Craig Smith at Free Exchange on Campus has tagged me for a meme. Inspired by Dr. Crazy's wonderful post about why she teaches literature (and how those reasons are different from the ones espoused at the MLA), he writes, I am challenging faculty to tell us why they teach and do the work they do and why academic freedom is critical to that effort. So, I'll weigh in (and then I have to tag some folks).
Not to be too much of a downer in what is supposed to be more of an inspiring thread, but to be honest? The first reason I teach history is that I wanted to be a historian, to spend my life researching and writing about history, and teaching is one of the obligations attached to that career. I don't have a problem with that; I don't resent teaching or wish it away or consider it less important than research (I think it's more important than research, actually). But I didn't get into this career to teach; I got into this career to do research (more about why below). And while I've never run into the slightest bit of interference in my research, there are still people out there who consider the topics I study invalid and politically suspect. So, yeah, academic freedom remains important.
I also teach history to help students learn that there's more than one way to view the world and that they themselves and their experiences are not the measure of all things. One of the things I've started telling students is that when a source confuses them, that's probably one of the best signs that it's telling us something important about how people in the past are different from people today. Because while I think history requires skills and you can't just "do" history just because you can read a history book, I also don't think history is like nuclear physics; the readings I assign are not usually incomprehensible (my apologies to nuclear physicists). When students are confused by something, 99% of the time it turns out they're not really confused by what the source says; they're just confused about why someone would act that way/think/say such a thing. Et voila - a teachable moment, as the saying goes. I recently taught an excerpt of the Hildebrandlied and students were confused, because here were this son and father and they didn't recognize each other and were about to fight to the death and what was that all about anyway? The reason it confused them was because, for these students at least, the idea that you could grow up knowing so little about who your father was that you could encounter him in battle and not know it - and, in fact, refuse to believe him when he tells you who he is - was incomprehensible. But such a situation wasn't incomprehensible to whoever wrote it down in the ninth century (I'm not saying that they considered it realistic or an accurate account of the past, but the situation held some resonance for them). Boom, a difference! (The father kills the son, by the way.)
That might all seem fairly esoteric, but I firmly believe that to be a responsible, respectful citizen of the world, you have to be able to recognize that not everyone sees the world the way that you do - and that doesn't make them wrong. In fact, they probably have just as good reasons for seeing the world the way they do as you do for seeing the world that you do. So I want students to understand that historically, there have been a lot of ways to organize society and live life that don't look a lot like the modern U.S., and that each of those have been reasonable responses to the circumstances in which those people found themselves. This doesn't mean I require students to accept all ways of living as equally desirable; just because I can understand that there are cultural reasons behind, for instance, female genital mutilation, doesn't mean I accept it as a valid practice. Even though I don't, however, I think you have to understand something in order to change it. Academic freedom is crucial to this - we need to be able to understand even practices we disagree with on their own terms. So we can't just label something "evil" and not try to understand it further.
Finally (and I could probably go on and on but this is getting long enough), I teach and study history because I want to know what it was like to live in another time or place. I want to know what it was like to be a medieval peasant or a woman running an eighteenth-century salon or a member of a Mongol horde - whatever, really. While on the one hand I could say this is just due to insatiable curiosity, I think the cause runs deeper: I have always wondered how much of "me" is me, and how much is the creation of the time in which I live. I've wondered, for instance, whether, if I grew up in the antebellum south, I'd have supported slavery, even though the idea is abhorrent to the me I am now. It's nice to think I'd have stood up for equality and justice and denounced slavery, but honestly? if I'd grown up in a slave-owning culture, as a white woman, I can't see why I'd have been any different from the thousands of Americans who did support it. So I think I'm constantly driven to figure out what people were like in the past to figure out the ways in which I, too, am a creature of my own culture. This, too, depends on academic freedom, because I need to know what it was really like, whenever and wherever - not just what it's politic to think it was like.
Hmmm. Two out of three of these are completely selfish, aren't they? Although I suppose the third reason is easy enough to turn outwards: I want students also to recognize that they are creations of the culture in which they live - that they are not the culmination of a mysterious process called "progress," the pinnacle to which all of human existence has been moving. They are trapped in their own culture and it's only by figuring out how people in the past were trapped in theirs that they have any hope of escape. That may sound hostile towards my students, but truly, I don't mean it that way; I don't resent them or dislike them for being who they are. I just think that history can make them that much better.
History makes everything better. ;-)
So, the tagging: I'm going to tag a whole bunch of premodern folk - Anastasia, Dr. Virago, Bardiac (though I guess you might be a little busy right now!), Flavia, squadratomagic, and Another Damned Medievalist. And anyone else who wants to participate should feel free!