The American Revolution embodied, despite the misgivings of many of its leaders, some profoundly radical ideas. Rebelling against the world’s most powerful monarchy and replacing its authority with a clutch of homegrown republican governments (of varying effectiveness) was as fundamental a political change as one could imagine in the 1770s and early 1780s. It’s hard to see that from our contemporary vantage point, however; looking backwards through the French and–especially–the Haitian Revolutions, the revolution that created the United States looks tentative, even skittish, by comparison. Yet it’s also evident that the American Revolution and its early republican aftermath fell far short of fulfilling the truly radical potential inherent within the process of declaring independence from Britain and establishing a republic in place of an imperial sovereignty. Most glaringly, the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality was notable more for who it excluded in practice–women, indigenous Americans, people of color both enslaved and free–than anything else.
When I took the research and methods seminar in my undergraduate History major, one of our texts was E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, a profoundly important and trenchant work, but also one I was nowhere near intellectually mature enough to appreciate. In subsequent years, I’ve circled back to Carr when I’ve taught my own methods and historiography seminars as well as in my own epistemological knocking around in the corners of our discipline. In addition to being a historiography geek of the highest order (I read it for fun, y’all!), I’m also drawn to the ways in which a deeper connection with historiography and, more essentially, the theory and philosophy of History, intersect with pedagogy and student learning. In this vein,Carr’s arguments have been on my mind lately, as I’ve been working on several projects that touch on historical issues that still echo urgently today. Carr’s book isn’t perfect, but as a gateway drug to thinking about history, the historian, and their deeply vital interconnections, it remains an essential read. History, for Carr, is “a continuous conversation between the historian and his [or her] facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present” (p. 30). In other words, the stuff that happened in the past isn’t by itself history. History is when that stuff–which is promoted to the level of “historical facts” by the historian–gets processed and interpreted. The stuff that happened, yet didn’t make this cut, remains in the ephemeral realm of just plain old “facts.” A pithy example used by Carr nicely illustrates this distinction. Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon: THIS IS IMPORTANT. Julius Agricolus the small-time farmer crosses the Rubicon: who gives a shit? (I took some liberties with Carr’s phrasing.)
I’ve been on a pretty good tear through Critical Pedagogy literature lately, and one result has been some wrestling on my part with the issues of teaching, scholarship, and activism. In particular, I’ve often been struck at what seems to be a tension—often implicit, sometimes explicit—between “scholarship” and “teaching” at one pole, and “activism” at the other. In my discipline of History, the message is often quite explicit. As Graduate Student Me was immersed in the review literature, the point was driven home time and again: there is no place in scholarship for activism. They diverge at the beginning, and never again the twain shall meet. I always imagined if they did, the result would be something like the Ghostbusters crossing the streams of their proton guns. “That would be bad, right?” “Yes. VERY BAD.”
I think everybody ought to experience what it’s like to be the only one in a particular setting who doesn’t “belong.” As a white, hetero, abled, cis male for whom English is the first language, that’s not an experience I have often; in fact, it’s rare indeed that I find myself in a place where I am not “like” many of the people around me. The older I get, the more aware of that I have become, and the more attuned I am to the ways in which that reality so dramatically helps people who look like me. In the US, we live in a society that has always been structured around privilege; the last year’s spate of police violence against citizens in places like Ferguson and New York City underscores just how stark the lines of privilege have been drawn. The historically-constructed idea of “race,” the ways in which power is (mal)distributed, how privilege shapes every facet of our lives and those around us–I teach, read, speak, and write about these things all the time. But I am keenly aware that I do so from a privileged position–that is, I have not myself experienced the negative effects of how power and privilege work against those who do not look or speak like the historically-dominant class. So how do I effectively teach and engage with students who have those experiences? And how do I do so in a way that is empathetic and genuine, as opposed to fraudulent and condescending?