Thursday, March 28, 2019

On The Teaching Of History In College

First this:

Now me:

This is a revealing essay though not necessarily disjointed or chaotic. Sadly for it and Vanzant nonethlelss, it’s most revealing as to what it says about Vanzant than what he says about teaching history as such.

Four examples among, I fear, many:

The first example:

Let’s say glory/gory is a useful beginning rhetorical binary, however a caricature, to set up initially broadly different approaches to teaching history. Well, the first thing this essay doesn’t do after setting it up is to disabuse us of its ultimate usefulness and its actuality as a caricature. Each side of the binary presupposes something ideological not historical. Vanzant defines himself as of the gory side. We can likely infer, then, what he thinks of America and for that matter the developed west. And not only does Vanzant not abandon his binary, he sticks to it throughout and doubles down on it at the end of his essay.

What are students to do with such a teacher: what are students to do with a teacher who wants to cater to what they want of him rather than what he wants of them; what are students to do with a teacher who reels off “critical thinking” mindlessly—it is a PoMo trope—without delving into what is its view of the world and what are its assumptions about how to approach studying, in this case, history; and what are students to do with a teacher who, it seems, blithely and unselfconsciously puts historicism over history?

The second example:

What are students to do with a teacher who can seriously present an argument about why a particular historian should fear appearing on a stage with Christine Hoff Sommers, the argument being that that appearance might serve to strengthen or spread Sommers’s ideas? 

Vanzant offering the counter argument that the appearance might serve to strengthen or spread the opposing ideas and his tilting in favour of the second argument are insufficient.

Is he so removed from the principles and values the university and the humanities within the university are meant to embody, the search for truth, intellectual diversity, the civil exchange of ideas as arguments—what is history but an argument?—based on evidence and logic, open mindedness and conceding to a better argument, among others?

No academics worth their salt can present the first argument against appearing with Sommers as having a shred of plausibility. But Vanzant so presents it. It should only be mentioned, in fact, in order to shred it to minute tatters by way of the very ethos and values the university is meant to institutionalize and pass on to its students.

The third example:

Why is a history teacher turning to fiction as an important pedagogic tool? The study of literature is its own discipline with its own universe of principles, techniques and assumptions about studying works of literary art mirroring and reflecting reality. So too does history have its own unique rigour deeply rooted in primary and prosaic evidence. It’s not primarily an ideological drama to be conveyed by fictional characters standing in for ideological presuppositions, say colonizer as against anti colonizer. What’s wanted is the unearthing and study of the evidence, the marshalling of the evidence and then hypothesizing and making arguments based on the evidence.

Vanzant’s students tend to hate history. Well, that presents him with a challenge: to make the study of history stimulating within the rigorous means and methods proper to the discipline; to let fascination emerge from the contentious but supportable different ways of seeing what interpretations the evidence leads to. After meeting that challenge as best as a teacher is conscientiously able to, the problem rests with the students. If they have trouble, all at their level, coping with, maintaining their interest in, mastering, the demands of the discipline, then give them the appropriate lower grade or fail them. They’re not customers or clients. They’re, most of them, intellectual neophytes needing educating. Fiction at most should be supplemental reading in studying history.

Fourth, final and the most glaring example of the four:

Vanzant, at the end of his essay , (slightly edited):

…On that campus, (Yale) it seems a further leftward turn is helping to save the humanities, which is great to hear. And if that approach is indeed representative of how the humanities can stay relevant in the modern university, then everybody concerned can take a deep breath. Everything is going to be fine. We just need to be doing what we’ve been doing for the last fifty years…

…If the crisis continues, academia is eventually going to have to decide if the only response to the fatigue in our classes is to get even Zinnier…
….Conservative critics…depict….as ideologues first and educators second…they are wrong…liberal professors had no need to choose between these two roles, because their revisionist ideology was pedagogically effective. But that has now changed…

Reams, I think, could be written about these words. They are so intellectually flawed and outlandish, I’m tempted to think Vanzant isn’t serous and it’s all tongue in cheek. But that temptation is easy to resist: he’s so doggedly unaware of himself throughout the entire essay and so guilelessly candid that he seems a naïf. He so easily conflates pedagogy and ideology without a nuance of concern about ideology informing pedagogy that it’s breathtaking.

What if, one might ask, the glory side of his gory/glory binary carried the day and made history appealing to students and saved the fate of the discipline in the humanities? What would he say? If Vanzant weren’t in that instance to mouth the same enthusiasms—…everybody concerned can take a deep breath…everything is going to be fine…—then it would be true for him that hidebound ideology trumps education, the doomed fate of history as a discipline notwithstanding.

And if he were to mouth the same enthusiasms at pedagogically ascendant glory, then his fecklessness as an educator would flash as glaringly as a huge lit neon sign in the dark. 

His abiding stark misconception is precisely his failure to distinguish ideology from education and pedagogy. It’s his failure to understand his need to be, whatever his presuppositions, relatively disinterested in his teaching, to realize he must—especially to undergraduates—cover the main events in the history he teaches, present both sides of the central historical controversies over these events and guide his students to work hard to research and think these issues through to come to their own defensible conclusions. 

That last isn’t the unity of ideology and education. It’s education.

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