U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lawrence Levine and Respect

Levine“I have the feeling that the closest Allan Bloom came to rock music was when his car might have been stopped at a red light with the window down. Yet, it doesn’t stop him from talking about it in an entire chapter or section of a chapter. That’s what I mean about respect.”

Lawrence Levine said these lines in a 1997 interview conducted by then Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities Sheldon Hackney (who died last week). In Levine’s view, Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind lacked respect for different ideas, different cultures, and different peoples, not because Bloom criticized them, but because he did not attempt to understand them. Bloom’s notorious hatred of rock-n-roll, which he described as a “voyage to the underworld,” exemplified his lack of respect. It was one thing to dislike rock. Levine admitted he was no fan. But Levine also admitted that he was in no position to judge something he had not tried to understand on its own terms. Moreover, the lessons he took from studying other vernacular musical forms suggested to him that rock had value for regular listeners. Unlike Bloom, Levine had respect for rock, and those who listened to it.

Respect defined Levine’s teaching philosophy. In modernity, he argued, when “parents have lost control of the education of their children,” when the kids increasingly “come home with different ideas and different notions,” it was more crucial than ever for teachers to be respectful of their students. He claimed that some professors often exacerbated the culture wars over higher education—the “canon wars” and such— because they “are not always as respectful as they should be of the ideas the students are coming in with. One has to be respectful.” This was not to say that teachers should avoid challenging students. Levine explained this apparent contradiction in the following way:

“What I’m trying to say is I have had strong beliefs and I’ve acted on many of them. But I decided a long time ago that that wasn’t my function in the classroom, that my function in the classroom was not to promulgate beliefs. You learn as a scholar and teacher that if you argue with the dead and you don’t win the argument, you’re a fool, so I decided that arguing with the dead wasn’t what I wanted to do. And the same thing is true of arguing with the living when the living have less power than you. You can force your ideas on them—that wasn’t my goal. So, always admitting what my own ideas were, I tried to teach them with balance and to leave room for other ideas.”

Levine taught his students how to think differently, not what to think. The difference was to be found in tone, approach, and style.

“Doing it in such a way that you introduce the students… to very complex issues, so that if they do take another point of view, they have to do so in a different context. They can’t just easily reiterate what they came to the classroom believing. They have to assimilate other things, and that’s the goal of education, to mix things up enough so people can see the context and then reform their ideas or restate their ideas in a different light.”

Levine’s elegant articulation of the pedagogical importance of respect is convincing. (Perhaps I am rethinking my own teaching philosophy?) Teaching in a foreign country has also been formative. Because my Danish students often have such different assumptions, they integrate new knowledge of American history by doing a lot of comparative work. They constantly think about American historical developments relate to the Danish and European contexts more familiar to them. I love it when they do this because it makes for an exciting classroom. We implicitly recognize that we’re all forming new understandings. There is mutual respect at work.

Such ideas about cross-cultural communication are not new. The Fulbright is predicated on them. But by giving these ideas a word—respect—Lawrence Levine has made me think about them in a new light. I hope to remember this lesson when I return to teaching in the United States, where, because things are more familiar, respect is harder to earn.

33 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, thank you so much for this post.

    Lawrence Levine is one of the archangels, one of my patron saints for the cultural history of ideas. He is such hearty, congenial, jovial company on the page — I have always thought that he must have been a wonderful teacher. If he practiced what he preached in that interview — and he strikes me as just the kind of person who would — then he was an extraordinary teacher indeed.

  2. Great post Andrew —

    I think it was Otis Redding, voiced by Aretha Franklin, that inspired this post, yes? R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

    Levine could be tough too, not in the classroom so much but with other scholars. His put down of Jackson Lears in the 1992 AHR forum on popular culture, always sticks in my mind. I believe he writes that Lears’s Gramscian critique of Levine’s article about pop culture as the folklore of industrial society is the equivalent of shoveling so much shit. I didn’t agree with Levine on that front, but he is, for sure, as LD notes, one of the archangels.

    There’s some nice stuff on Levine from this conference on him in 2005 at GMU: http://chnm.gmu.edu/levineconference/intro.html. I think I’m in there somewhere’s on history and handwringing.

    Michael

    • Thanks, Michael. Notice that Levine wrote that he was against “arguing with the living when the living have less power than you.” I’ve heard stories of Levine being tough on critics or those who disagreed with him. And I have no idea whether he lived up to these ideals in the classroom. But I enjoyed the sentiment. It makes me want to be more respectful of my students. I’m having an easy time doing so in Denmark because I’m an outsider. It’s in the US where I honestly sometimes have a problem with this. I see younger versions of myself in my students and I’m hard on my younger self.

  3. As a writer and a teacher, I find it’s a fine line: with students, just telling them what to think is too easy; but everything-everybody-thinks-is-equally-valid is also too easy.

    There has to be a third way.

    • I agree with you Shelly. As the only person in the room who has spent thousands of hours reading US history, I’m the authority on the topic. But I think Levine is trying to offer a third way. He’s arguing we should teach students new ways to think but with an attitude of humility, respectful of where they’re coming from. If nothing else this is effective pedagogy.

  4. Andrew, this is very interesting because I believe that Levine comes perilously close to the perspective that informed so much social history of the 1980s–that critical evaluation of ideas and art is equivalent to lack of respect for those who consumed those forms or found pleasure or meaning in them. The failure to sharply distinguish between ideas or cultural forms and the people who consume them or subscribe to them, in my opinion, marred much of the socio-cultural history of that era. It made it difficult to talk about ideas and cultural productions in an analytical way (other than the dialectic of “accommodation and resistance” that informed the thought of that era), because somebody would always suggest that critical analysis that was different from the consciousness of consumers revealed a lack of respect for the people who found meaning in dime novels, soap operas, or theatrical melodrama. There was actually a double standard at play here as well: nobody thought you should go easy on the critical analysis of the writings and readings of intellectuals as a sign of respect for them–quite the contrary. Levine had a point, but it does seem to be undergirded, in part, by a populist sentimentalism. There is much to commend Levine for, but a residual anti-intellectualism is also present in his writings.

    • Dan,
      That’s eloquent. I think it illuminates Levine’s response to Lears—and why that response always bothered me. It seemed to protest too much, to be too defensive in its populist resistance to Lears’s call for more critical attention to how popular culture was both the “folklore of industrial society” and a product of the culture industries.
      Thanks.
      Michael

  5. I don’t think Levine’s approach would boil down to “everything everybody thinks is equally valid.” I think it’s more a matter of recognizing both that people think as they do for reasons that are valid to them, and that the pedagogical setting puts so much power in the instructor’s hands that we need to be especially careful about how we come across in terms of seeming to render judgment on other people’s values.

    I was lecturing about the second Ku Klux Klan and the Scopes trial yesterday. It would have been easy enough to take the tone of H.L. Mencken and just scoff at both phenomena as expressions of backwardness or ignorance, swinging away at the low-hanging fruit of populism gone sour and rotten on the tree. But what’s the point of mocking nativists and racists and Fundamentalists of the past and laughing at how stupid and misguided and reactionary they were? That doesn’t help students understand the motives of historical actors, nor does it offer students a model for how to approach other movements or ideas they may find disagreeable.

    More to the point, if a prof is pouring contempt on some group or actor from the past whose ideas seem stupid, students might fear that the same kind of contempt will be leveled at them if their ideas don’t measure up to the prof’s standards. Even if we did take it as our responsibility to change people’s minds about matters that fall outside the boundaries of our discipline — and I don’t know that I do, necessarily — we won’t change any minds by making students afraid of being mocked if their thinking doesn’t measure up to our preferences/standards.

  6. Bloom would argue that to treat all cultures and ideas as equal is disrespect for the great ones. No disrespect to a certain friend of this blog but it’s a real possibility that one could leave university knowing more about Jerry Garcia than Plato. That this could happen is indeed a result of value judgments–as much as we deny we make them.

    • Haha! No wonder the Grateful Dead always played at the Greek Theater. Displacement at work!

      But seriously, point taken, though there’s no reason not to learn about both Mr. Garcia and Plato in college. And to decide that one was rather more lightweight in the end than the other.

      Michael

      • The difference betw Jerry and Plato is of degree, one of weight class, not of kind, boxer vs. ballerina?

        Miley vs. Jerry then. Teach the controversy. ;-O

        [Cheers, MK. I like yr stuff. You’re such a good sport.]

  7. The point that seems to get lost in these discussions is that cultural innovations register differently in the minds of those to whom they are new displacements (often of older, cherished things), and in the minds of those to whom they are simply part of the texture of everyday cultural reality.

