When your subject matter becomes inherently "political" in the contemporary context

Pamela McVay's picture

Pamela McVay, Ursuline College pmcvay@ursuline.edu

I'm currently teaching a class on Women in World History since 1500 and on Modern Europe. As part of these and most of my History courses I have students specialilze in one country or world region, report on the latest news from two different news outlets, and--starting in the middle of the semester--start relating the news to what they have already learned in class. Especially in the course on Modern Europe my students are bringing up questions like, "what is fascism, and is it true that the President is fascist?";  "I see the French government is trying to eliminate wage differences between men and women. We don't have wage differences between men and women, do we?", "It seems that when I look at the Greek news outlet's story about the spread of measles that it's sort of blaming the Roma for the spread of disease, but I couldn't think of a nice way to put that." 

I was trained in an enviroment where my responsibility as an instructor included setting my own political views aside in the classroom. I don't hide my own political affiliation, but because I have friends and family in other poltiical parties I have always been able to present multiple points of view when contemporary news from around the world touched on aspects of US politics. But in the current climate in the US I don't really know what to do. It seems like it's become a partisan statement to place a value on critical thinking and on distingusihing among facts, interpretations, mistakes, and lies,   Just answering my students' questions truthfully puts me in the position of contradicting the current administration's presentation of "facts". This is new for me; I have had large disagreements with previous administrations, but it was always over interpretations of how to set policy based on available evidence. I never before had to face this problem of flat-out denial of facts, although it's not new to my colleagues in Biology. Although Modern Europe puts me in this position most often, I am finding it a challenge in all my classes, including general education. 

How are other people dealing with this? Does anyone have any advice? I'm planning to bring it up in our faculty assembly, because I know it's an issue in multiple disciplines on my campus. 

I don’t know if I have advice, but I do have some thoughts on the matter.

I think it is possible to put your/our own political views aside in the classroom and still teach students how to collect, sort, organize, analyze, and interpret data (historical or otherwise). This is the way I frame my Gen. Ed. courses in particular in order to help my students understand that in addition to important content, they are also gaining important skills/practice working with different types of information from which they have to develop some sense of a what happened. In my mind, as long as the focus is on the data (evaluating primary and secondary sources) there should not be a problem concerning any political questions/conclusions that students develop because the answers should always go back to the data. What does the data say? What kinds of additional data would we need to answer that question? Who would like to do some preliminary recon into this matter before our next class period? etc. Perhaps a small amount of extra credit could be offered as an incentive.

My Gen Ed courses are organized around Kevin Reilly’s reader "Worlds of History" and my upper division courses typically have a significant research component discussed in class. I suspect the above approach works best in such courses, as courses heavy on in-class lecture to hold the material together would naturally put the spotlight on the instructor themselves to answer questions of a political nature related to the material. And there may not be the leeway to engage in spontaneous discussion if the syllabus is over packed with material to cover in the first place.

The fact that your students are asking those kinds of questions means that they are and trying to find meaningful connections between the material and their lives. Mine are too. That seems like a good thing. And it seems like a great teaching moment. In the first part of the survey, I spend a week on the origins of life/human evolution. I present slices of the data and help students understand the differences between the scientific debates over how to interpret the data and the cultural debates. Maybe I have just been lucky, but in almost 20 years I have never had an issue in class over the matter. And year-after-year, my teaching evaluations indicate students thought that was one of the more interesting parts of the class, because they had never been exposed to any of the data.

Anyway, I wonder if a similar data-oriented approach might be useful in this matter. In my classes, there is so much student discussion going on concerning how we should/should not think about the data that any political questions that come up are student generated and frequently student answered. Like I said, no advice, just thoughts. And I am curious as to what others have to say on the matter?

Hello Pamela,

These are good questions. I have been approaching such questions the same way I always have, teaching in an area with very diverse political views. Some questions are factual, and others ask for my opinion. I approach these two kinds of questions differently.

"What is fascism, and is it true that the President is fascist?": Here I would give primary sources, such as Mussolini from the Italian encyclopedia on what fascism is. I would talk about the climate after WW I and how fascism developed. Then I would explain that there are debates today about whether the president's conduct is fascist or not. I might present different articles from History News Network taking different perspectives.

