Canons, Power, and Pushing Back

It’s certainly been a banner week or so for kulturkampf in the historical field. The most visible example is the Oklahoma legislature’s movements toward banning AP US History, because that course’s curriculum does not hew sufficiently to the “American Exceptionalism” creed that’s de rigeur in Neanderthal Right circles. Not as far down the spectrum, but still very much in the same spirit, was Gordon Wood’s baffling and grumpy essay in the Weekly Standard, which alternated between being a screed against the last thirty years of historical scholarship and a battle cry for privileged white men who are feeling a bit out of sorts about having their hegemonic narratives challenged. There have been plenty of good responses to these rear-guard actions of the cornered and desperate culture warriors. Jezebel’s takedown of the Oklahoma legislators is scathing and on point, and Kevin Levin has a trenchant piece on Wood’s get-off-my-lawn manifesto, to cite just two of the best examples.  But there will be more diatribes coming, you can bet on it.

You and your postmodern relativism can just get the hell out.
You and your postmodern relativism can just get the hell out.

From Oklahoma to Gordon Wood, from Republican governors eviscerating their state’s university systems to the threats received by an Arizona State professor teaching a course on the problems of whiteness, the siege mentality evinced by conservatives (cultural, scholarly, political, or all of the above) would be funny if it weren’t so pernicious. It’s one thing to grumble “well, that’s not the Thomas Jefferson I learned about in school” (as a parent once did to me). But it’s something else altogether to sit in a position of power and privilege (like, say, the Alva O. Wood Professorship of History at Brown University) and punch down at younger scholars, dismissing their work as “obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society,” an obsession which Wood blames for what he sees as the shoddy and fragmentary state of early American historiography.  It’s something else altogether to sit in a legislature, charged with governing for the general welfare, and consider a law that would instantly handicap the education and college prospects of your state’s entire high school student body.

Why do these guys–and it’s always guys, and whiter than laundry day at the Navy barracks to boot–react so fiercely to any perceived challenge to their carefully-maintained, hermetically-sealed worldview? Sure, part of it is natural human defensiveness when confronted with challenges to one’s basic assumptions. But educating oneself, learning how to think critically, helps most folks grow out of that knee-jerk reaction. Why try and ban an entire high school course? Why throw an over-the-top hissy fit that makes you look like Clint Eastwood talking to his chair rather than an eminent scholar? What accounts for the venom, the absurd solutions to nonexistent problems?

To me, it’s about Power. More specifically, the experience of having and wielding power has conditioned these cultural cranks to react the way they do to any potential threat. It’s a zero-sum game: your view either rules unchallenged, or it dies. In her wonderful book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks describes her students’ and her own encounters with the Gordon Woods and Oklahoma lawmakers of their institution, which did nothing so much as “reveal how deep-seated is the fear that any de-centering of Western civilizations, of the white male canon, is really an act of cultural genocide.”* And that’s the same kind of fear that animates the anti-AP History crowd and that so exercises Wood. Indeed, Wood admits as much when he laments that “a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be.” Of course, Wood sees his version of that Creation Story as the norm–and any dissent is not only wrongheaded, but deviant. And these deviant interpretive strands must be excised from the scholarly canon, or the center will not hold. There is no room for compromise when the stakes are that high; again, it’s a zero-sum game.

Why do they see it this way? Clearly, one of the strengths of recent scholarship in early US history is to show us just how many stories, ideals, and peoples were involved in shaping the lived experience of the era. The period Wood sees us “forgetting” has never been the site of such dynamic and rich scholarly work as it currently is. And that’s readily apparent to anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the last three decades of scholarship. So why take the my-way-or-the-highway approach–especially when you occupy a privileged position to begin with? The answer lies, I think, in the same direction as a trenchant observation one of my friends made about a particularly aggressive and vocal homophobe we knew: “He’s afraid that gay men will treat him the same way he treats women.” The adherents of “American Exceptionalism” as it’s currently manifested in debates over history pedagogy have no room for any conception of US history that addresses inequality, dissent, or anything else that might make them sad. So why would their opponents act any differently? The “American Exceptionalist” version of history is predicated on cultural genocide-the natural conclusion for its proponents to assume that all other versions are the same. So, whose culture gets genocided? Gordon Wood is angry about historians who are “obsessed with inequality” because they challenge the heroic conception of the Founders as Uniquely Great Men. Wood’s narrative has no room for dissent; is he worried competing narratives will write his Creation Story right out of history–as he wants to do for them? As Abraham Maslow once observed, if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. So when these and other conservatives are swinging their hammers, they expect their opponents to do the same if given the opportunity.

As historians, scholars, and teachers who care about honest, genuine scholarship and pedagogy, we cannot-must not-emulate that example. In this regard, hooks gives us excellent advice:


Some folks think that everyone who supports cultural diversity wants to replace one dictatorship of knowing with another…We cannot despair when there is conflict. Our solidarity must be affirmed by a shared belief in a spirit of intellectual openness that celebrates diversity, welcomes dissent, and rejoices in collective dedication to truth.


If the only tool you have is a hammer, you expect others to hammer on you if given the opportunity. If the only epistemology you know is a “dictatorship of knowing” (and what a perfect phrase that is), then you expect dictatorship from every epistemological competitor–and they’re just waiting for you to show weakness, to open the door ever so slightly, then BAM! The Decline of Western Civilization ensues.

But I refuse to allow the reactionaries’ example to condition my pedagogy, my scholarship, or my epistemology. What the self-styled “black robes” in the Oklahoma legislature fear, what Gordon Wood fears, is what I embrace. Knowledge and scholarship are created free and remain free. They will wither and die in dictatorial regimes. Teaching and learning only work when they are conditioned and nurtured by intellectual openness. Otherwise, they’re merely exercises in recitation, or propaganda, or fantasy. In order for us to prepare our students the best we can for the work there is to do in our world, we must remain committed to this freedom. We cannot merely substitute new canons and new truth regimes for old. We must challenge ourselves and our students to embrace the intellectual openness hooks describes, to model it and live it out, and in so doing undermine the systems of power and privilege that so desperately attempt to retain their hold. Only by using our own tools, and eschewing their hammers, can we succeed.


*bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994). Quotes are from pp. 32-33.