History education shouldn’t just focus on past evils
What story does history tell us? And what might that story mean for how we view our present and future? For Oxford philosophy professor William MacAskill, history reveals the human story as one beset by bigotry, foolishness, and prejudice, a tale of woe in which the powerful oppress the powerless. He gives slavery as his prime example, asking how anyone could justify owning another person, much less embracing it as a societal norm across the planet for millennia. He then turns the focus on the present, listing a litany of social justice policies we must pursue to avoid a similar fate when our present becomes history.
Yet MacAskill’s approach is an inadequate lens for understanding our past, the insufficiency of which extends to how he discusses our present and future. MacAskill’s view obscures the full truth about history and thereby miseducates the present about how to view its own obligations.
To begin, MacAskill’s perspective diminishes (if not denies) the good we can find in the past. Across time and place, men and women have proven their ability to accomplish great feats and produce wonderful works in politics, philosophy, religion, the natural sciences, literature, and the arts. Throughout history, men and women have successfully lobbied for reforms in the name of justice. Christianity humanized our treatment of slavery before being an integral part of ending its legitimization. America’s Declaration of Independence posited principles that have been a beacon of social and political reform not only within our own borders but across the world.
To diminish or deny these truths undermines the present and the future in several ways. It denies us continuity with the good of the past, inhibiting our capacity to recognize it. We need long-standing concepts of what constitutes beauty or justice. MacAskill’s framing assumes these continuities but only in the negative. Yet seeing history exclusively as a long march of tragedy risks making us think that the beautiful and the good are impenetrable at best and nonexistent at worst.
MacAskill’s approach also denies humanity’s need for exemplars. Yes, we have illustrations of what not to do. But “example by negation” only goes so far. We fare far better directing our steps when we find well-worn paths. Those paths — indeed those persons — need not be perfect to be examples. But in them, we can often find enough of the noble and enough of the good to gain our respect, our admiration, and thereby, our emulation. We have them if we only look with proper perspective: our Washingtons, our Lincolns, and our Kings.
Additionally, we must recognize how different periods and locales have exemplified distinct virtues, not just vices. Where courage reigned in Sparta, intellectual virtues held a higher place in ancient Athens. Different cultures have emphasized individual liberty or communal unity, equality or excellence, charity, and self-government. We must see how and where the past was better than us as part of us pursuing better.
In so doing, we most certainly should confront and admit our past sins. For America, slavery stands among the foremost evils perpetuated legally and socially. Its racist underpinning continued long past the abominable institution and continues, in certain forms, even to this day.
But we lose something when that perspective is the entire story, as it often becomes in our current approach to education. It even risks damaging MacAskill’s own policy and education goals. If history only serves to show us that humans fail miserably, then what chance have we to act otherwise? Why even try?
Our education must ground itself in eternal truths, seeing where particular times and places lived up to them and where they failed. We should turn the same standards on ourselves, seeking to magnify the good we do while mitigating the ill. That education is honest. It is hopeful. It presents a better avenue for us not only to do good but for that good to benefit generations yet to be born.
Adam Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College.
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