"I see the French government is trying to eliminate wage differences between men and women. We don't have wage differences between men and women, do we?": This is not really a political question but a factual one. You might say "Actually, though many people don't realize it, we do still have significant wage gaps; here's the data."

I discussed in my article in World History Bulletin in 2010 how I went about teaching about French colonialism (including the French invasion of Algeria) during the height of the Iraq War in 2003 (in a military town with a lot of vets). My approach is usually about giving historical context and letting students realize themselves (aha!) that there are parallels (in that case, "the French thought they would be greeted with flowers for 'rescuing Algerians from Ottoman tyranny' - but oh my goodness, the people there didn't actually want the French to invade, and there was a lot of resistance! Hmm....that seems just like what is happening with us now").

I think those of us in world history do have it easier than our colleagues in US history, because we can always place more distance between a subject and the student than our colleagues there can, and students come to those classes with more preconceptions. Teaching nationalism in world history seemed more fraught this year than usual, but I tried to focus on French and German nationalisms and allow students to draw parallels themselves with the way elements of laissez-faire capitalist, socialist, and nationalist discourse still compete in the US political system. It would not be appropriate in the context I'm teaching in to say "You see Trump is doing this, right?" If a student asked me what I thought, I would turn the question back and ask the student what they think.

There are excellent resources on these questions also at the Teaching and Learning sites for several universities (I know because I've been training my TAs to think about these questions. Here are some:

https://ctl.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/teaching-controversial-topics

https://ctl.yale.edu/teaching/teaching-how/chapter-2-teaching-successful...

https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/hot-moments

https://www2.humboldt.edu/diversity/sites/default/files/Teaching_Controv...

I look forward to others' perspectives and wisdom.

Alyssa Sepinwall

Pamela McVey's original post is premised on the idea that Trump is so significantly unique as to pose a new kind of challenge to history teachers in relating past and present. She focuses on the concept of whether Trump is a fascist and then on the issue of the Trump's lies. I think this wrongly identifies the unique problem the current political context poses to history teachers.

As to fascism, the use of this label for political opponents has been building for years, long before Trump showed up. Reagan and Bush were both often labeled fascist and compared to Hitler. In my former state of Wisconsin, I cannot tell you how relentless was the equating of Scott Walker to Hitler by his opponents. Obama, on the other hand, was often labeled by his opponents a Communist and a sympathizer with Islamist extremism. So I would re-cast the challenge here as helping students cope with an age in which political rhetoric on both sides of the partisan divides has become so unhinged that each side reaches for the most extreme historical analogies. And I would ask them to think about how that tendency has metastasized from the far left and far right to be taken up by so many opinion makers who are not far left or right. I would see my task as helping students to see through this tendency and become knowledgeable in coping with it.

As to lying, I am not persuaded Trump's forms of lying are all that much worse - as opposed to being blunter and cruder - than many lies told by many politicians. Is Trump any cruder than, say, LBJ was in his dealings with other politicians in the White House? Has Trump told lies any worse than the justifications for LBJ's Tonkin Gulf resolution or his many "light at the end of the tunnel" vows? Not to pick on poor LBJ, but just to use him as one example.

I think the focus on political lying only scratches the surface of the real challenge the present political and cultural mood poses to teaching about the past. That challenge is a more fundamental disrespect for both the truth and the past itself, apparent now in all quarters of popular culture. Trump seems to me to be an epiphenomenon, a mere example of what follows from the deeper trends that ought to be of concern.

In search of a crisp way to say what I mean, I would suggest the fate of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen College ought to worry history teachers far more than Trump's partisan quips and crudities and insults. Or here is a personal angle on this, if you will indulge me. In the 1990s, I created a series of six booklets on literature and history for high school students. Each focused on one novel and sought to provide historical context for it so as to use its themes to illuminate broader historical trends. The six novels were "Tale of Two Cities"; "Cry, the Beloved Country"; "Red Badge of Courage"; "Grapes of Wrath"; "To Kill a Mockingbird"; and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It is testimony, in my view, to the dangers the present political and partisan mood poses for historians that two of these six novels are now being banned in many schools for their indelicate use of the N-word - a use central to their ability to convey profoundly anti-racist messages. Supposedly, this use assaults the sensitive ears of the young. And yet the celebrity culture triumphing around us relentlessly bathes us in crudities and insults far more abrasive and demeaning. And political rhetoric both left and right has caved to this loosening of restraints and itself become increasingly shrill, excessive, even paranoid.

