The Public Humanist

Teaching Difficult Subjects

I am writing and posting this from Helsinki, where I am attending a conference and giving a paper. I mention this only because it reminds me that perspective is crucial: what is self-evident in one context may not be so in another. The first thing to consider when contemplating the question of “difficult topics” in teaching is: difficult for whom? why?

I’m not sure whether any topic in my field—European history—is intrinsically more “difficult” than another. Probably, nothing that I teach is conceptually difficult, though there are other forms of difficulty. What, more specifically, then, do we mean by “difficult”?

For instance, on one level, the Holocaust should be the least difficult topic to teach because it comes as close as anything to presenting a clear-cut choice between innocence and evil. On the other hand, it could be considered “difficult” most simply and obviously because it deals with accounts of human cruelty and suffering that can be painful to read. To my mind, the real difficulty, though, is teaching students to move beyond simple moral affirmations or condemnations, and to understand how perpetrators, victims, and bystanders made their practical and moral choices under conditions so removed from ours as to constitute an alien world. The essence of teaching history, for me, is teaching students how to acquire a historical perspective on a topic, and how to make increasingly fine distinctions and judgments.

I had a chance to think a lot about this last year when I took part in a special semester-long faculty workshop on teaching difficult subjects. We came to it from different fields and with very different courses, but several of us were dealing with issues of history and cultural diversity. One colleague was teaching nineteenth-century US social history, which focused heavily on issues of slavery and race, from plantations to lynchings. Another colleague was teaching a course on popular culture and difference today, entailing such issues as depictions of race in the media. I was teaching a new course on antisemitism, supported by a grant given to the President of the College. We received extensive training in teaching students to engage in “dialogue” and respectful listening when encountering controversial topics that engaged their emotions as well as their intellects. Much of what we studied and practiced was simply about sound and innovative pedagogy in discussion-based teaching, marvelously applicable to any topic. We also compared notes about techniques that we were trying out.

My topic, like the Holocaust, which forms a part of it, is both easy and difficult. It is easy in that it is simple to condemn hatred and cruelty in the abstract or in distant times and places. It is difficult in that it is often too tempting to assume we know the answer, or to feel morally superior to others who lived in what we assume to be more benighted times. As we move into the contemporary period, the topic becomes more difficult in a different way because things are closer to home. The debate over the role of antisemitism in discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict is obviously the most sensitive. Still, there were some surprises along the way in a course that spans 2000 years.

The most important strategies for me therefore involve teaching students to think historically and creating an atmosphere of equality and trust. I start off, for example, by explaining that I make no assumptions about student knowledge and do not believe that anyone has a privileged perspective on the subject. To that end, I immediately assign a short book on Judaism, in order to ensure that we are all starting from the same place with a stock of common knowledge. The book not only explains the history and culture of Judaism but also begins by pointing out how even the ordinary language we use to speak of religion reflects an implicit Christian orientation.

On the first day, I also had the students go through some exercises intended to shake up some of their preconceptions. Borrowing an experiment created by an Episcopalian layman working in a church setting, I presented a series of historic antisemitic quotes, and asked students to guess the authors. The students were often surprised at the results. Here the shock of the unfamiliar was the beginning of understanding.

I also do a lot of these in-class and small-group exercises, in order to get students to feel comfortable in sharing their ideas and responding to the ideas of others. It’s not just good general pedagogy, for it also prepares students for the more difficult moments to come: they will neither clam up for fear of saying “the wrong thing” nor react intemperately if they vehemently disagree with someone else.

Two examples can illustrate some of the challenges.

In the case of the Middle Ages, students were commendably sensitive to anti-Jewish measures, but also too ready to leap to conclusions and to argue in anachronistic terms. For example, they condemned these “violations of human rights,” and I had to explain that the Christian medieval society of orders knew no concept of universal “human rights.” Students also wanted to assume that people used the Jews as “scapegoats,” in other words, blamed them for something else. I had to explain, no, it was very simple: people hated the Jews for what they were—non-Christians, unbelievers. However, not everyone hated or mistreated the Jews. For example, because the basis for discrimination was theological, our otherwise commendably anti-elitist students were quick to condemn nobles and “the” church. I had to point out that it was often precisely these elites who helped and defended the Jews. To read the charter in which the eleventh-century Archbishop Rüdiger of Mainz warmly invites the Jews to his city and promises them protection was a revelation. It was, I thought, a good lesson in general historical reasoning as well as the course subject matter.

With regard to the Middle East, I made clear that I was not hunting for any particular answer when it came to deciding whether a given statement or discourse was antisemitic. Rather, I wanted students to achieve two things: (1) simply to understand why someone might have thought this was an issue, and (2) to articulate their own judgments explicitly on the basis of the principles and phenomena that we had studied to date. The exercise I used here began with the familiar and moved to the unfamiliar.

I began by showing clearly racist or hateful images and then moved on to some whose bigoted character was debated. In each case, I asked the students to talk through their responses: to explain their emotional and intellectual reactions as well as their final verdicts.

First I show an image from the health care debates depicting President Obama as a so-called witch doctor:



Almost everyone would agree it is racist.

Then I show a cartoon depicting then-candidate Obama as a monkey resembling Curious George.



For some people it is clearly racist. For others, it is not. Caricatures exaggerate physical features, and the maker explained that this was no different from cartoons emphasizing President George W. Bush’s ears. Not everyone will find such an explanation persuasive.

Next I show an image from a nineteenth-century work on the “science” of race.



In the racial hierarchy, Africans were seen as primitive, closer to the apes than to other human beings (among which those of European descent represent the ideal). My point was that, because of the tradition of likening African-Americans to apes or “savages,” the above images of Barack Obama, no matter what the explanations or intentions of their creators, at least had potentially racist implications and tended to cause offense.

I then repeat the exercise with images of Jews. Jews were accused of being savages in a different sense: most notoriously, perhaps, of being cannibals who tortured and murdered Christian children and used their blood to make ritual foods.

Here, the martyr, Simon of Trent, allegedly murdered by Jews in the fifteenth century.


Here, the depiction of ritual murder by stereotypical hook-nosed Jews, from a Nazi publication:



Then we turn to the Middle East. Obviously, wars involve bloodshed, and we use images of spilled blood when talking about them. Obviously, innocents are killed in war. I ask students to examine these two caricatures of then-Prime Minister Sharon from the Second Intifada.



The caption reads, “The Palestinian Children’s Blood.”



And finally,



For Jews, hostile images involving cannibalism, vampirism, and the murder of children evoke the same reaction that images of apes and savages do for blacks.

My point was simply that, if students could understand why an African-American found certain images or discourses offensive, they should be able to understand the parallel concerns of Jews. They did not automatically have to share the conclusions of those who were offended—simply, to understand them. It proved to be a very good way to explain the difficulty of the topic itself and to show how to talk about it.

I’m pleased to report that the class went wonderfully, even in its potentially difficult moments. Even when students disagreed with one another, they presented their views with subtlety and civility. I in turn was able to apply what I had learned here to a presentation on antisemitism for a day-long diversity workshop for students at the Williston-Northampton School in January. Boiling down a semester’s worth of work with college students into an hour of conversation with secondary-school students was a different challenge, which in turn taught its own lessons. I learn along with the students.

As Marc Bloch—a great historian who revolutionized twentieth-century social history and died at the hands of the Gestapo during World War II—explained, history is not the study of the past, and rather, “the study of men in time.” That is: our task is nothing less than to understand how the human species behaves in ever-varying historical and cultural contexts.

That's plenty difficult in itself.

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