    If we owe respect to the latter, then we also owe respect to the former. The disco fan and the attendee at the disco record mass-bulldozing both deserve the historian’s sympathy. The former may have been part of aggrieved communities for whom disco was a key aesthetic formation allowing for the formation of alternative publics crucial for survival; at the same time, her or she might have connected with disco’s pleasures at velvet-rope nightclubs that barred entry to the latter (for being too poor, too slobby, too whatever). This stuff is complicated. Bloom’s priggish disdain for rock and roll “deserves” precisely the same sympathy, from the historian, as my revulsion at Bloom’s preposterous elitism. Historians unwilling to sympathize with their subjects are in the wrong business.

    The problem, here, is the same as that confronted by historians of religion: liberal intellectuals are skeptical about the real existence of the domains of the irrational, like the inner world of the faithful or the aesthetic realm. Many atheists simply cannot believe that others are religious. Many cultural historians refuse to believe that the “aesthetic” (in the Kantian sense) is a name for anything but the manipulation of the masses via museums and canons. Maybe they are right–but religious people disagree, and so do most people who make or love art.

    If intellectuals tend to think that most changes are bad (and they do), and yet ordinary people often find changes to be interesting and exciting, then the best that can be hoped for is that the new thing is taken seriously as possibly having value for someone. But this too is a veiled insult: One Direction isn’t simply a functional prop in the lifeworld of some subject to whom we owe respect as egalitarian scholars. To that subject, One Direction is sublime, affectively overloaded, life-affirming art. It is less patronizing, in this sense, to say “One Direction sucks,” than to say: “I can see how in managing your adolescent transition crisis in late capitalism, this terrible music serves some kind of valuable role, however occult.” This is the nomothetic fallacy in its worst guise.

    The true historical question isn’t about the value of this text as against that one but rather concerns the historical significance of the creation of new styles. Gilles Deleuze is absolutely correct about this: we should read Edith Piaf in exactly the same way we read John McEnroe in exactly the same way we read Mallarme. For each, we need to recognize what is new, and to think, politically, about what that novelty means. In each case, we are looking at the formation of a new style (usually out of the efforts of a community of innovators who are often erased with the consecration of a certain representative of the new style) out of historical circumstances, even, we might say, cultural needs.

    The fact remains that, at certain moments, music, tennis, poetry goes one way, and someone says, “I think it goes another way.” People respond or they don’t. Our task is to make sense of that. Beethoven and Shakespeare will take care of themselves.

    • Some great sentences in here that I wholeheartedly agree with!

      “Many cultural historians refuse to believe that the “aesthetic” (in the Kantian sense) is a name for anything but the manipulation of the masses via museums and canons.” Yes. I find that there is a school of “cultural history” that is in fact merely political history in disguise, and a kind of shallow political history at that. It is so because it ignores the aesthetic as a category of social power in its own right (and rite too, since there is a connection to religion here). Which is not to underplay the use of culture for other kinds of assertions of social control, hierarchy, and power, but rather to treat culture as merely a superficial mask for these other actions. This happens both on the left and the right. Bleech.

      “Gilles Deleuze is absolutely correct about this: we should read Edith Piaf in exactly the same way we read John McEnroe in exactly the same way we read Mallarme. For each, we need to recognize what is new, and to think, politically, about what that novelty means.”

      Elegantly put.

      “Historians unwilling to sympathize with their subjects are in the wrong business.”

      This reminds me of LD’s earlier post— http://s-usih.org/2013/09/the-weight.html. I think there is more to discuss here about what historical “sympathy” is exactly and how we might think about it more subtly.

      Great comment!
      Michael

      • Thanks for the kindness, Michael!

        I’d think that the subject matter of your book would be particularly revealing of the affective singularity and distinctness of the aesthetic dimension–otherwise we end up like bad parodies of Thomas Frank, insisting that all those kids listening to acid rock in SF ballrooms were simply “commodifying their dissent.” Well then, why weren’t they at a Robert Goulet concert? Or a movie? Or a baseball game?

        The reductionists rarely ask these questions. (Largely because, like Frank, they are secretly in mourning for a brief moment of pedantic East Coast punk rock where men were men and songs could be written about Alexander Haig).

