Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

The controversy started by British Secretary of Education Michael Gove about how to teach history (exemplified in his Daily Mail column from January 2) has continued for quite a while. With the majority of it focused on the historical causes of the First World War, and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year, it’s probably going to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite sometime.
But I was struck by a comment Gove made a few days earlier during a roundtable/interview on the BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week on December 30. Towards the very end of the radio programme, Gove made a statement that got me thinking:

Kings and Queens are chapter headings.  They’re ways of dividing up the past and they’re also intriguing personalities.  If you talk about dividing history into Kings and Queens, that doesn’t mean you’re a monarchist.  It just means that you understand that one damned thing follows another.
…
In America, they break up their history by the personalities of presidents and what happened during that period.

 

This got me thinking, how do Gove’s pronouncements about how history ought to be taught pertain to the teaching of American history? Particularly, teaching that subject in the UK, as I am doing at present. Although my students all completed their compulsory history education before Gove’s efforts to reform the history curriculum took any effect, if I’m to continue to teach American history in the UK, I eventually would have students whose views of history are informed by Gove’s historiography. How could this matter?
Should I be breaking up my syllabus based on presidencies? The first week we barely discussed US presidents at all (topics: the Pig War, Fenian Raids and US-British relations post-Civil War leading to Canadian Confederation; the Homestead, Morrill Land Grant, and Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862; and the prairie wars with Native Americans from Red Cloud through Wounded Knee), but the second week we talked about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, the debates over Reconstruction policies after Lincoln’s assassination, and the effects of Reconstruction on American industry, economy and culture. But are the periodizations we associate with US presidents equivalent to the reigns of monarchs?

So I put the question to my class, and asked for their reaction to Gove’s column. Several points came up:

Presidencies as Eras
With US presidencies, it’s sometimes easy to associate some of those with the terms of 8-year presidents (Eisenhower 50s, Reagan 80s, Clinton 90s, etc.) This led to some speculation as to whether the Obama era will be undervalued because it is split across two different decades. For that matter, why would we consider presidents as equivalent to monarchs, as opposed to, say Prime Ministers? For that matter, Obviously we hear talk about the Regency, the Victorian Era, and other monarchally defined epochs, but are future historians likely to be referring to the second Elizabethan Age as opposed to the Thatcher era or Blair era? Several students suggested that this was in part a function of distance. Thatcher and Blair are close enough to us now that we emphasize their differences, but historians a century from now might be more likely to group them together under the reign of Elizabeth.

Moralized Histories
We haven’t reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different. While US Secretary of State would have no problem agreeing that Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove calls it) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we seen Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

This led to a discussion of what I might call an Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in Moral terms, that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military superiority, or economic superiority. Whether the North had a technological advantage, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.
We then turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir
The narrative that Early gives is one that shows the Souther fight for independence was just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers, the patriotic Southern soldier buried under a mountain of corpses. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith. Like the restoration from exile, or the tribulations faced by chosen people in the past, the true South will rise in messianic fashion.
As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency
So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviors of individuals where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents. that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviors. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.
And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality, if poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology
The conversation then moved to a more general question about history and ideology. If history explains how causes and effects work in human behavior, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was in error all around to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History
What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama. We also discussed the recent debates over the history curriculum in Texas, raising a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

Muldrow and the costs of religion in schools

Last Monday the school district of Muldrow, Oklahoma voted to remove plaques with the ten commandments inscribed on them from the walls of its schools. This happened in response to a letter the Muldrow Superintendent received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation which threatened to sue the school district on behalf of a student who had contacted them.  Legally speaking this is not that interesting a case, but it seems to be part of a larger trend where the fear of lawsuits is determining the way that small school districts behave.  And that trend is itself an interesting development in the way religion-education issues are negotiated in the United States.

Despite the fact that locally the decision in Muldrow was met with protest, this was a pretty clear cut case of the school district running afoul of the laws and court precedents regarding an establishment of religion.  But this is the kind of breach that seems to happen frequently unless there’s an effort to enforce constitutional rulings.  It’s similar when the religion-in-schools issue involves the teaching of evolution.  Recent studies that have shown that despite various court rulings on the teaching of creationism, creation science, or intelligent design, many biology teachers do teach antievolutionary positions either either exclusively or in “balance” with evolution.  Legally speaking, it was never constitutional for Muldrow to have these plaques up, but it’s only when they were noticed by people willing to take them to court that the issue came up.  What’s interesting is that some of people the people protesting their removal pointed to the fact that they’d been up for so long as evidence of their acceptability.

But the Muldrow school board did not vote to remove the ten commandment plaques because they were legally required to do so, or even because they thought that they were wrong to have them.  Rather, they did it because they could not risk losing a lawsuit.  It wasn’t the lawsuit itself, but the potential expense, and the risk of losing liability insurance, that determined the outcome.

