Tag Archives: Rachel Fulton Brown

“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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Defending Western Civilization: An Interview with Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown

Although slavery has existed since the “dawn of civilization,” Columbia University historian Eric Foner points out that the modern west was the first to abolish it. This was a result, Foner argues, of a unique blending of evangelical and Enlightenment thought that “placed a new emphasis on every person’s inherent dignity and natural rights….” Princeton historian Bernard Lewis notes that the west then effectively influenced the abolition of slavery in non-western societies as well, leading to the worldwide decline of the institution in the modern era. Similarly, as University of Pennsylvania historian Alan Kors has argued, it was in the west that capitalism (for all its warts and critics) emerged to produce “the greatest alleviation of suffering; the greatest liberation from want, ignorance, and superstition; and the greatest increase of bounty and opportunity in the history of all human life.” Moreover, in terms of women’s rights, no other society has been more open to the concepts of legal and political equality between men and women than the modern west, where women now hold unprecedented liberties and freedoms not found on the same scope or scale in any other past or current society. Indeed, former Clark University Philosophy Professor Christina Hoff Sommers has noted that American women “are among the most liberated and privileged — and safest — people on earth.”

One might think that, in light of such achievements, one would find greater value in the study of western civilization than expressed by many critics calling for its removal from college and university curriculums and general education requirements. Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, no less, once joined students at Stanford in chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!”

Many academics who do study western civilization tend to emphasize the worst aspects of it. It’s true, after all, that although slavery and overtly discriminatory laws have been overturned, that racism continues to have an impact on people’s lives and is a worthy subject of study. Similarly, while capitalism has done more to alleviate poverty than any other economic system, there are many who fail to thrive in a capitalist economy and so scholars and economists who seek ways to improve a capitalist society to insure its humanity (hopefully without destroying economic freedom and the potential for economic growth) do noble work. Similarly, while women hold unprecedented legal rights in the western world (the unique birthplace of modern feminism), it took considerable effort to get to this point and there are still many concerns about reaching full equality. Continue reading