      • Kurt — Yes, exactly so. This is equal parts funny and so, so true! Much to learn from the reductionism I think before seeing beyond it to something fuller and truer. — Michael

      • Kurt —

        Thought this would be of interest: Thomas Frank, TED talks are lying to you
        The creative class has never been more screwed. Books about creativity have never been more popular. What gives, http://www.salon.com/2013/10/13/ted_talks_are_lying_to_you/

        To me that ‘s Frank at his funniest and best. And the article reminded me of Frank’s important intervention in his work from the 90s, which to me was that we had to be far more wary and critical of claims of transgression as rebellion. His work on the sixties counterculture shows how slippery the line was—and still is—between certain modes of dissent and their complicity in the very thing they are voicing that dissent against.

        What he missed (actually if you read the intro to Conquest of Cool, he admits to bracketing it) was just how aware many in the counterculture were of the very logics he claims to be the first to show. Many new damn well that they were caught in a bind of rebellion and cooptation that was ironically defined by rebellion *as* cooptation.

        So it’s not that Frank was wrong about the conquest of cool and the complexity of counterculture and cooptation, it’s that we need to go back from his focus on business history alone to the broader social context to see what people did when they knew full well that they were being sucked into the vortex of hip capitalism precisely, ironically, bitterly by trying to flee from it.

        That’s the *singularity,* as you call it, that the commodifying-your-dissent line of thinking misses. Actually it might be better to call it the broader *multiplicity* of responses that a cultural form such as rock generated and of which it consisted.

        My main point here is that Frank contributes to the singularity of rock as a cultural phenomenon in Conquest of Cool by arguing that it marks a new phase in the selling of rebellion, the emptying out of rebellion against consumerism as it became just another niche market and “lifestyle” within consumerism. But because he restricts his study to the process by which this “vicious circle” was created in the marketing and advertising industries (which is fine, a book cannot do everything), he misses the ways in which rock and the counterculture existed out there in the world of cultural reception (which is where Larry Levine’s work has a lot to teach us in terms of how to listen well, both in the classroom and in our research, to broader social consciousness as carried in cultural forms).

        Over and out, and thanks again for your wonderful comments here. Learning a lot.

        Michael

  8. Some terrific posts. Now retired and looking back on a 35 year teaching career, I do recall a moment when my approach to teaching changed radically. I used to try to convince students that my left-position was correct. I was never mean-spirited to others (or so I believed), but I also imagine that such a class atmosphere made conservative students hesitant to express themselves. Coming to this point, I changed my classroom approach (especially in the survey), often preferring to frame issues in terms of moral choices, historical turning points, limits and necessity of ideology. I think it made me a better teacher.
    There is nothing more disconcerting, in some ways, than having a business major criticizing capitalism, with a fervor that would have made Big Bill Haywood blush. Hate the IWW, sing praises to capitalism – so long as you can 1/ apropos of Levine’s plea, understand the depth of contrary views 2/ express your own views and back them up.
    As for our relation with past work, something in me appreciated the Foucault line about how he wants his interpretations to make Nietzsche moan and groan. Yet, before causing such delightful pain of thought, perhaps it is the historian’s responsibility to get N on his own terms, as best one can manage.

    • This is a lovely set of reflections. Love the Foucault quote; Deleuze said something very similar about his approach to writing about Kant, but even less PG.

      There is a particularly sharp pedagogical dilemma for historians around the issue of whether or how to nurture students’ moral passions (I was going to write “super-ego passions” which is surely proof I have been spending too much time with Freudians) when writing about the past. It seems like an old question, but it may actually be a new one.

  9. I always struggle with this a bit because it is my natural tendency to respect other people’s viewpoints (perhaps to the detriment of “standing up for what I believe in”) but at the same time, I have a few basic points without which I don’t think I can teach African American history, but that have been challenged throughout our history (and thus, repercussions of which are still with us): i.e. 1. African Americans are fully human, with the full range of human emotions and abilities. 2. the experiences of African Americans matter greatly (perhaps even more than the experiences of “others” when in a classroom dedicated to African American history). For instance, the latter came up recently in a class in which I asked students to reflect back upon prior classes and pick out the most significant information. A few students said “indentured servanthood,” which is hardly mentioned in the text and which I did not emphasize in my lecture/discussion. My only guess is that 1. white students are looking for themselves in the text, 2. rather than thinking about the material we learned in class, students are relying upon prior knowledge, or 3. white students are unconsciously drawn more towards the experiences of whites than blacks, even in a black history class. I guess this is where Levine’s idea of challenge comes in.

