Thursday, November 19, 2009

Unpolemical Narratives

RVA responded to my previous post with a long comment that I believe deserves a posting in its own right:

I find both of your following contentions persuasive, that – a) History should be taught from an unpolemical stance and that we should try to understand historical events from the perspectives, rationales, and narratives which individuals in that era would view the world; and b) that we inevitably transform history into a narrative with identifiable heroes and villains.

I find attractive your theory that history should be taught from an unpolemical perspective (inasmuch as possible) because we need to equip children with analytical and critical thinking skills, rather than imposing values upon them (i.e. capitalism is good and inevitable, democracy is without flaws, etc.). Values are which are 'learned' and 'understood' are much more powerful, durable, and influential than those which are imposed upon us. It is essential that we teach our youth the ability to understand both sides of an argument, rather than pushing them to become ideologues who lack the ability and skills to analyze the effects and implications of their beliefs. It is better to teach children why communism/Nazism/fascism is attractive, and then have them internalize that perspective, which will allow them to understand why Germany voted in the Nazis, or why Lenin became a Marxist; because it will then allow students to learn the lesson that ideologies which may be attractive in theory may turn out to be dangerous in practice, or that good ideas which gain popular traction can become corrupted and perverted by leaders who succumb to the temptations of power. We often try to "otherize" the Nazis and Communists; but instead we should seek to understand that they were human and that their decisions were driven by human instincts; rather than dehumanize them, we should try to understand what aspects of human nature led to their misguided decisions and results, which can only be done by internalizing their perspectives, so that we can learn and comprehend the lessons to be learned from the history of the 20th century. Students who lack the skills to internalize the perspectives from past historical eras will be more prone to be misguided by demagogues and ideologues because they will lack the tools and skills to withstand the imposition of social and political narratives which they encounter.

I am also very intrigued by your theory that history is often turned into a narrative with identifiable with heroes and villains. I would go further and speculate that humans have an intrinsic need, desire, and addiction for narratives; that our species inevitably tries to make sense of all external stimuli, and that our common vehicle of understanding an incomprehensible universe is to turn empirical reality into narratives, into stories which cater to our desire for a) intrigue, b) triumph of good, c) finality & resolution, and d) meaning to our existence.

In this sense, the two doctrines are in conflict: First, that we should unpolemicize history; Second, that humans inevitability tend to "narrativize" history to fit our cultural and societal values. You write, "We wish to find that hero who took on the forces of darkness and forever changed the world for the better. We want it so badly that we will write him into history, running over any inconvenient facts in the process." This seems persuasive. But given that premise, I must ask you whether it is really possible for historians to write histories which are unpolemical? Even if historians are capable of writing unpolemical histories, will they have enough traction to become persuasive to other historians, or even to the general public? Does the structure and composition of History departments at American universities allow the writing of unpolemical histories? Is it possible to teach a course which doesn't implicitly assign valuations to historical events or historical figures? Is it inevitable that historians "narrativize" history? Are there societal benefits to the polemical teaching of history which outweigh an unpolemical approach? Are there benefits to making history into a narrative?

I could not have said this better myself. As historians, when we try to explain why Nazism and Communism may have been attractive to reasonable, rational and moral people we are not defending Nazism and Communism. Quite the contrary, we are trying to stop these ideologies from ever reentering the world stage. If all I understand about Nazism was that it was intolerant than I will not be able to recognize it when it comes to tempt me in real life with its offer of national unity, pride, order and the advancement of civilization. I would also point out that this applies to religion. Religious groups often make the mistake of thinking that they can shut their children away from the outside world and create straw-man images. This works up until the moment that the child comes in contact with the real outside world and realizes that his parents and teachers have misled him. In my experience there is not a more powerful way to convince a person to abandon his previous beliefs than to allow him to realize that the authority structure which he has followed has been less than honest with him even about some small issue. If my parents and teachers will lie to me about one thing what else might they have lied to me about?

As to the issue of the importance of writing non-polemical history and our need to write narrative, yes there is a conflict. We are fighting against a deeply rooted part of our nature. To make matter all the worse, we are up against the desires of a society that does not have historical interests at heart. Textbooks are passed through committees made up of non-historians who wish to use history to lobby for their own group interest. It is for this reason that I refuse to teach out of a formal textbook. Writing non-polemical history is not going to be easily accomplished if at all. This is one of the reasons why we need professional historians, who have spent years immersing themselves not just in historical documents, but in historical reasoning as well. Some gentlemen scholar writing history in his spare time as a hobby is just not going to cut it; it will get us Gibbon.

 I do believe that it is at least theoretically possible to transcend our human biases and write non-polemical history. The first thing is that history is about a method and not a narrative. As long as we are simply using the historical method to analyze texts we get around the issue of narrative and do not have to worry about bias and polemics. The second thing is that when we do eventually come to write narrative, which we must in the end, we can avoid the standard narratives. Instead of talking about conflicts with heroes and villains we can talk about evolving processes that have arisen between contesting sides. In this, Hegel was onto something, though I would not accept his attempt to enforce meta-narratives over all of history. Even if the two sides may never have been able to reconcile in life, the historian understands both sides and therefore makes a sort of peace between them.

If you are interested in the topic of historical narratives I would recommend you read Hayden White's Metahistory.

1 comment:

The Bray of Fundie said...

it's gettin too high-falutin' around here for knuckle-dragging low brows like me.

In truth it's a kurtzeh Freitag and I haven't the time to read anything so long and dense right now...maybe Sunday

then again there's the NFL on Sunday tee hee.

Ah Gitten Shabbis Yeeddin!