Monday, December 2, 2013

Training Historians and Biting My Tongue

Nullifiers!  The lot of them!

The problem with putting together discussion assignments for my students is that I feel academically obligated to give them enough evidence to argue either side of the issue.  This is how you train historians, after all – you set them loose on the evidence and let them make and defend their own interpretations.

There are several layers to this training.

The first one is to get them out of the notion that there is a Right Answer to any but the most basic questions in history.  There are Right Answers when it comes to the evidence – you either have your facts or you don’t, and if you tell me that the Civil War happened in 1350, well, you’re wrong.  The interesting questions are all interpretation, though – the sort of “who cares?” and “how does that relate to anything?” questions that everyone asks but not many people actually answer.  Those don’t have Right Answers. 

This doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equally valid.  People who say that are just trying to sell you something.  Interpretations are Better or Worse, depending on how much evidence they explain.  If my answer explains more evidence than yours, then mine is Better and you ought to change your mind.  And vice verse.

At the level of the introductory college survey course, mostly what I’m trying to do is to get my students to understand that real history is about making interpretations and backing them up with evidence. 

Have a thesis – state your position.  Don’t worry about agreeing with what you think I think, because my job is to disagree with whatever you say.  You might as well tell me what you actually believe to be the case, because that’s easier to support.

Give me some evidence so that when I say, “I don’t believe you,” you’ve got something to come back at me with.  Interpretations without evidence are called “fiction.”  There’s nothing wrong with fiction, except that it’s not history.  You can make a good living writing fiction – if you do it well enough, they will call you a novelist.  Or a pundit.  But not a historian.

Then tell me how that evidence actually supports your point.  Evidence does not speak for itself and if you don’t tell me what it says than I can safely assume that it says nothing and you’re just padding the essay until it reaches minimum length.  I can make the connections if you'd like, but I don't work cheap and I get paid in points.  Keep that in mind come grading time.

That’s enough to work on, at this level.

What I don’t really push them on until they get to more upper level classes is the part where you, as a historian, have to prove that your interpretation is Better than mine.  That yours explains more evidence than mine.  That you can beat back my counterarguments.  Again, I'll argue whatever they don't, so which side they're on doesn't matter so much as whether they can stand up to crossfire.  It’s hard enough getting them to make the arguments in the first place, though.  They can take the next step in the next course.

But there are times when I really wish I could just say, “Stop!  Down that path perdition lies!  That answer is not the Best!  In fact, it kind of Sucks!”

Thus bringing me back to Nullification.

Nullification, for those of you not up on your John C. Calhoun, is the hallucinatory notion that any state in the US has the right to declare a federal law null and void on its own territory simply by wishing it so.  It gets more complicated than that, of course, and if you really want to delve into Calhoun’s theory of concurrent majorities well you go right ahead.  Be sure to take a bottle of good whiskey with you, because you’ll need it.

The bottom line on Nullification, though, is that it is utter nonsense.

You can start with the fact that the supremacy clause of the Constitution clearly states this, right up front.  You can move on to the fact that the Constitution was written explicitly to deny the kind of “states’ rights” bilgewater that had made the Articles of Confederation such a travesty of inefficiency and waste.  You can proceed to the fact that there already exists, in the Constitution, a mechanism for protesting federal laws – several of them, in fact, once you take into account the idea of the entire federal judiciary and the notion of actually winning a few elections and passing new and presumably more favorable laws. 

You do still see Nullification being bandied about as if it were an actual idea that sane people would consider – mostly on the right-wing extremes these days, which are awfully hard to tell apart from the right-wing in general – but the bottom line is that this is a discredited and pernicious idea, one that is but a half-hearted version of secession and thus constitutes treason when seriously attempted.

But as a teacher, and as someone who is trying to get students to make and defend their own interpretations, I just have to let them find out for themselves.

So last week they read Calhoun, or at least they were supposed to.  They read the various promulgations that came out of South Carolina in 1832 defending this indefensible notion.  They also read Daniel Webster’s evisceration of this nonsense, and Andrew Jackson’s brutal takedown of Calhoun’s theory as well.

The Best interpretation seemed obvious to me.

And yet so many of them sided with Calhoun. 

If they had a clear thesis, if they backed it up with evidence, if they explained how that evidence supported their point, really what could I do at this level but give them credit and weep for the future of the republic.

But next year, when they take the upper level version?  Then I argue back, whatever their initial position may be.  And we will see where that goes. 

If we do this right, if both the students and the teachers play the game the way it is supposed to be played, we’ll make historians out of them yet.


TimBo said...

While the framers of the US constitution may have neglected to include nullification, the Canadian constitution of 1982 contains in Section 33 the "notwithstanding" clause. This allows the provinces to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Bill of Rights). Quebec used this to restrict freedom of speech, specifically to prohibit commercial signs in anything other than French.

If your students moved to Canada they'd not only be colder, but they'd have access to more convincing arguments.

David said...

Well, if the Nullifiers want to leave for more congenial places, I say go. Of course, given that most of the people who are seriously making that argument today (as opposed to students completing assignments) are right-wing extremists, I doubt they'd find Canada all that welcoming. What's the old definition of a Canadian? "An unarmed American with healthcare."

I always found it funny that you could put up commercial signs in English in Paris but not in Montreal.

TimBo said...

Quebecouis: More French than the French.

John the Scientist said...

Quebec is my favorite province precisely because one suspects that they are secretly armed and just waiting for the right moment.

Plus, I speak enough French to make myself welcome.

And seriously, you have students arguing for Calhoun? Did they not read the Federalist Papers at all? I mean, I don't share your views on the depth of treason of the South (I still see their point of view showing more loyalty to their state than to the US as legitimate within that timeframe, and given how short a time had elapsed between Colonial times and the Civil War, I understand that sentiment even if I don't agree), but there is no way a Federal government can function with that kind of nonsense. Is this a function of listening to too much talk radio?

David said...

Yeah, John, I don't think I could keep a job teaching history in the South for very long - not after they see that in the syllabus the class on the immediate causes of the Civil War is clearly labeled "The Treason of the South." Not that this upsets me much, to be honest.

I think it's a function of not being all that familiar with the debate or the consequences of the debate. I ask them to read a lot of documents, though none from the Federalist Papers (which are, properly interpreted, incredibly dense and difficult pieces for a HIS101 class). I spend a lot of time on ideology - how ideas filter through culture and affect actions - and this is a new approach to many of my students. It takes them a while to get the hang of it.

Plus there are just way too many ignorant loudmouths spouting Nullification as if it were an actual idea these days, and this probably distracts them.

John the Scientist said...

I dunno about you, but a reading of a few select Federalist Papers was required in high school for me, and of course I went on to read the whole book. :)

David said...

Yeah, well, my high school history classes were not the reason I became a historian, let's just leave it at that. I didn't read The Federalist Papers until I decided to do so on my own in college. I've read them a couple of times since. They're fascinating, but tricky - you've got three highly educated 18th-century gentlemen writing for an audience of similar folks, and they did not cut each other any slack.

The problem with handing the Federalist to students today is that Jay, Hamilton, and Madison were working within such a specific political context and you have to set that up or the whole thing is lost. Unless you understand classical republicanism, you will not understand what they are talking about - they use a lot of the same words we use today ("virtue," "faction," "liberty," "corruption," and so on) but they had very specific meanings back then that are largely lost today.

Thus you end up with the all-too-common situation today where you have people who think they understand what the Founders were saying because they know what those words mean in 2013.

Given the speed at which HIS101 moves, I find it easier to give my students the ideological background and then reinforce it with simpler documents.