    But another example comes to me–white students who are learning about white privilege writing about “how they came to realize they were superior” or some such language. Perhaps respect is recognizing that this representative of someone in the midst of a learning process and challenge is confronting the implications of it?

    I was actually out with some white and black colleagues for drinks last week and this very topic came up, although more in the context of coming to an understanding of other people’s points of view through politics (dunno why that would be a topic at the current time!!). It is one thing to all try to understand each other WITHIN the Civil rights movement (for example) but how does one respect someone who is doing every thing physically and illegally possible to stop you or your children from getting a good education (thinking of the resistance to the Little Rock 9 here). The only thing I can think is to try to understand where they are coming from–the human emotions of fear of change that is leading them to their conclusions–but not to accept their point of view in any way shape or form.

    • I might add, in addition, that what is changing language like “Negro” or “tribe” that students see in the primary sources to “African American” and “community” or “people group” but a way of trying to change students’ ideas towards a new norm? And isn’t that new norm based, to some extent, on ethics. And if the change is part of your responses to their papers, and is phrased in the way “this term is archaic and this other term is the now accepted”, not “you can use this new term if you accept the parameters by which it’s been developed, but if not, keep using the old way” (the second of which seems to me to be about respect+challenge more than the first, but the first is more acceptable to me personally). But students and lots of other people recognize that this language question is a moral issue, and that’s why “politically correct” is an expletive in many “people groups.”

    • Such tough questions. You probably know it, but II like the work of Kathleen Blee on the women of the Klan, which is hard reading but a good example of sympathetic social history of hard-to-sympathize-with people.

  10. When it comes to Levine’s tendencies towards populism and anti-intellectualism, I think Dan may be correct. Or at least, several others have recognized a similar weakness in his work. David Hall wrote a devastating review of “Highbrow/Lowbrow” in “Reviews in American History, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), pp. 10-14. For a taste, Hall writes:

    “But is it historically correct to regard the emergence of high culture in the nineteenth century as synonymous with exclusion, and exclusion with antidemocratic, racist feelings? Some of the limitations of this argument–in general, and in its skewed details–emerge from comparing Levine’s char- acterization of Frederick Law Olmsted with Thomas Bender’s discussion of him in New York Intellect (1987). If we set aside the deeper factors at work and focus only on the thinking of certain critics and prophets, we may find that they employed the new ideal of culture as a means of resisting capitalism, the paralysis of expertise (so Matthew Arnold hoped), the blight of moralistic sectarianism, and the zenophobic and racist strains in American popular culture. For some of these critics, democracy was profoundly significant, though they did not always equate it with the taste of every man and woman. Inadequate as history, Highbrow/Lowbrow is little more convincing as a moral fable, in part because Levine does not listen to the arguments of those he rebukes in his Epilogue. The chauvinistic populism that colors his perception of the nineteenth century may prompt us to murmur, if this be liberalism, let conservatives make the most of it.”

    In other words, I am not defending Levine insofar as he was part of the social historical turn towards fetishizing all popular or populist cultural forms as inherently better or more democratic, or insofar as he thought defending some cultural forms was a way to defend the humanity of some people. Although, I think such an approach can offer a useful corrective to someone like Bloom. Perhaps the best thing Christopher Hitchens ever wrote was this: “Chaos, most especially the chaos identified with pissed-off African Americans, was the whole motif of The Closing of the American Mind.”

    The focus of my pst was rather on teaching, and how we should approach a classroom full of people with different expectations and assumptions. In his interview with Hackney, Levine had some striking things to say about that. Thanks everyone for the wonderful comments. For me, getting George Cotkin to comment is enough to declare this a successful post!

    • As a former undergraduate and graduate student of Larry’s, I can say that he was both respectful of his students’ beliefs and vigorously challenging of their ideas. He was an extraordinary teacher, indeed. His students often left his classroom debating amongst themselves what Larry actually believed, which side of the argument he was actually on. But nothing defined Larry as much as his passion and he was also fully capable of applying that passion to one side of an argument or the other, without denying respect to the opposing view. Nothing angered him more than the tendency his class of first year graduate students had to tear down every book he assigned. Agree or disagree, he believed all books were deserving of respect. And as a student radical populist in 1960s Berkeley, I can say with unqualified certainty that, whatever position he took, Larry Levine never expressed populist sentimentalism of any kind.

