Tag Archives: Alfred J. Andrea

“Objectivity” and the Classroom: Ten Historians Respond

Above Image: Myself giving a lecture on the thorny topic of historic Bosnian and Serbian relations (Nov. 2015). Based on my past experiences with students, Jacksonville seems to have a large population of both Bosnian and Serbian immigrants, sometimes resulting in somewhat heated classroom discussions of related topics if not framed well from the outset.


I have seen many of my Facebook friends post stories about political or cultural bias on college campuses, sometimes expressing concern about what sort of education their children may be getting in the classroom, followed by expressions of lament for the high costs of college tuition on top of it. On rare occasions, I have also posted such stories and expressed similar incredulity, as in the case of a recent report about one university level U.S. history course that compared the “founding fathers” with the Westboro Baptist Church. When I did, it prompted a bit of a debate with one former academic, who defended the right of professors to use hyperbole to stir class discussion and thinking about historical events from different perspectives. I can appreciate the point more generally, yet in this particular case I see the rhetoric used (as reported) as too extreme, to the point of no longer really teaching “history” by modern professional standards. Yet, as I noted, some of my colleagues appear to disagree and have a more nuanced perspective.

As a result, I had been thinking about the topic of “objectivity” in the classroom when I came across a recently released statement by the American Historical Association issued in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent election victory. Consequently, I may have initially read it in a slightly different context than many of my fellow historians. It noted:

An unusually bitter and divisive election has been followed by continuing evidence of polarization to the point of harassment seldom seen in recent American history. The American Historical Association… condemns the language and harassment that have charred the American landscape in recent weeks. The AHA… [emphasizes] mutual respect and reasoned discourse—the ongoing conversation among historians holding diverse points of view and who learn from each other. A commitment to such discourse—balancing fair and honest criticism with inclusive practices and openness to different ideas—makes possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge. The American Historical Association reaffirms its commitment to mutual respect, reasoned discourse, and appreciation for humanity in its full variety. We will strive to demonstrate these values in all aspects of practice, including in our roles as teachers, researchers, and citizens.

As I read these words, I wasn’t thinking so much about how historians dialogue with each other (which I can assure you is sometimes quite inflammatory), but with our students in the classroom, a captive audience, thinking these stated ideals would apply nicely there as well. The statement does, at the end, mention that these values should be demonstrated in our roles as teachers, after all, as well as more generally.

In response, I reached out to ten historians to see if they might offer some brief thoughts on the topic of “Objectivity in the Classroom.” To be clear, I fully realize that complete or “true” objectivity is not possible, but nevertheless there are things a professor can do to insure some degree of objectivity or neutrality (“as much as humanly possible”) in how they frame and discuss sensitive political, religious, or cultural topics in the classroom. It’s interesting to note that the AHA statement cited above nowhere uses the word “objectivity,” but does emphasize “mutual respect” and “reasoned discourse” in its place.

Consequently, I was curious to see how the other historians considered such issues.

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Crusade Historians and Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a former nun who writes broadly on political and religious issues including the crusades and Islam. As a well known critic of modern western attitudes towards Islam, Armstrong has often sought to draw attention to what she sees as historical injustices carried out by westerners in the East. She lists the crusades among these injustices. For example, in her work, Islam: A Short History, she writes:

It was, for example, during the Crusades, when it was Christians who had instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world, that Islam was described by the learned scholar-monks of Europe as an inherently violent and intolerant faith, which had only been able to establish itself by the sword. The myth of the supposed fanatical intolerance of Islam has become one of the received ideas of the West. [pp. 179-180]

Of all of those currently writing on the crusades, her work is probably among the most popular and well known to the general public. In my case, I have had history students who have read her books in other settings come to me confused about apparent contradictions between what they were learning in my class and what they read in her book. I also once had a member of the general public, after reading a guest column I once wrote for the Florida Times Union, email me for the same reason, seeking clarification. The reason for these contradictions is because I have been trained as a medieval historian and work within the current dominant historiography of the crusades, much of which is decidedly at odds with some of the claims Armstrong makes in her works.

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Seven Myths of the Crusades: An Interview

Alfred J. Andrea and I recently had the opportunity to do an interview with Medievalists.net focusing on our recent book Seven Myths of the Crusades (Hackett Publishing, 2015). The book has been well received so far, with a number of nice endorsements from leading crusade historians (which can be viewed here).

Medievalists.net provided some excellent questions that allowed Al and I to provide some in depth responses considering a number of important issues.

One of the questions asked why we chose to write the book. My partial response is below.

“I do want to address your question, however, as to why we wanted to create another book on the crusades, specifically taking the approach of countering modern popular crusade myths. We and the contributors all agreed that the prevalence of the myths that we address in this book are repeated so regularly in all media, especially popular films and literature, as well as in political speeches and commentary, that it was worthwhile to pull together a book, written and edited by scholars, that targets general readers and undergraduates. The goal is to explain to the reader why scholars tend to see the issues covered in the chapters quite differently than popular accounts often suggest. We wanted to give readers a sense of the complexity of each of the historical issues dealt within the chapters and why historians often disagree with common popular, often unnuanced interpretations of historical events. It is a topic that crusade historians discuss among themselves quite often, occasionally publishing articles in popular publications and on the web to make such a point to just such an audience. So the essays we have collected here do not represent new or cutting-edge scholarship. Rather, our goal is to communicate current scholarship to undergraduates and a general reading public. Moreover, we want to make that scholarship accessible, affordable, and engaging in a way that many academic books are not.”

Please read the full interview here.

The Future of Medieval History: An Interview with Dr. Alfred J. Andrea

“Retired” scholar Alfred J. Andrea is easily one of the most active and dynamic historians I know. As an accomplished author, editor, and Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at the University of Vermont, you might think he would take it easy in his retirement. Yet those who know Al know better. The 73-year-old former U.S. Marine still looks the part, Continue reading