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Can We Learn from Those we Dislike?

John Fea: Teaching the Right Way to Study History

From John Fea’s interesting Patheos column this week comes another interesting topic. I already blogged about his primary point in the piece, that studying history could help your marriage. The student transformation example that he uses is insightful. He relates the story of a student who was tasked with the challenging job of reading and engaging with southern intellectuals who endorsed slavery. Here is Fea’s retelling:

Several years ago, I took students through a series of texts written by nineteenth-century southern intellectuals who defended the institution of slavery. Just like everyone else in my class, Kevin was appalled at the arguments contained in these documents. But by entering into a conversation with their authors, and being opened to letting these writers change him, he became a better Christian.

Kevin learned that plantation owners often argued that slavery was justified because slaveholders treated their labor force (slaves) better than the burgeoning capitalists of the North treated their immigrant laboring class. Slaves were clothed, fed, Christianized, and usually worked ten hours a day. Northern industrial laborers, living in an age before the usual benefits afforded to workers today, worked sixteen hour days, were paid so poorly that they could not feed themselves or their families, and generally lived lives that were much worse than those of southern slaves. How dare the Northern abolitionists and capitalists claim the moral high ground! How dare they accuse slaveholders of immorality while all the while turning a blind eye to the plight of the working-class “slaves” in their midst! The South’s anti-capitalist feudalism offered, as historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese have shown, one of the most powerful critiques of industrialization in nineteenth-century America.

Kevin was convinced that the slaveholders’ criticism of northern industry did not take them off the moral hook. Slavery was still a reprehensible and sinful practice. Nor was Kevin sure that this defense of slavery was valid. The northern workers may have had it rough, perhaps even rougher than slaves, but at least they were free.

Kevin did, however, learn to be cautious about condemning others before hearing their side of the story. His response to these writers was not a knee-jerk moral criticism, but a thoughtful engagement with historical texts that taught him a valuable lesson about removing the log from your own eye before taking the speck out of the eye of another. Kevin listened to the slaveholders. He understood them. He empathized with them. He saw them as fellow human beings. He realized that some of their flaws were also present in his own life and his relationships with others. And in the process he was, in a small way, changed. Are not these the kinds of transformative encounters that we want people to have with the past? It seems likely that dozens and dozens of such encounters would produce a responsible member of a civil society.

I wish I could say that Kevin is representative of the way most of my students, and most Americans, approach the past. But his case reveals that real transformation is possible when we are exposed to opinions that we naturally find uncomfortable. Students of the past do not have to agree with slaveholders to learn something from them, even if their encounter with them only reminds them that we, like the authors of these texts, are flawed, imperfect creatures in need of improvement and redemption.

This is challenging for me, often. Very few people would argue that the southern defenders of slavery were standing up for morality. (this is a good thing) Still, their lack of moral and ethical standing does not invalidate their point. In fact, I would argue that their lack of moral firm ground should have made their indictment of northern industrialism even more cutting. If they could use the northern treatment of immigrant workers as a comparison to defend slavery, that treatment must have been even worse morally. Those in the north seeking the moral high ground on the injustices of slavery in the south, should have realized the “log in their own eye”, as Fea notes.

By engaging in this reading of history with a proper attitude, we attempt to understand the southern perspective. I can see why the south would ignore the calls from the north. They could look around and say, honestly, that they treated slaves better than the northern industrial system treated its workers. Does this validate slavery? Of course not! However, it does help us to better understand the times, and why people in that culture might not have been quick to heed the northern outcry.

Even more important, though, is the mirror that this type of reading holds up to us as we reflect on our own lives. Where are the holes in my own logic? I can look at this from both perspectives. First: where am I like the northerners? Where have I undermined my own arguments by having issues in my life that cause others to laugh at my moralizing? Second: where am I like the southerners? Where have I allowed myself to minimalize other people’s views because I think I compare favorably to them, rather than being willing to admit that they might be right, even if I am “less immoral” than they are?

I’ve certainly been guilty of both of these things in the past. Thanks to Fea for reminding me to not allow myself to lose perspective of the value of Truth from any source.

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2 comments on “Can We Learn from Those we Dislike?

  1. In answer to the original question, we can learn one hell of a lot more from those we dislike than we’re likely to from those we like. We ‘like’ because they think similarly to the way we think. A person cnn’t learn much from a mocking bird.

  2. I like this perspective. While I definitely disagree with James Cone and his methodology and attitudes behind Black Liberation Theology, at the same time I can understand where he comes from. I disagree with much in the world of politics these days, but at the same time, reading a lot of perspectives gives a different, bigger picture of what’s going on.

    I think this is something that is lacking in the Christian church in a way. If you think about it, most denominations, in fact I’d go so far as to say most congregations, are gathering of “like” Christians. We either avoid those we don’t like, leave if we don’t like the place, or try and convince (some times rather forcefully) those we don’t like to leave. But if you read the history of the early church as described in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, the church didn’t gather with a bunch of people that were exactly alike but more a group of culturally, economically, socially, and ethnically diverse people with different views, backgrounds, etc., gathered together for one purpose… to become the people God wants them to be and to engage in the world around them as God’s representatives… and it takes all sorts to make something like that work.

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