      • Thank you so much for contributing to the discussion, Stephen. I was hoping someone who had primary knowledge of Levine as a teacher would chime in.

  11. When reading these discussions about what to do with one’s own views while teaching, I’m often a little confused as to what those very concerned with not alienating the students are arguing against. I understand it in the abstract, for sure, but some of the pictures of the teacher-as-brainwasher or elitist seem a little straw-manish to me.

    For example, in L.D. Burnett’s comment, where she discusses teaching the second Klan and the Scopes Trial, I completely agree with her position; mockery does little to contribute to understanding, and understanding is not only our goal, but is also vital to any other hopes we have of this whole history thing enabling people to make any sort of difference in this world. But I have to ask, after reading what one should *not* do in that comment — *who* does that? I am sure, of course, that *someone* out there does that; that somewhere, contempt stands in for competence, and self-satisfaciton for understanding — but, my guess is that it is pretty unusual. I have never experienced a teacher heaping nothing but contempt and mockery on his or her historical subjects, and I’ve never witnessed my fellow academics-in-trianing, even those with the most passionate, left-wing commitments, teach in this manner. So I am bit curious, in other words, to what this fairly exaggerated portrait — and perhaps Burnett completely admits it is exaggerated, but was pursuing it to make a point, which I think is totally legitimate — is reacting to. Because even if it admittedly is a useful caricature, what are the less grandiose truths it is based on? Is it wrong for a teacher to point to the consequences of say, nativism, with a moral tone? Is it wrong for a teacher to ever make a joke about the absurdity of political actors or the shortcomings of ideology? Often, to make these things off-limits is as dishonest, and as condescending, as indulging in them; this is what Kurt Newman’s brilliant example of “respecting” students’ love of One Direction nails so perfectly.

    I ask because while I find myself in agreement with the idea of respecting your students, I also worry about the emphasis on respect overshadowing the importance of honesty (which is also a form a respect, incidentally). A good teacher, in my mind, comes to their students as a full human being ready to engage other, full human beings; this means they must both give their students the opportunity to engage with the material from their standpoint, but also that there should be no pretense that the teacher really believes “critical thinking” is an end to itself — for either the teacher believes that critical thinking will mean less awful in the world (and therefore is itself a way of bringing people around to reality and away from ignorance) or they believe that critical thinking is valuable regardless of its consequences; but who really believes that?, since the claim implied then is that critical thinking could also lead to someone believing in say, ethnic cleansing.

    I fear I am not being clear here, but my point is, teaching necessarily imparts values, and the only way to do so while still being respectful of your students as full human beings, it seems to me, is to be pretty open about the values you stand for. Then arguments can be had in an open, honest way about those values; the “third way” we’ve been talking about here. But this kind of honesty often involves some behavior which I fear would make some uncomfortable — like allowing an occasional joke, or taking a clear stance on the moral implications of historical event x or y. So again, I end with the question I began with — what, exactly, are we afraid of?

    • Nobody teaches the Klan or the Holocaust while suspending moral judgment.

      What Leo Strauss was getting at is that soon all judgments–of the Scopes trial, whathaveyou–tend to become conventional, that is, according to the conventions of the prevailing morality, pretty much that of one’s colleagues in the academy.

      So, “respect” for the thoughts and sensibilities of the students is really more a question of manner than substance, of how rather than what.

      or they believe that critical thinking is valuable regardless of its consequences; but who really believes that?, since the claim implied then is that critical thinking could also lead to someone believing in say, ethnic cleansing.
      I fear I am not being clear here, but my point is, teaching necessarily imparts values

      Unavoidably. Of the Klan and the Holocaust we speak with one assured voice. Of Hiroshima, our handwringing is morally admirable, albeit 70 years after the Rape of Nanking.

      One might even dare to argue that the Civil War need not have been fought. But even half a million dead and 150 years later, convention does not permit one to say Mr. Lincoln was wrong, that he should have let the Confederacy and its 3 million slaves go its own way, secure in the knowledge that the tide of human progress would have ended the peculiar institution sooner rather than later, sans so much muss.

      If you see where I’m going with this. Gandhi said that Nazi Germany’s Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife, thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. That certainly would have made the point of non-violence.

      In that light, one could discuss MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, the Klan, the Holocaust, Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address. I do trust that there are some out there who are unconventional. ?