Trump may be the triumph of that celebrity culture, but it has been building in significance for a long time. In its relentless quest for the cutting edge it is inherently hostile to any sense of humility toward the past, any sense of the past's importance in shaping our views of ourselves. The past is held in contempt now. We in our enlightened states supposedly have nothing to learn from it except to view with disdain its failure to ever live up to our supposedly superior standards. I believe this is the challenge the present now poses to those who teach about the past. As to Trump, as the saying goes, "this, too, shall pass."

Dear All, 

This is an excellent discussion thread, thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts... let me add a few quick ones.

When teaching U.S. history, as alluded to in one of the comments, modern day political issues can actually help underscore just how much the parties have changed over time. Since the United States has a winner-take-all election system, there are tremendous pressures on political factions to form themselves into one of two competing political parties.  Because of this, the parties tend to shift on issues as they change their coalitions, and struggle to develop a coherent public image. Mentioning this to students--giving them a systemic understanding of the parties--can help unsettle easy assumptions about their political identities. This works for both Republicans (would Lincoln have voted for Trump?) and Democrats, who were once the party of defiant and uncompromising white supremacy. I also point out that both parties have their rhetorical excesses, as alluded to in a previous comment.  Most Democrats don't want to abolish private property and most Republicans don't plan to kill their political opponents, as best I can tell. 

It's not clear to me whether this exact strategy would work to unsettled other kinds of identities in other contexts since it hinges on the idiosyncracies of America's electoral system. One related approach would be to take a category like national identity and show how it was contested along similar lines despite presumptions of national uniqueness (for example, with football, nearly European nation has had debates about race and identity). Unsettling identities is not quite the same issue as how to handle divisive contemporary question, but getting students to think about the origins of their identities and beliefs can help on that front. 

Like Pamela I strive for a neutral tone in lectures. There is a part of me that thinks this is really a tactical decision:  I don't want to turn students away who hold different view points. It takes time to get students to trust you as the professor. But I also have some doubts about my decision here because I also don't want students thinking that disagreement by definition demonstrates bias.  There are cases where I think a frank statement of why you, as the professor, think someone is a bad president or prime minister, or why their actions and policies do harm, is beneficial to students. Arguably, we've earned the intellectual authority to weigh in on partisan issues. There is an essay by Thomas Haskell entitled "Objectivity is not Neutrality" in response to Peter Novick's _That Noble Dream_ that hits on some of these themes in much more nuance and detail. I wouldn't advocate assigning it, but I'd recommend it for anyone who is looking to ponder these issues. I might suggest that the problem of appearing neutral is particularly acute for historians. Back in my youth I always admired the directness with which economists assessed and criticized policies and ideas without apology.  There is a long tradition in economics going back to Adam Smith and running all the way up through Steven Landsburg of debunking widely held beliefs. I wonder if historians don't have a different ethos.  

I hope that all enhances the conversation. 

Best wishes, 

David Prior
Assistant Professor of History
University of New Mexico

Good discussion! I attended college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when there was plenty of political controversy. The Left equated the election of Ronald Reagan with the coming of the Antichrist. I’m not kidding. However, my history professors at Northern Arizona University were scholars and professionals and in their lectures on Western Civilization (there was no “World History” then) or American history, they never burdened us with their own partisan views. On that high mountain campus and under Arizona’s pellucid skies, the focus was on facts, context, and explanation—the three guiding stars of the history profession. As a professor and classroom teacher, I have always tried to follow this noble dream of objectivity.

