Miss S. raises some issues with one of my arguments from my presentation on Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. I argue that history should be taught with a decidedly unpolemical stance, even when dealing with societies and institutions that most people today would find morally abhorrent such as slavery or open patriarchy. History should be presented from the perspective of those who lived then. We need to ask ourselves what was going through their heads when they did these things and what they would say in their own defense. The moment one takes a judgmental stance and starts to cluck about people in the past not being open minded or tolerant than one is no longer doing history. Miss S. asks:
Reading your post I can't help but feel as if your method of justification for the behaviors of people from the past fails to own up to the great potential that men possess. I'll explain why in a bit, but this is surprising because you seem to view those people and those societies in/from the past in high regard; higher regard than I (a non-historian) does. By our modern definition (and maybe even a historical one) "great" men were not those who compromised too often. If anything they were incredibly stubborn and rarely achieved any accolades for their behavior while they were alive.
You present slavery as an example of a social situation where bad moral actions (even for that society, at that time) could be reasoned away by the short-sightedness of the society and their reluctance to compromise their economic foundation. Perhaps I am interpreting this entirely wrong, but why should it be encouraged for the students to empathize with such a mindset and not be critical of it? There were plenty of other individuals from that same time period who were quite critical of the institution of slavery (I don't think anyone is debating that). What you have is a situation where sociology mixes with history and you have an example as to how gross acts of immorality can exist and the society at large puts up with it. Like how the Romans watched people being mauled to death by beasts in the Coliseum for sport. Like how our society today retains very little modesty in regards to sex.
In politics, yes you routinely make "deals with the Devil"; but also, if you notice, when you look throughout history, some of the great societal changes came about because either leaders or a group did not compromise -- and took the "all but nothing" stance. Believe it or not, this is not an outright criticism of your efforts. In fact if I were your student, I would find the exercise to be an interesting one. I would just wonder how you could explain away the impetus of ideas that were uncompromising and self-serving; yet impacted history greatly. Your approach would justify the actions of American slaveholders; but not that of the American (Union) government.