Getting History Right Means Paying Attention to PronounsRoundup
tags: gender, teaching history
Columnist at Arc Digital. Writer / historian / college writing prof from California's Great Central Valley.
Many cultural conservatives take offense when people share their preferred pronouns. To say that someone’s social media profile includes “pronouns in bio” serves as a shorthand way for conservatives to dismiss such people out of hand as “libs” or “lefties” or “woke” or “politically correct.”
The Venn overlap between people offended by “pronouns in bio” and people offended by the idea that a faithful and true historical account of the past will necessarily shine a light on historical actors’ and eras’ flaws and failings is probably close to a perfect circle. Formal initiatives such as the 1776 Project, Florida’s Stop Woke Act, and other conservative culture war forays are all aimed at propagating sanitized and bowdlerized accounts of America’s past that substitute admiration for explanation.
And let’s be clear: explanation—fostering an understanding of how the past has shaped the present—should be a primary goal of history education. Indeed, explanation is a primary goal of higher education more generally. No one insists (yet) that college biology courses should mainly celebrate the successes of cell division and replication and should not mention cancer because doing so is just dwelling on the negative in an attempt to “tear down” ideas of health. No one demands (yet) that college geology courses should tell a heroic tale of glaciation and the shaping of the landscape without mentioning that the high silt content of some glacial runoff renders some rivers uninhabitable by fish.
Students taking intro courses in these disciplines generally come to class expecting to learn the what, how, and why of those fields—what is this process, how does it work, and why is it important? Understanding some part of the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, is the fundamental task of every academic discipline and the most basic “learning outcome” of pretty much every course in college, from biology to economics to geology to linguistics.
But with the discipline of history, culture warriors are scrambling to throw up as many barriers as possible to prevent students from understanding the past. They want students to recite and celebrate past triumphs; they don’t want students to understand how past choices shaped the conditions for present challenges—to the point where they have convinced students that college history professors are somehow aimed at “tearing down” America, rather than simply explaining how it came to be as it is. Thus many students come to class confused about the purpose of studying the past and feel defensive about discussing any aspects of American history that are not obviously praiseworthy.
Professors can cut through a lot of this confusion by paying attention to pronouns.
That is, they can pay attention to the pronouns all of us in the classroom, students and teachers alike, use in discussing our subject of study and our objects of inquiry, the people and ideas of the past.
The pronouns of history are not we, our, and ours, but they, them, and theirs. In classroom lectures and class discussions, using they, them, and theirs when examining the actions or beliefs or circumstances of historical subjects is absolutely essential to grasping the pastness of the past and the vast temporal distance that separates that time from this time, their world from ours.