      • “But even half a million dead and 150 years later, convention does not permit one to say Mr. Lincoln was wrong, that he should have let the Confederacy and its 3 million slaves go its own way, secure in the knowledge that the tide of human progress would have ended the peculiar institution sooner rather than later, sans so much muss.”

        I think you’re probably exaggerating the power of the ‘conventional’ view, just as Strauss himself probabIy did. Do you think the question of whether the Civil War was ‘worth’ approx. 600,000 lives of soldiers and other losses (human and economic) is never raised? I would bet that it is raised in classrooms, if not all the time, then not infrequently.

        And not just by conservatives. These days some on the left might be wondering (aloud or to themselves) whether things in the long run might not have been better all ’round if the South had been allowed to go its own way. (That’s not my position, but I’m saying it’s a not unreasonable position for someone w certain views about the US and its role in the world. It’s not a crazy, beyond-the-pale view.)

  12. Robin Marie,

    I hope there’s nothing in my comment above that implies I am somehow disingenuous with my students, or don’t respect them enough to challenge their thinking. It would be a poor teacher indeed who refused to engage his or her student’s ideas. Besides, I’m not disingenuous with anybody.

    If “teacher as brainwasher” or “teacher as elitist” seem straw-mannish to you, perhaps that is because there are some regional differences at play between where you teach and where I teach. Taken as a whole, there may be slightly less political / ideological difference between the professoriate/instructors and the student body in California than in there is in Texas that might affect how students perceive the “politics” of the classroom. And there may also be a significant difference in how U.S. history is taught in the high schools in California as compared to Texas that might make fairly uncontroversial assertions in one classroom full of college freshmen seem quite edgy in another.

    I haven’t taught history majors yet. As an ABD student, I just teach the survey. (I say “just,” but it is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life.)

    In any case, learning to think historically was a challenge for me, and I wanted to do it. But the vast majority of my students probably aren’t coming in to my class hoping to learn to think historically — they’re there to get a requirement out of the way with as little discomfiture as possible, epistemic or otherwise.

    I tell them up front that I’m going to try to teach them to think about the past differently than they are accustomed to thinking about it, that while we are covering “content” we are going to work on historical thinking and close reading and the various “transferrable skills” that historians use in their professional life and work. And then that’s what I (try to) do. I don’t pull any punches, but I don’t throw any either.

    I’m always aware of the fact that my students (probably) have much less practice than I do in being able to discuss their own or others’ ideas with critical detachment, that they might be much more likely than I am to take personally what is not meant personally. And I do my best to keep that in mind as I am figuring out how to frame discussions of historical matters or moments about which people might tend to have strong feelings.

    I don’t know what else to say. I have fun teaching, there’s not a class that goes by where we don’t all laugh together about something, my students ask interesting and challenging questions, and I try to ask interesting and challenging questions right back. It seems to be working okay, and if part of what makes it work is that occasionally I end up stating the pedagogically obvious in apophatic fashion in a blog comment, I am okay with that.

    • Thanks for this; it did occur to me that your teaching experiences may be different than mine, which is why I inquired about what was being reacted to or responded to — the question implied an argument, yes, but I was also genuinely asking; apologies if that did not come across.

      I guess I’m just having difficulty getting a concrete image of what is being criticized, and whether or not a normative claim is being put forward. As you note, you don’t “throw punches,” but what would throwing punches look like? And do you feel that it would be a poor choice (practically and/or ethically) for your teaching in particular, or for more or less everyone’s teaching? The difference in who your students are, as you pointed out, should probably be relevant to this.

  13. Robin Marie, thanks for the added comment.

    To be honest, I feel kind of sheepish going on any more than I have about how I teach, or what my teaching philosophy is — that’s best left to people who have been doing it longer than I have. However, I will say that it helps to have had a number of very good teachers. I won’t call anybody out or name any names, but Steven Maizlish’s description of Larry Levine as a teacher comes wonderfully close to my own experience as the student of extraordinary teachers. It would be foolish and presumptuous to claim that that’s the kind of teacher I am — but, at the very least, that’s the example I have to follow.

  14. As the widow of Larry Levine I want to express my gratitude for the thoughtful discussion of some of his work. I believe, Larry would have been pleased with having spurred much thought and passion. Thank you to all of the contributors.

  15. As the widow of Larry Levine, I want to express my gratitude for the thoughtful discussion of some of his work. I believe, Larry would have been pleased with the concern and passion expressed by the discussants. Thank you to all you.

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