This was perhaps the real legacy of the 2005 Pennsylvania “Intelligent Design” trial Kitzmiller et al v Dover Area School District.  In that case, the Dover school board had instituted a policy requiring the reading of a statement about intelligent design.  Parents of some students sued and the court ruled that the board had acted in violation of the establishment clause and that intelligent design could not be taught in a science class.

But perhaps more importantly, as the losing party in a civil lawsuit, the school district was responsible for the plaintiffs’ legal expenses.  Even though the school district’s own legal defense was provided pro boon by the Thomas More Law Center, the Dover School Board  (whose membership had been replaced in a November 2005 election with people who opposed the teaching of ID) was responsible for over one million dollars in the plaintiffs’ legal expenses (a bill that could have been much higher.)

From the point of view of small town school districts, this was a more important consequence of the Dover trial than the fact that they couldn’t teach intelligent design.  Go to court and risk potential bankruptcy.  More importantly: adopt legally questionable policies and risk losing liability insurance.

That’s just what happened just a few months after Dover.  In the El Tejon school district in California, a schoolteacher proposed to teach a philosophy elective about intelligent design, and a parent of a student at the school sued that teaching the course would amount to advocating religion.  Rather than the case (Hurst v Newman) going to trial, the case was settled out of court with the school district agreeing not to run the course.

In Hurst v Newman, there were a lot of specific circumstances (such as the proposed syllabus for the “philosophy of design” class) that made that specific case an almost certain loss for the school district.  But the general legal question as to whether discussion of intelligent design could be taught in a philosophy or social studies class (and if so, how) was not answered by Kitzmiller, and is still widely contested in law journals and in public debate.

But part of the reason that Hurst v Newman did not go to trial was the fact that the El Tejon school district could have faced “projected legal costs of $100,000” (according to a 2006 article in Science)  El Tejon’s professional liability insurance is part of their insurance through a policy held with a group of several California school districts, called SISC.  According to the SISC description of coverage: While SISC affords coverage considered broad and inclusive of exposures typically faced by our member districts, SISC cannot afford coverage for damages resulting from willful or intentional acts or intentional acts or omissions for which insurance coverage would be precluded under [California] Insurance Code Section 533.

Note, I’m not sure if El Tejon’s professional liability insurance was the same in 2006 as it is now, but even if it is somewhat different, the issue is that it’s not just the possibility of a legal bill of $100K (which, given the costs in Dover, seems low anyway) that was a motivation to settle the lawsuit.  It’s the possibility that the school district could have its liability insurance policy dropped, or that its premiums would increase, or even the fact that the other school districts and country officials responsible for the group insurance don’t want to see their insurance costs increased because a single school district made a decision that was more likely to risk lawsuits.

El Tejon might have had a case that a “philosophy of design” course was constitutional (although the specific version of the course proposed was highly problematic.)  But the arguments could’t even be given a legal hearing because of the issues of expense, risk, and insurance.

For the past several years, I’ve taught a history of religion and science summer class.  In it I have had students stage a mock trial of Hurst v Newman, based on some of the affidavits and materials that were filed in the case. (Some of these documents are on the NCSE’s website).  In class, I judge the outcome of the mock trial based on which of the legal arguments the students make (given our previous study of the Dover trial, Scopes, McLean v Arkansas and other foundational cases) and it has been quite a successful classroom project.  Most interestingly, both sides of the case have won the trial at least twice, not because either side was ultimately right, but because one side made better arguments or better responded to the arguments made by their opponents.

It seems like some of the same financial/legal/insurability pressures motivated the decision in Muldrow.  And while I agree that the ten commandments posting in public schools was clearly unconstitutional, it worries me that these kinds of decisions are not being debated by school districts or citizens in terms of what’s right or wrong, nor are they being settled by courts guided by law and precedent.  Effectively these decisions are being made by the structure of liability insurance, and fear of bankruptcy.

People who might applaud the fact that intelligent design lost in California for this reason might reflect that this tactic can cut both ways.  School districts have a pretty strong incentive not to risk back up a teacher whose decisions might be perceived as risky or controversial, even if the law is on the teacher’s side.  Even going to court could be seen as risking a school’s insurance policy.

One of the most important differences between education in the US and in many other countries is the extent of local autonomy a single small district can have.  But that’s being changed by the push towards common standards on one hand, and a structure of legal expense that prevents major action by a district who has to worry about money and insurance.

Part of what that means is that if there’s going to be another major trial over the establishment clause in schools (like Kitzmiller, El Tejon, or what could have been in Muldrow) it’s more likely to be launched by a state body, not a small town school district.  If a state’s attorney general is politically motivated to challenge a law, they may not be impeded by concern over legal expenses.  It’s the financial precedent from Dover, not the legal one, that’s had the bigger consequences.

