Curriculum Historical Thinking History

Keeping an open mind: historians’ helpful habit

Two images on the cover of AHR

Word around my house is that I may be over subscribed to professional publications.  To be honest, there are more journals articles coming through the front door than I am reading. Occasionally surveying new historical scholarship is integral to an understanding of history as constructed knowledge, not as a settled fact.  History is not the same thing as the past, it is “sketchy” as a student announced to one of my classes.  Honoring this means seeking and staying open to new information. The current issue of the American Historical Review (Volume 122, Issue 4, 1 October 2017) has already given me a pair of opportunities to consider new evidence and interpretations.

A few years ago I prepared a short slide presentation on the Other Side of the Enlightenment, because I want students to understand that the Enlightenment was more complicated than our textbook presented.  Based on Holly Brewer’s excellent article, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and “Inheritable Blood”: Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery” I will revise or delete the slide below which criticized John Locke for not opposing slavering:

Google slide with text

Although he was not an abolitionist, Brewer presents evidence that Locke did disapprove of slavery. Chattel slavery was taking shape as a legal institution while Locke was politically active.  Brewer attributes the creation of chattel slavery in British America to the policies and ideology of the Stuart monarchs, especially Charles II and James II.  The facts that I marshaled to support the claim on the slide above are true, but lacked context and nuance.  They don’t prove what I thought they did.  For instance, Brewer reveals that Locke’s Royal African Company stock was given to him by cash-strapped Charles II as payment for service to the Privy Council.  Locke sold the stock within a few years. This is not the work of an abolitionist, but such people did not exist in England at a time when slavery was not yet fully established.  This is an excellent example of the importance of context in historical thinking.

Brewer’s broader point is that the  reasoning that created the legal framework for American slavery was distinctly royalist.  Like royalism, chattel slavery was based on the assertions that legal status is inheritable via “blood” and  inherited statuses allow one person to have sovereignty over another. Hence, Whigs, such as Locke, opposed the logic of slavery, despite tolerating it.  I will continue to point out to students that Lockean language was used by supporters of slavery at the Constitutional Convention and beyond.  But, I will remove the swipe at Locke himself.

I am refining the broader point that I want to make about Enlightenment thinking in the Age of Revolutions: it worked as means of revolution, not simply as a cause.  Revolutionaries deployed Enlightenment ideas to motivate others to revolt and to maintain coalitions.  The Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions may be an example of context at least as much as a case of causation.  This role of ideology has lessons for our political world today, where ideology can be a tool to unite and maintain disparate coalitions.

John Deak and Jonathan E. Gumz’s article “How to Break a State: The Habsburg Monarchy’s Internal War, 1914–1918” similarly caused me to rethink an aspect of World History in a way that has implications for the present. Deak and Gumz demonstrate how the Austro-Hungarian military made war on the Empire’s civilian administration during the Great War.  This suggests that nationalisms in the Empire did not make its collapse inevitable.  The collapse of Austria-Hungary demonstrates the dangers of militarism and the stability that can be provided by the rule of law.  Food for thought in our current political environment.

More significant than the specific course corrections inspired by these articles is the reminder that keeping an open mind is a key intellectual habit of historians.  Stanford History Education Group lessons can help to encourage this habit in students.  I use the SHEG lesson on Augustus early in my World History course.  It provides an opportunity to encourage students to keep their minds open as they consider the different sources. Now, more than ever, we need this habit in our bitterly divided society, awash in disinformation.  History teachers can model this by being transparent about how our understandings of the past evolve as we consider new information and interpretations.

A history teacher *probably* doesn’t need as much mail as I was getting to engage in such reflective learning. So, I’ve shifted a few subscriptions to digital. We do need to stay current in the field, however.  Podcasts that foreground scholarship are another way to do this.  My current favorites:

Keep an open mind, and let folks know what you learn!

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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