Philosophy of History/Patterns of Social and Political Interaction

Bradley Commissioner Leon Litwack discusses Historians and “The Inarticulate,” a topic stimulated by the theme “Patterns of Social and Political Interaction.” He shows how the study of American history should result in an understanding of social patterns and of the political relationships that interact with the social. Professor Litwack also indicates the need to include a wide variety of cultural documentation to learn about both sides of such interactions.

When the Bradley Commission noted “the new prominence of women, minorities, and the common people in the study of history, and their relation to political power and influential elites,” it acknowledged the far reaching changes in writing, teaching, and documentation of the American past. Until recently, the American history the typical student learned in high school or college was the history of exceptional people, mostly white, literate men. If wmen, racial minorities, or common people appeared at all, it was largely as picturesque appendages, not as active shapers of their own history; their experience was not only peripheral but said to be impossible to reclaim, because traditional methods of historical scholarship emphasized the importance of records and documents which the “inarticulate”—working class racial and ethnic communities – have not usually kept.

Historians played a significant role in creating, shaping, and reinforcing racial, gender, and ethnic biases; they succeeded in miseducating several generations of Americans. The history they wrote did have consequences. The ways in which the past is interpreted often have had a profound impact on the present. The traditional view of Reconstruction in American history, for example, as a period of unrelieved debauchery and black rule, helped to explain why blacks were unfit to participate in political life and why the South needed to eliminate them as voters and office-holders; it not only rationalized the South’s denial of constitutional rights to black people but northern acquiescence in that denial. And for nearly a century this distorted image of Reconstruction shaped white southern responses to any threat to white supremacy, to any proposal to end segregation and readmit blacks as voters.

To provide a deeper understanding of the cultural and racial diversity of American society, the quality, depth, and resourcefulness of the response of racial minorities, women, and ordinary people to their place in that society, it becomes necessary to reassess the traditional documentation of the past, to appreciate the diverse ways in which the “inarticulate” have related their experiences and communicated their feelings. It has often been their music, in their folk beliefs and proverbs, in their humor, in their hero traditions, in their language and dialect, in their superstitions, in their art and dances that people have expressed their innermost thoughts and preoccupations, their sorrows, frustrations, and joys, their triumphs and defeats. That scholars and teachers neglected these sources revealed not only a lack of historical imagination but ethnocentric complacency and racial chauvinism. In the conclusion of his work DEEP BLUES, Robert Palmer asked, “How much thought can be hidden a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?” And he answered, “The thought of generations, the history of every human being who’s ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain.” In that spirit, teachers need to instill in their students an appreciation of the complexities and varieties of cultural documentation, the enormous possibilities those documents afford us to bring into our historical consciousness people ordinarily left outside the framework of history. The kinds of records found in most documentary readers – state papers, legislative enactments, court decisions, speeches and proclamations – reveal only a fragment of the past and do little to illuminate the character and culture of a people, the range and depth of the human experience.

History is not a set of indigestible facts and “great events” arrayed in chronological order – no sooner memorized than forgotten. Students need to be able to feel the facts to which they are exposed; they need to be engaged in the social complexity and diversity of the past. Teachers face an equally formidable task in helping their students to overcome racial and ethnic stereotypes and cultural parochialism. That challenge has seldom taken on such critical proportions as it does today. Racism remains the most debilitating virus in the American system, deeply embedded in our culture and politics (as graphically revealed in the last presidential election), and its consequences spill over into almost every facet of American life. It is nourished by historical and cultural illiteracy.

Professor Litwack uses examples from U.S. History in his preceding essay; however, this theme can be used in World History as well. Here are examples of topics from which the theme Patterns of Social and Political Interaction might be drawn in World History courses: The evolution and distinctive characteristics of major Asian, African, and American pre-Columbian societies; Varying patterns of resistance to or acceptance of industrialization and its accompanying effects, in representative European and non-European societies; The interplay of geography and local culture in the responses of major societies to outside forces of all kinds; Medieval society and institutions; relations with Islam; feudalism and the evolution of representative governement; The European ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries and their global influence: liberalism, republicanism, social democracy, Marxism, nationalism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism; The new 19th century imperialism, ultimate decolonization, and the consequences of both for colonizers and colonized; The rise of Islam as a movement not just of the Middle East but of te whole region of arid lands stretching from Iberia to India; and the surge of Islamic expansion in Eurasia and in Africa in the 16th century; The near industrial revolution in China under the Sung Dynasty and its effects all across Eurasia.