Roundtable | Response by Ruth A. Solie

Ruth A. Solie
Smith College

I’m deeply humbled to read these accounts, and filled with admiration at my colleagues’ persistence and commitment in these situations, which are frightening and (or so I imagine) existentially exhausting. I used to have these experiences, or variants of them, some years ago when I regularly taught women’s studies; but routinely now in my music fundamentals or music “appreciation” classroom they don’t come up. 

As I read the participants’ thoughtful essays I was assailed by dozens of reactions and responses, but I’ll use my word budget here to talk about only one of them. It has to do with the nature of the “teaching moment” that these controversies offer us. (I realize that the recasting of crises as opportunities is cold comfort when your classroom is in eruption but, as all of these writers recognize, such they nonetheless are!) The lesson I would most want to convey has to do with “moral relativism”—a highly suspicious term in today’s morally self-righteous society, I know—not only as a solution to an emergency but because students need to learn to think in such relativistic terms anyway, if they are going to deal with even non-controversial historical material. 

Every historical actor lives within a moral landscape in which certain courses of action—and not others—are available. I think students deserve help in understanding that those choices are not necessarily the same ones that confront us, and that past choices and actions do not necessarily look the same to us as they looked to those who made them. A good historian has to evaluate subjects’ behaviors in terms of the truly available options, and the horizon of evaluation that contemporaries truly applied. 

The reason I find this lesson so utterly important is that I think of history as a form of multiculturalism, another type of diversity, another object-lesson in displacing ourselves from the center of an always-and-everywhere universe. As the otherwise-forgotten novelist L.P. Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I have often been deeply frustrated and angered, for example, by the fatal ease with which feminist theory’s probing of social structures can devolve into a pounce of historical “gotcha!” without any consideration of how the ethical and moral issues may have looked to the actual characters involved, or why they looked so, although this is surely the heart and soul of historical endeavor.

Can thinking about this help to defuse some of the excess affect in the classroom? To deflect the floods of anger, anxiety, and shame that arise so quickly and drown out efforts to think clearly? Let’s try a prospective experiment: a friend of mine believes that, a century from now, American society will condemn the keeping of domestic animals as pets because it will be seen as a form of slavery. (When he first told me this, I thought the notion was outlandish; but given the changes in Americans’ attitudes toward their pets in just the last decade or so it no longer really startles me.) Whether or not such a shift in social mores seems reasonable at this point, it’s worth asking students whether they are guilty of enslaving their pets now just because people will think so in 2105?

Here’s a concrete example with which I have been wrestling for the last couple of years. I’ve been absorbed in Victorian prose—fiction, history, journalism—and have very frequently been disturbed by the confident, almost thoughtlessly easy, attribution of character traits to national or ethnic groups (all called “races” by the Victorians) that pepper their writing. How could such cosmopolitan and sophisticated people have believed something so silly and so nasty as racial essentialism? It turns out that this kind of characterization was part and parcel of progressive thought: it was what mid- to late-Victorian intellectuals believed that current science was teaching them, that evolution progressed through the ever-ramifying fine distinctions of speciation. If accused of unsavory racial (national, ethnic) “stereotyping”—not an idea they would have recognized—they would surely have protested that accurate taxonomy is the basis of all scientific knowledge. Are these, then, villains?

Needless to say—although it would probably be needful to say in the classroom—I do not mean to suggest that historical persons are to be exempt from judgment. On the contrary! Every time, every place, has its spectrum of moral choices from the heroically virtuous to the monstrously evil. The historian’s job, surely, is to understand that spectrum and judge accordingly. It is part of what I personally consider the single thing I most want to teach my students: not to overlay others’ lives, or others’ musical experiences, with their own.

Next Essay (Link to “Response by Judith Tick”)