U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Disrespect and the Teaching of Intellectual History

Today we begin the second week of classes here at the University of Oklahoma. This semester, like most semesters, I’m teaching my lower-division Honors class on American social thought, an entirely primary-source based journey from the Puritans to the present by way of Hollinger and Capper. During the first meeting of this course, which fell on Tuesday last week, I always say a few words about how my students should approach the texts that we’ll read. This is particularly important to do in the fall semester, as this is a course largely for first-year students, who will not have taken a college class before.

One of the things I tell my students each semester that I teach this course is that they need to both respect and disrespect the texts that we read.[1]

I tell them that they need to respect the texts because all the things we read in this class are serious ideas, written or spoken by serious people, and that they were taken seriously and supported by enough people at the time (or since) to have found a place in our class readings. I tell my students that they don’t have to agree with anything we read, but they do need to make a serious effort to understand each item we read in the various historical contexts of its creation and reception. They need especially to try to understand what might have been convincing or appealing about any argument they encounter that initially seems strange, unappealing, or incomprehensible to them as twenty-first century Americans. This is part of what it means to understand and study a text.

But I also tell them that they need to disrespect the texts that we read. That they should argue with them. That they should both think about what objections contemporary opponents of the ideas we encounter might have had to the ideas we encounter, but also objections that people today might have to them.[2] That no text we read is sacred – even those like the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address that we sometimes treat that way outside the classroom.

I think diligently disrespecting texts (and ideas) is an important part of what we do as intellectual historians, both in our scholarship and in our teaching. And it is one of the skills that we can and should pass on in the classroom.

I thought about all of this when, last Friday, University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees finally attempted public defenses of their unhiring of Steven Salaita. Though there are many disturbing things about the Salaita case and the Chancellor’s and Board’s defense of their behavior in (all admirably covered on this blog yesterday by Kurt Newman), what most struck me about the Chancellor’s and Trustees’ statements was the vision of an academic community that they painted and how, if we took it seriously, the very work of intellectual history would be impossible.

“What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” wrote Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise on Friday. The Trustees tried to make the same point in their statement released a little later that day: “Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend.  There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.” The Trustees also solemnly declared that “we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.”

I think we would all agree that in our classrooms we need to foster an atmosphere in which students are treated respectfully and feel that they are treated respectfully. But the idea that all viewpoints need to be treated respectfully is absurd, especially when we deal with texts that, for example, defend slavery or argue for the natural inferiority of women. Some of my students might feel that it is as important to speak maliciously of Sydney Hooks’s youthful case for a Deweyite version of communism. I certainly think that it is entirely appropriate to demean William Graham Sumner’s viewpoint when he writes (in “Sociology”), “The sociologist is often asked if he wants to kill of certain classes of troublesome and burdensome persons. No such inference follows from any sound sociological doctrine, but it is allowed to infer, as to a great many persons and classes, that it would have been better for society, and would have involved no pain to them, if they had never been born.” And while I feel it is important that my students read Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” I would not want them to do so if they felt that they could not disrespect aspects of Huntington’s argument that they might deeply disagree with. Part of mature, respectful academic conversation is to learn to have disagreements, even deep and bitter ones, about ideas while understanding that attacking a viewpoint is not necessarily the same thing as attacking a person.

Malice has always been woven into American thought and politics. The Trustees’ notion that our democracy depends on the absence of malice is at best a kind of wishful thinking, at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment.

One of the most malicious passages that my students will encounter this week was written by one of the great early supporters of toleration: Roger Williams. Here is Williams (speaking through the character of Truth itself) describing the “bloudy tenent of persecution” (i.e. the belief that those who stray from religious orthodoxy should be subject to persecution): “so directly contradicting the sprit and mind, and practice of the Prince of Peace; so deeply guilty of the blood of souls, compelled and forced to hypocrisy in a spiritual and soul-rape; so deeply guilty of the blood of the souls under the altar, persecuted in all ages for the cause of conscience, and so destructive to the civil peace and welfare of all kingdoms, countries, and commonwealths.” Roger Williams, tribune of tolerance, utterly demeans and abuses (to use Chancellor Wise’s phrase) the views of his opponent, John Cotton.

Of course, perhaps none of this seems malicious to you. Maybe you think that what I think of as a kind of disrespectful speech is not really disrespectful at all. But that, too, is part of the problem with the University of Illinois’s emergent understanding of the academy: disrespect, malice, the abuse or demeaning of a viewpoint are all very much in the eye of the beholder. This is one of the many reasons why we understand that, while we insist on respect for participants in academic dialogue, we oppose banning ideas or outlawing vehemence.

At any rate, after another successful first week of American social thought, a week during which my fabulous students seemed excited to vigorously debate the merits of John Cotton’s understanding of the covenant of grace, I was particularly struck by the University of Illinois Chancellor’s and Trustees’ vision of life in the university: if we take it seriously (and I think we have to) it would make my teaching – and I suspect that of many of the readers of this blog – essentially impossible.

So let me join Kurt in urging our readership – and especially academics among our readership – not simply to demand justice for Steven Salaita, but also to insist that the academy cannot become a place where poorly formulated appeals to civility and the need to respect all viewpoints become ways to shut down the expression of ideas.


[1] I have to credit my former University of Oklahoma Honors College colleague Randy Lewis (now of UT Austin’s Department of American Studies), with whom I created this course more than a decade ago, with coming up with this formulation….or at least with introducing me to it.

[2] One of the other things I tell my students is to read everything both in its historical context(s) and as a (potentially) living text.

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