As for Trump, I’m not sure that we live in a more inherently political time. But then I don’t see Trump as particularly unique. When it comes to Russia, for example, Trump seems to fall very much in line with every other post-Cold War president. Bill Clinton thought he had a good relationship with Boris Yeltsin. But it was Yeltsin who picked Vladimir Putin to be his successor. After looking Putin in the eye, George W. Bush wrongly thought he had been able to get a “sense” of Putin’s “soul.” Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton thought they could magically “reset” the relationship between the U.S. and Russia and Obama later ridiculed Mitt Romney for Romney’s warning that Russia posed a threat to the West. Remember Secretary Kerry’s genuine surprise when Putin annexed Crimea and invaded the Ukraine? And now, after all of that, Trump seems unaccountably to admire Putin the Poisoner.

When it comes to Russia, one could argue that since the Cold War Americans have elected four naïve and foolish men to be president. I don’t see an Age of Trump but rather a larger age of unmoored idealism. Perhaps we all need to recall what the Russian Leon Trotsky said before Stalin’s henchman buried an ice ax in Trotsky’s skull: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Kevin Jon Fernlund
Professor of History
University of Missouri – St. Louis

Hi there!

It's a very important area of students' growth.

I teach English (both literature & language) to Engineering students.

At such Engineering institutes, in India, large number of students come from privileged backgrounds.

It seems, in the last 4-5 years, students have undergone a change. At my institute, the last time I asked my students why they were studying Engineering, they answered to succeed and to "make big bucks!"

Another aspect of Engineering students, at least, at my institute, is about caste-politics.

In India, the marginalised people have been given something called RESERVATION in job opportunities & in higher education.

The usual attitude that I've found in this generation of students is that they're ANTI-RESERVATION.

In a nutshell, the Engineering students at my institute come to classes NOT for knowledge but for seeking jobs; & their politics is ANTI-RESERVATION.

Cheerio!!!

It’s It’s a great question, one that I've given ample thought from the position of student and more recently a TA. There are any number of subtexts to pursue, but I will address here what I see as the ethical nub of the issue.

The raison d'etre of academia is seeking the truth. Empirical facts very often carry political implications, but censoring ourselves on that account is morally unsustainable and makes a mockery of why we've chosen this life in the first place. This much isn't controversial, or at least it shouldn't be. The trouble is that facts, by their nature, beg to be interpreted. Thus we, especially those of us in the humanities, frequently find ourselves in the realm of value judgments, or verstehen in the Weberian sense. That is, we are tempted to apply our subjective understanding to explicate a fact or set of facts.

The enlightenment-rationalist approach, and one that I believe has much to recommend it, has been for educators to abstain from issuing value judgements as much as possible, even and especially if students directly solicit their personal opinions. There are many good reasons for this, the foremost being the power asymmetry in the classroom. When students debate values among themselves, they do so horizontally; they, in the final analysis, are all peers with no explicit power over one another. But the values affirmed by professors are prima facie authoritative regardless of their content, owing to their professional position vis-a-vis students. And so even the most well-intentioned value judgement can carry a host of potentially negative externalities. On the one hand, they can force an artificial convergence whereby students with differing views feel pressured to see things the way that their professor does; prefacing your value judgement with something like “feel free to disagree with me” does little to dissuade the powerful subconscious drive to conform in an asymmetrical group setting. On the other hand, they can-- depending on the nature and severity of the disagreement-- make students who hold differing values feel isolated; this, in turn, damages student-teacher trust, erases incentives for class participation, and can even lead to unpleasant confrontations where no one wins.

That said, I don't think there is anything truly unique about Trump's presidency that would warrant a different teaching style. If there is anything different from the recent past, it's that the increasingly politicized state of society increases the likelihood that differences in values will manifest in direct conflict. Regardless of time, place, and type of political system, it seems to me that the most effective and least ethically problematic long-term pedagogic strategy is to unequivocally affirm empirical facts as far as they can be taken while doing your best not to infuse them with your values. Of course, there is no hard dividing line and every situation has to be evaluated on its unique merits. To take your anecdote about Trump as an example, I think the best approach would be to cite directly or refer them to respected scholars’ (ex. Stanley Payne) definition of Fascism, and encourage them to make up their own minds.