in an honest dialogue with people unlike me, and there was some respect towards me and my world, there are points that McElroy raises that I could see as reasonable enough. No reason, for example, why high school American history shouldn’t focus on the resurgence of conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s. And so on. But I wonder what the point of conceding ground might be when some of the other insertions and demands seem so aggressively dishonest or distorted. The side of me that wants to just wage an unqualified battle against this kind of culture-war campaign despairs at the perpetual and circular quality of these debates, at the life sentence of a thousand tiny cuts that they seem to promise.

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9 Responses to Rock and Hard Place

  1. AndrewSshi says:

    This issue comes up in several places and under several guises, and I think that to some extent, it’s bound up in the temperament of the people engaging it. Take, say, a study of the Crusades. A former colleague of mine is an outstanding scholar of the Crusades, and what I think makes him an outstanding scholar is that he’s fairly religiously and politically apathetic. He’s thus able to study the events of the twelfth-century Levant as events in the twelfth-century Levant, and not as having to do with Israel, Iraq, the so-called War on Terror, or what have you. It takes either detachment an extremely mentally disciplined scholar to maintain the level of distance necessary for good scholarship.

    Dealing with a certain species of politically active evangelical Protestant* to some extent means that you have to just put the scholar aside. I mean, if I thought that the the folks on the Texas school board were seriously interested in showing how Christian thought relates to Anglo-American institutions, I’d be thrilled if they would address it. When you look at Samuel commentaries, and the fact that there’s often a strong degree of overlap between political reformers and commentators on tyrranical kings (this is especially the case in the twelfth and sixteenth centuries), it’s clear that you need to look at our political history with the religious element in mind.

    But the folks in the Texas school board don’t have any of those concerns. At all. Even when they’re right, they’re right for the wrong reasons. So they need to be fought on basic principle.

    Of course, it’s often militant secularists who are the only ones who’ll take up the fight, and they don’t really have much interest in honest historical scholarship either. And there I just fell into the on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand approach that the committed and wrong are able to exploit with such deftness.


    *And not all politically active Evangelicals. The guys of Stop Prison Rape, for example, are mostly evangelicals and doing work that no one else seems to feel necessary to bother with.

  2. Carl says:

    Yeah. I’m with you, muddle and all. When you say “[t]here?? another part of me that reacts with white-hot anger at my perception that McElroy and his allies have contempt not just for specific historical truths that I think matter but for the entire enterprise of a reasoned, fair-minded, methodologically transparent, standards-driven investigation of the past,” I see all of that. I can empathize with the anger. But the inspiring part is the commitment to reason, fair-mindedness, transparency and standards, which is not contingent on reciprocation.

    It’s not like collecting quality data and doing quality analysis save us from debates that degenerate into shouting matches. But I still think it’s a hell of a lot better than starting with the shouting.

  3. nord says:

    Well – they want to set up a stark choice between Howard Zinn and Jonah Goldberg as the basis for teaching history in high schools … which one do you want assuming you can only chose one?

    A reasoned, fair-minded, methodologically transparent, standards-driven investigation of the past hasn’t given them the outcome they would like to date – from their view they’ve already lost to the other side of the political aisle on the important debates of american history.

  4. Carl says:

    Nord, that’s right. Which points to another way of looking at the situation, which is what we are trying to accomplish with history. ‘Getting it right’ seems like a goal we could all get behind, stripping the interests out of history and making it uninteresting. Bourdieu asks us to think about the class luxury of this interest in disinterest.

    If you need history to actually do something for you in the present other than entertain you or support your sense of intellectual superiority, then what it means to get it right changes. There may be political or therapeutic or identity-mything purposes that generate their own standards of reason and fairness. When these purposes run up against each other and the histories they produce are incompatible, it’s time for a street fight. The original generative standards are beside the point then, it’s about looking for rhetorical openings to land blows. This is what the conservos tend to understand better than the libs.

    I do think, like Weber, that it’s possible to do both, but not at once.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    What compounds all of this is that there’s another reason to be angry about what the Texas Board of Education is doing, and that’s the Godzilla-like damage this sort of whimsical curriculum-building does to the educational experience of students. Most high school students already hate K-12 history because it often seems like a hodgepodge of dates, facts, themes, because it already feels like a chimeric beast built by a committee. When you’ve got a Don McElroy trying to stick in a unit on the Klondike Gold Rush for reasons which are entirely opaque (he doesn’t know when it happened, even), that problem gets even worse. Imagine the classroom where the beleaguered teacher has to get up and say, “Ok, we were talking about populism last week, this week we’re talking about the Klondike Gold Rush.” Students: “Why?” Teacher: “It’s in the textbook, that’s why.” Way to make the educational experience even less coherent for any ideological perspective: the whole approach is infuriating because it shows that the actual experience of actual students in actual classrooms matters not one whit to the partisans in this case.

  6. Carl says:

    Yeah, that’s a doozy. It really complicates teaching gen ed history because there’s so much salvage that has to be done before the kids will even pay attention. But isn’t a content orientation to history inevitably going to produce arguments about what should be in, what should be out and why? And aren’t the reasons behind those arguments always going to be invisible to the curricular end user?

    I would think that a good teacher could take the contingencies of mandated content in stride and use them as an opportunity to develop some historiographical reflection, in themselves and the students. OK, the Gold Rush seems random. What might be behind its inclusion? What piece does it add to this puzzle image we’re putting together? How does it connect and not connect with the other units?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Ye olde “teach the contest”. I suspect a K-12 teacher in most districts in Texas is playing with fire to do that, though.

  8. Carl says:

    Not just Texas. But if that kind of entry-level critical thinking is going to be a problem, it strikes me that getting caught up in slapfights about content details steps right into the feint. If they want to fight on that ground I’d rather disengage there and save our fight for stuff that really matters. Any content at all can be the opportunity for development of an educated mind.

  9. Carl says:

    I’ve been thinking of some frustrating conversations with a good friend of mine through the lens of this post. She is a liberal activist and a fierce advocate of fundamental humanist values. There is one right way to think and act; anyone who does not share this view is either ignorant or evil.

    When we talk for any length of time, we inevitably reach a point where she makes a partisan assertion about a matter of public controversy as if it is self-evidently true. At this point I can either lock arms in solidarity with righteousness and be counted among the saved, or indulge my preference for seeing things in their complexity and from a variety of perspectives (preserving the uncertainty) and be counted among the damned. My friend is uninterested in considering what the world looks like through another lens, so all of the heavy lifting of syncronizing worldviews falls to me. Needless to say these are exhaustingly one-sided conversations, although when I’m tired and cranky my inner Stalin of perspective-shifting does come out and join battle, to no lasting avail.

    It’s tempting to think that she’s just not very bright, but that’s not it. Within her box she’s very thoughtful and effective. It might be more fair to say that she has a very focused integrity to which her intelligence is entirely dedicated. She would not hesitate to go wading into those nasty Texas infidels with every weapon at her disposal, and no doubt they would all rejoice together in the opportunity to struggle for their faith.

    Can a Rousseauian General Will cope with these folks? Only one way, I think. It’s always the Terror with them.

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