Regular readers of this blog know that I am very interested in pedagogical issues as they pertain to the relationship between teaching history and engaging in moral criticism. I have come down hard on the side of making sure students understand the past before casting moral judgment on it. I have illustrated this point with the example of teaching 19th century pro-slavery documents. I want my students to enter into the world of the 19th century slaveholders. I want them to empathize with them. I want them to show intellectual hospitality to them regardless of whether or not they find their views morally repulsive. It seems to me that this is the primary task of the historian.
I was recently talking about teaching with a group of college professors at a research university and I mentioned how my students were quick to cast moral judgment on slaveholders before fully understanding their world. One experienced professor in the room said that he had the opposite problem. He could easily bring his students to understand and empathize with the slaveholders, but had difficulty getting them to make any moral judgments on the past. When confronted with the views of slaveholders many of his students, in good postmodern fashion, simply said something like: “everyone is entitled to their views and if this is what these people believed then that is cool with me, as long as they don’t impose their beliefs on me.”
The question threw me off a bit, but when I got my bearings I realized two things. First, and perhaps most obvious, is the fact that college students today, if this professor was correct, seem to be lacking moral sensibilities. Second, I realized that social location is always important to the teaching of the past. At Messiah College my students tend to have very active moral radars and thus need more education in how to think historically. At this secular university the students had the opposite problem and thus need to have their moral imaginations awakened by their study of the past.
I think we need to have a robust conversation about the role of moral criticism in the history classroom.