Scholarship and Activism

In the epilogue to her powerful The Beginning and End of Rape, Sarah Deer wrote about the day she received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation announcing that she had won one of their coveted “Genius” prizes. The honor, so richly-deserved, would not change her, she wrote. Deer would continue to combine her activism and scholarship to help Native American communities.

“History repeats itself.” What history teacher has not heard that line from a student? “Those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it.” That was George Santayana’s old apothegm. In each, history is a force, marching endlessly in a circle. Because so few people indeed know their history, it becomes a sentence. If we are lazy, we can see the past as depressing, and outcomes as inevitable, or tragic. The past becomes a burden, a weight that can drag you down. I have felt that way at times and I have written about it on this blog. If you study the past, I am willing to bet that you have felt that way at times, too.

When I was taught long ago how to be a historian in the one-semester methods class I took at Cal State Long Beach, my professor emphasized the importance of objectivity. Several years later, one of my professors at Syracuse, a member of my dissertation committee, wrote at length in much of his own scholarship about the emergence of objectivity as a value in historical scholarship. Many of those who criticize our work, from outside the guild and within, may raise objections to it by suggesting that we are biased, and driven by our agendas. We might be left wingers, or “politically correct,” scholars more close-minded than we realize, and hampered by ideology from doing the simple work of reciting the facts that, brick by evidentiary brick, make up that edifice called history.

We might explain that this is not how we work, that this is not history at all. And it certainly is not how we should teach our students to work. History is not a science, but it is a discipline. Our research should be conceived, composed, and conducted in as objective and as disciplined a manner as we can. Of course we must be fair. We must keep our minds open and we must be honest enough with the evidence and our own assumptions that we are able to see clearly when they do not go together.

But the work we do, at the end of the day, is about answering questions. The questions that present themselves to us–that strike us as important, and worth answering–come from our experiences in life and in the archives, from our hard work, and, quite often, from our sense that all is not well.

Read history for a while and you will feel regret. Asking why a certain reality is ours can lead a curious mind to wonder if indeed other realities were possible. And if other possibilities existed, why did they not come to be? Who benefited from this particular outcome, and what might they have had to lose through other outcomes? And if one of these possible outcomes is superior to our current state of affairs, how do we get there? History can make clear the yawning gap between the way things are and they way things might have been.

In the opening of The Beginning and End of Rape, Deer makes the point that the current crisis afflicting native communities on and off-reservation is not an “epidemic.” Calling it that, she points out, makes it seem natural, unavoidable, beyond immediate human causes. That’s the wrong way to look at it, she writes. Rape, Deer argues, which “should be the number one priority for tribal nations,” because “all other challenges faced by tribal nations are linked to the history and trauma of rape,” resulted from the conscious choices made by the many and varied agents of colonialism over five centuries.

For Deer, as for many who study the past, there is a massive chasm between the way things are and the way things ought to be. To not ask the natural and logical question that follows is an abdication of responsibility: if history can guide us to a more perfect union, and if the lamp of experience illuminates a path to a better future by helping us to identify historical alternatives, how can we responsibly look away? To ask, “Why this?” leads easily to “Why not an alternative past?”

Encourage your students’ activism. Teach them the hard work involved in scholarship. Teach them to avoid polemic, to be fair, to ask tough questions of themselves and others, and to respect the discipline. Teach them that others will judge their work on the quality of their evidence, the thoroughness of their research, the rigor of their argument, and the grace and style of its presentation. Teach them that expertise is earned, not asserted. But do not allow a commitment to objectivity to stifle the questions, and hard-won answers, that can present themselves to any open-minded student of the past. Almost nothing was inevitable, and almost always there were other choices that men and women in the past might have made. There were almost always other possible outcomes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *