Thursday, January 24, 2008

First Day History Lesson at an Unnamed University

Me and my big blogging mouth! For those who do not know, I am in academia. I have been seriously hammered for my opinions. I have gotten in trouble for saying things one should not say. And, I have decided that it is better for me to not say what I feel to a group of 12 people, go placidly amidst the noise and haste and not suffer what I perceive to be retribution and harrassment. My resolutions: 1) Don't talk much. 2) If you do talk, make the statement tentative, phrase your statement in the form of a question.

The topic on my first day visiting an unnamed university was the Enola Gay exihbit controversey. In 1995 the Smithsonian Institute exhibited the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event. When the academic curators presented their proposal for review, a firestorm broke out. They wanted to tell both sides, ours and the Japanese. They wanted to utilize the new post-national history now hip in academic circles. They also wanted to frame the event as the beginning of the nuclear age and arms race. Veterans groups were mad as hell. They wanted to celebrate, not ponder or bemoan, the end of World War Two.

History can be spun. Our article for the opening class of the semester took the position that there was no objective way to tell the story. From the perspective of someone incinerated (if incinerated people still have one) it was a tragic day. From ours it was a better day. The article challenged the idea that we even had a unified view of the war. The article reminded us that the bombing only saved our soldiers lives, possibly not lives overall. When decrying Japanese imperialism, it reminded us that we had taken Hawaii.

"Yes," there was no way my resolution to not speak would realistically ever hold in any situation "but, even though there are multiple perspectives and each has some validity, could we could use the perponderance of evidence to create an overall picture that has more truth than others?" "Perhaps we have a controversey because back then the perspective was clear about who was good and bad, and it is only with hindsight that alternative views can be considered? In doing history, is it our goal to uncover the past or make a judgement about it?" I was proud at my tentative responses. But as the discussion went on I felt myself slipping. "Don't speak. Questions, not statements" I reminded myself.

But finally, I HAD to ask the big one, "leaving the Japanese, could we say that the Nazi regime was in some sense objectively evil?" To my surprise, someone actually asked me what they had done that was evil. I smiled nervously, having to make a statement. I ventured tentatively but with undisguisable emotion, "well, genocide?" A student who was free to make statements, having the confidence of the majority said, "That is only our perspective. From their perspective they are doing right." I nodded and held my tongue.

At some level I was just plain stunned. At another level, I understood the absence of absolute truth. Culturism holds that each culture has its own truth. Genocide is the hard case. My having been arguing so much about absolute truth lately primed me to pause before screaming about right and wrong. Moments later I recalled the culturist reply. In general, our interfering in other's wars gets us into bad situations; we end up protecting Tutsi maniacs. In Sudan, though it is clearer that we have a cultural affinity with those being murdered, we still have to make a pragmatic choices about intervening. But Nazi Germany was Western. We can judge absolutely that from Socrates on the West has largely held the individual conscience to be sacred. More basically, Jesus said thou shalt not kill. The Nazis went against the Western ideals of freedom of speech and the separation of church and state too. Their ravaging the Western world gave us no choice but to condemn and fight them.

Tentatively, after class I approached the woman who had said Nazi's had their side too. I asked, "The question then becomes, should government exhibits which teach our population, be neutral? Are we obligated to present the idea that the holacaust was good?" Her response further silenced me, "Well, some people think that the holacaust never happened." Silence, John, silence. Silence!!! Another woman chimed in, "We shouldn't judge right and wrong, we are historians. You cannot understand both sides if you have judgement. "So we should teach the Nazi doctrine in our exhibits of World War Two and in our textbooks without judgement?" "Yes. We'll can present their side and then let people decide what they think. That is good history." "Even in public venues?" "Yes." "Okay." I walked away silently.

Too many thoughts. The holacaust is amongst the best documented events in history. There must be some standard of evidence whereby we can nail down facts, even if we want to argue interpretation. Less obviously, if all is interpretation, then we still have a side. These scholars want to work towards a post-nationalist point of view. That is said to be more accurate. But if this leads us to having to say Nazis were right, I don't want it. It may be only our side, but our side holds that Nazis were wrong. We fought, and I would fight, to the death to keep that sort of thought system from sweeping Western civilization. The Nazi's very existence tells us that our values are not obvious. If we do not explicitly teach our values as being right, we cannot assume they will continue. Ultimately, I do not believe in objective interpretations of history. But even if I did, considering the Nazis objectively may make us better historians, but it does not make us better people, and it certainly will not help define, protect and promote our values.

Historians should not check their cultural and moral perspective at the door. I say that even though I largely held my breath and kept my outrage and arguments to myself after entering the classroom. I cannot be proud that I was silent in the face of evil arguments, but I want to graduate. I don't need to go through harrassment over my views at the hands of professors ever again. When I graduate and teach I'll be able to argue my positions from the pulpit of a university position. And though I did not fully express myself to them, I got to express myself to you. That is more important to me. Thanks for reading.


Lexcen said...

You have given me a lot to think about but the notion of "objective history" is something I will certainly look into more deeply. I wonder when ethics became unfashionable?

Anonymous said...

Yes, well then according to the student, there are no lessons to be learned from history, and of course it would be perfectly acceptable to repeat such horrific events as the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, and the slaughter of millions of Cambodians.

I am stunned. If there is no lesson to be learned, then why is history one of our disciplines?

I may take up drinking.

Culturist John said...


This search for objectivity is a mirror of the search for scientific truth. If people were more steeped in the Western canon, they would know that this is what made Plato so nervous. If we only use science as a lens to see the world, it has not values.

For this reason, I believe, Plato would have seen himself as a student of the "humanities" or at least "Greekanities." People do not know that the term "social sciences" and "social studies" replacing the humanities was done under the influence of John Dewey and the quasi-socialist "social fronteir" publication crowd. Instead of humanities and looking at our legacy, they made liberal arts "relative" by focusing on problems and democratic participation. Well, now we are aware of problems, but do we remember Plato's lessons and our connection to him? Doesn't look like it.

Culturist John said...


Sorry to hear you are not a drinker already. I hope that this blog encourages you, if nothing else, to drink!!!

PS Sorry I have been blogging so little, but school and work have started back up for me.