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Understanding History Depends on Getting Our Pronouns Right
What are history's pronouns?
Many cultural conservatives take offense when people share their preferred pronouns. To say that someone’s social media profile includes “pronouns in bio” serves as a shorthand way for conservatives to dismiss such people out of hand as “libs” or “lefties” or “woke” or “politically correct.”
The Venn overlap between people offended by “pronouns in bio” and people offended by the idea that a faithful and true historical account of the past will necessarily shine a light on historical actors’ and eras’ flaws and failings is probably close to a perfect circle. Formal initiatives such as the 1776 Project, Florida’s Stop Woke Act, and other conservative culture war forays are all aimed at propagating sanitized and bowdlerized accounts of America’s past that substitute admiration for explanation.
And let’s be clear: explanation—fostering an understanding of how the past has shaped the present—should be a primary goal of history education. Indeed, explanation is a primary goal of higher education more generally. No one insists (yet) that college biology courses should mainly celebrate the successes of cell division and replication and should not mention cancer because doing so is just dwelling on the negative in an attempt to “tear down” ideas of health. No one demands (yet) that college geology courses should tell a heroic tale of glaciation and the shaping of the landscape without mentioning that the high silt content of some glacial runoff renders some rivers uninhabitable by fish.
Students taking intro courses in these disciplines generally come to class expecting to learn the what, how, and why of those fields—what is this process, how does it work, and why is it important? Understanding some part of the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, is the fundamental task of every academic discipline and the most basic “learning outcome” of pretty much every course in college, from biology to economics to geology to linguistics.
But with the discipline of history, culture warriors are scrambling to throw up as many barriers as possible to prevent students from understanding the past. They want students to recite and celebrate past triumphs; they don’t want students to understand how past choices shaped the conditions for present challenges—to the point where they have convinced students that college history professors are somehow aimed at “tearing down” America, rather than simply explaining how it came to be as it is. Thus many students come to class confused about the purpose of studying the past and feel defensive about discussing any aspects of American history that are not obviously praiseworthy.
Professors can cut through a lot of this confusion by paying attention to pronouns.
That is, they can pay attention to the pronouns all of us in the classroom, students and teachers alike, use in discussing our subject of study and our objects of inquiry, the people and ideas of the past.
The pronouns of history are not we, our, and ours, but they, them, and theirs. In classroom lectures and class discussions, using they, them, and theirs when examining the actions or beliefs or circumstances of historical subjects is absolutely essential to grasping the pastness of the past and the vast temporal distance that separates that time from this time, their world from ours.
We did not fight a war for independence against Great Britain; Americans in the 18th century fought that war. They signed a Declaration of Independence celebrating the principle of the fundamental equality of “all men,” but their understanding of all men as equals did not extend to women or the enslaved. After that war, they were divided over whether slavery should be allowed to persist as a legal institution under a constitutional government. They debated the issue, they settled on various compromises. This wasn’t “our” cause, this wasn’t “our” moral vision, this wasn’t “our” fault. We are not involved, we are not responsible, we are not liable to praise or blame. “We” are not in the picture at all; we are looking at that picture from the outside, as observers and students of a past shaped by others.
In classroom discussion, there is no such thing as “our side” in the Civil War. Americans in the mid-19th century fought a civil war; they fielded two opposing armies. Some of them, not some of us, sought to secede from the United States in 1860 and 1861 in order to protect the legal institution of chattel slavery from any further federal regulation or abolition; some of them, not some of us, fought to prevent the dissolution of the United States over this issue. Some of them, not some of us, were committed abolitionists. Some of them, not some of us, fought for their own emancipation.
Getting the pronouns of history right fosters the responsible practice of historical thinking—even, dare I say it, of historical objectivity. In his valuable essay, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” American intellectual historian Thomas Haskell, while recognizing that all historians must grapple with the biases and limits of our own perspectives, realized that there are various ways in which historians can foster a practice of objectivity as a sort of “ascetic self-discipline.” We can and should go out of our way to set aside our own preferences and “enter into the rival perspectives” of others, to study and understand and explain ideas that we ourselves would never entertain. To do so requires a modicum of critical distance, the ability to at least temporarily step back and view our subject of study with some degree of detachment. Indeed, that ability, that practice, is perhaps the most valuable “transferrable skill” of historical inquiry, something we can model for our students in the classroom.
In classroom discussions, a constant recourse to the pronouns they, them, and their serves as steady reminder to our students that we were not there and what happened was not our doing. This is true and useful for discussing long-ago events, but it is even more useful for discussing more recent events.
It may be an easier lift to insist on using they/them/their for the Revolutionary War than for the First or Second Gulf War. Those were conflicts that happened in living memory of most professors and some students, conflicts whose veterans we here in the present know and interact with. But even a veteran of those conflicts, a professor or a nontraditional student in a classroom today, stands to gain from the practice of using they/them/their to talk about the decision-makers who paved the path to war and managed its execution. Unless they are talking about their own unit, their own actions, they are dealing with a past landscape shaped by other people making other choices.
Using they and them for past subjects, and calling attention to that usage, helps those of us in the classroom, professor and students alike, to stand at a remove from the past, with no skin in the game, no praise to seek, and no blame to avoid. In that situation, we can discuss what those people in the past did and thought and believed and brought about without squeamishness or self-protectiveness. We don’t have to protect ourselves from understanding a past we didn’t shape.
Of course that’s the problem for many conservative culture warriors. They want to bask in the reflected glory of the great deeds of the past. They want it to be our Revolution, our Declaration of Independence, our battlefield victories—they want a heroic past in which they can see themselves. And the more execrable their flirtations with the most unsavory legacies of American history that continue to plague us in the present—white nationalism, racism, fascist authoritarianism—the more urgent their need to keep students from seeing them—the historical actors of the past—for all that they were, lest students see those who brag about what we accomplished in the past for all that they are.