Bruce Kuklick has written a history of American philosophy that is on my own drool-over list (but not a priority to have, so as yet still on the list, not on my shelf, alas). I have heard from reputable philosophers how careful his history is written. So I found it interesting to find his commentary and analysis of history textbooks here. I read it, and was pleasantly surprised to discover his annoyance at untethered factmongering that is all the rage—which, to my mind, only shows a presupposition of the “truth” (if that could be without self-contradiction!) of relativism. (See my summary of why relativism cannot be true on a handout I use for my Intro to Philosophy course, here.).
His analysis of the standard history textbook is poignant and, I think, fully applicable to any “history of philosophy” textbook that only gives selections of every thinker who was influential and who happened to write during a given time period, without any explanation as to how they hang together and what unifying themes make their work so important even today.
Reflecting on these issues and on my profession has been discouraging. As members of a community that in effect creates its own norms and that with some autonomy oversees its own commitments, historians surely should have a major say in what and how we teach. But I also believe that the teaching should not be almost entirely about us. We have collectively failed. All those state legislators who mandate that students take American history did not do it for us. American history is still at the core of many general education requirements, and is not just there so that universities can make available jobs for historians.
Aside from systematizing their learning, what ought these legions of historians to be doing in the American history survey? Why should the students be in the class, learning about these various factual matters? Here I am on the side of the legislators: we ought to be offering sophisticated and reflective education for citizenship in the Republic. The operative words here are sophisticated and reflective. We want to produce patriots in the sense that our students should come out of our classes with some understanding of what the relation of the national past is to present endeavors.
When politicians discuss social security, I want my students to know that it was created in a certain way, for certain reasons. When George W. Bush tells the American people in a presidential debate about the Dred Scott case, I want my students to know what he is talking about; and I want them to say: What is this guy saying? When the nation honors Rosa Parks, I want my students to know that she did not just suddenly decide to stay in her seat on the bus. When the president talks again and again about evildoers so glibly, I want my students to think: this is not new, we have been accusing others of evildoing for centuries.
If we are not teaching citizenship, or something like it, all we are doing is affording people material for trivia games.
Hmm. So maybe I also have a lengthy post in me regarding my complaints with some history-focused philosophy programs forthcoming. Stay tuned, bat fans.