U.S. Intellectual History Blog

pages from my life as an intellectual historian

Couple of interesting things happened last week that I thought I’d share with ya’ll.

1. First day of a USIH class, I asked what an “intellectual” was. First answer–dead white guys–second and third answers agreed. I asked if they all agreed with that. Silence. Till one brave student suggested that he thought Du Bois might be considered an intellectual. Then a kid in the back started to talk about how different people groups might have esteemed different individuals (he might have said shamans…can’t remember…but that was what he was referring to) as in the role of intellectuals. Same student told me later after class, after telling me that he was really going to enjoy this class, that he had wanted to say to the question, “Are all intellectuals dead white guys?” “no, but all the good ones were”….pause….”I’m joking of course!”

Oh, and the last comment of the class was that liberty was more important than equality, because some of us are more equal than others. Literally, said in the last second so I had no time to ask questions of that statement.

I’m glad I kept as much of an emphasis on race as I did in my class, though I did change the syllabus based on some of ya’lls comments last semester. I wonder what students will think after reading Pauli Murray‘s autobiography. I come back to the question, though, about my role in the classroom. I am not there to change someone’s political point of view, but I am there to ask whoever steps through the classroom door to think more deeply about the subjects I pose. And yet, I cannot help wanting someone who comes in thinking that intellectuals are only dead white men to change their thinking to believe that intellectuals have come and are still coming in all shapes as sizes…and that intellectual history can refer to the kinds of things LD mentioned in her inaugural post as much as it can refer to William James. What subjects are within our purview as professors to attempt to change people’s minds about?

2. I presented a portion of my research to the department on Friday. Among other great feedback someone challenged me that I was not doing an “intellectual history” as the subtitle of my talk declared, because….(wait for it)….I was doing a “history of intellectuals, not a history of their ideas.” “Do you understand the distinction?” she asked me. I told her about this blog and suggested that we were redefining the idea of intellectual history to include, among other things, the lived experience of intellectuals. She had objected to me talking about what intellectuals did rather than what they thought.

3. Second day of USIH class, we discussed debates over the causes of the Civil War. I originally pondered this topic here.  I also introduced them to Frederick Douglass and Ta-Nehisi Coates, neither white and one of whom is not dead. There was an undercurrent of agreement that the Civil War was not justified, not quite because of Lost Cause mentality, but because it didn’t immediately lead to equality for black people. This is a smart group of undergrads who have remembered a lot from prior classes. It’s going to be fun to challenge them with dense readings. The discussions are already rich with nuance.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    I taught a USIH class last semester and had a record number of students drop. Those who stuck it out turned out to be a great group – I hope your group continues to be strong.

    I wrestle all the time with this idea of whether or not we should be trying to influence people. Every year or two I will get a student who claims on the course evaluation that I am too opinionated or that I am trying to indoctrinate people into my way of thinking (yes one year someone actually used the word indoctrinate) but what I am hoping to do is to get people to challenge what they think they know or believe whatever that is. If a student comes into class with similar views to my own I still want that student to challenge her/himself to better understand why s/he holds those beliefs.

    Last semester I taught a Reconstruction course and we spent part of a class discussing whether or not it is appropriate to fly the Confederate flag (a somewhat common practice locally even though this is not a state that joined the Rebellion). We laid out arguments on both sides and when asked for my opinion I gave it. Later in the semester one of the students told me privately that she knew of three students in the class who had decorated their dorm rooms with Confederate flags at the start of the year but had taken them down since. She was pleased because she had always found the flag objectionable.

    I think what made the difference in this case was that I did not just come in to class ready to present a case against the Confederate flag but I led the students in a thoughtful discussion of what the arguments might be, both pro and con, and let them voice their own opinions so that mine was one of several.

    Good luck with the rest of the semester.

  2. “I misunderstood the directions because I’m a man and I don’t yet understand women”

    And you never will, son, you never will.

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