Finishing class and starting a blog

Last week, I taught the final class of my undergraduate course at Birkbeck. The class is titled “Science and Religion: From Galileo to Global Warming.”  Soon after I proposed the course, I started questioning whether it would have been better to call it “From Galileo to the God Particle” because the discovery of the Higgs Boson had just recently been announced.  In the end I decided to keep it because: 1) Global warming has a lot more impact on people’s daily lives than the Higgs Boson; 2) “Galileo to the God Particle” might imply that the course is all about physics and astronomy, whereas the other title also suggests a spectrum of sciences taking in physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, and ecology; and 3) it was too late to officially change the name with the Department and the College.

For several weeks, I’d been starting the lecture by asking the students if there was anything of note science-religion-wise in the news.  And of course, on the last week of the course the ‘God Particle’ was news again, as the news came that the particle discovered last year was now confirmed to be a Higgs Boson.

So God particle it was, or almost was.  Because the morning of my class was the inauguration of Pope Francis. In his inaugural homily, the Pope discussed religious obligations towards the environment.  At least in the English translation of his address, this was brought under a discussion of the idea of being a ‘protector’ of creation.  The theme recurs quite a bit in the homily, but one moment in the speech in particular struck me as noteworthy.

Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!

There has been quite a debate in recent decades among different religious groups over questions of environmental conservation.  There are several issues involved. One argument raised is that it seems absurd to claim that human beings have the power to damage the Earth in a way that’s beyond God’s power to restore it, which would suggest that humans are (in this way) more powerful than God.  The idea that humans could cause irreversible climate change seems to be intricately bound up in this question. That’s an oversimplification of the range of voices on this issue, but this question also impacts discussion of whether humans have the right to consume and exploit the created world and whether, having the right to do so makes such consumption moral.

Also lurking in the background of many of these environmental debates is the question of whether human beings can have moral obligations towards parts of creation that are not also moral beings.  That is, if you take the position that nonhuman created things (e.g. animals, plants, ponds, ocean currents, the Greenland ice shelf) don’t have their own free will, then can you really have a moral duty towards them? Put another way, can they have rights?

And that’s why Pope Francis’s homily is so interesting.  Because he entwines the idea of environmental protection with the care of human individuals and human societies, including provision for economic well-being.  In a way, this sidesteps the issues of moral obligations towards the rest of creation.  If the destruction of the environment affects the ability of human beings to live safely and to improve their social political and economic lives, then it becomes a moral question at the point of moral obligation towards other human beings.  For that reason, a religious environmentalism that is also framed as an issue of social, political, and economic justice has the power to achieve more than a position that is rooted solely in claims of obligation to the environment as such.

Another important clause in that one statement (in a homily that is deeply and carefully laden with them) is the notion of us as “protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature” the idea of a divine plan has frequently been invoked by recent opponents of evolution, who insists that evolution is “random” and undirected and leaves no room for God.  Some supporters of evolution agree with this, but many others insist that an evolutionary history of life on earth does not negate the possibility of God.  (This issue will be the subject of several future posts.)  Those who would see the Pope’s invocation of God’s plan as a possible rejection of evolutionism miss the point.  The more important claim nestled into that sentence is the claim that the plan is “inscribed in nature.”  While certainly not a new idea, it is a declaration in the core tenet of natural theology — the idea that understanding nature can inform understanding of God and God’s plan.

Historically, natural theology has not only been invoked as an argument against atheism, but also against the claim that individual personal experience of God or the scriptures alone are the only true pathways towards understanding God.   this is not at all new. The idea that the Bible alone was sufficient for understanding God was a core tenet of the Protestant Reformation, and in some ways, pointing out that the Pope has invoked a form of natural theology is as insightful as stating the Pope is Catholic.

But the explicit connection between natural theology and environmentalism is—if not new—then historically underdeveloped.  This may be because natural theology has been widely regarded as obsolete since the late nineteenth century(partly because of the myth “That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology“)  And most histories of environmentalism would claim to see only antecedents of modern environmentalism that early.

At the very end of last week’s class I suggested that maybe, after more than 150 years of debating Darwinism, perhaps evolution might cease to be the definitive issue of the science-religion relationship.  Recent antievolution legislation in the United States, such as last year’s law enacted in Tennessee has drawn together the debates over teaching about evolution and teaching about climate change under an umbrella of teaching “scientific weaknesses to scientific theories.”  Putting evolution and climate change on equal footing (even as equally objectionable) might be a transitional moment when one issue gradually overtake the other in public importance.  Of course, understanding evolution is critical to understanding environmental impact, and what’s more likely is that the issues will become more and more fused, rather than one simply eclipsing the other.

If that fusion does continue, then what might prove to be most interesting is the possibility that eco-theology might be able to extend arguments from natural theology that natural theologians themselves did not make even in the early nineteenth century, but which might find purchase in the twenty-first.  The Pope’s homily offers glimpses of what that might entail.

And there’s something rather enjoyable about being able to finish a course by bringing the class up to the history of just 7 hours earlier.  Happy end of term!