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Coming to Terms With History

We must educate children about distressing historical truths if they are to become responsible citizens—and we can do so without traumatizing them.

Across the United States, school districts are being assailed for asking students to come to terms with history. The attacks have challenged the teaching of such novels as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) to high school literature students, and accounts of school desegregation such as Ruby Bridges Goes to School (2003) to elementary-school children. As efforts to purge school curricula of difficult history have grown in scope, the range of topics has expanded to include books on such subjects as the treatment of Native Americans, the experiences of lesbian and gay teenagers, and representations of the Holocaust.

Such attempts to avoid history are not new. James Baldwin explained why we must resist them in a 1961 essay challenging the avoidance of uncomfortable reflection on America’s history of slavery and racial segregation:

History … is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is … present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

Baldwin implies not only that history shapes who we are but that it is a critical component of morally defensible reflection on who we might seek to become. If he is right, as I think he is, we cannot develop the capacity for moral reflection without also deepening our historical understanding.

Baldwin was adamant that not just any approach to history will do. In a 1962 essay on the state of American literature, he insisted that the writer has a duty to tell “as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.” This imperative implies that the reader has a corresponding duty to seek as comprehensive an understanding of history as possible. Of course, as Baldwin pointed out, engaging a national past containing grave moral wrongs will be discomfiting. But as he famously observed, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  

Yet it is not only in contemplating injustice that we have a duty to face as much of the truth as we can bear. As Martha Nussbaum contends in Cultivating Humanity (1997), an essential element of responsible citizenship is “narrative imagination,” which she understands as “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.” We can develop this ability, Nussbaum continues, only if we learn how to interpret others’ defining narratives. But we can learn how to do this only when we consider how larger historical episodes and events might have shaped those narratives. Comprehensive historical understanding is thus a condition of morally responsible engagement with the narratives of others. We educate students for responsible, morally engaged citizenship by challenging them to face “as much of the truth as they can bear” about the history shaping other people’s narratives.

There was something unusual about growing up with parents who had survived a form of hell.

Art Spiegelman

Of course, some of the history that responsible citizens must confront if they are to sympathetically imagine the experience of fellow citizens will include the history of human evil and the damaging effects that evil in one era may continue to have in the lives of succeeding generations. Contemporary efforts to ban the teaching of Art Spiegelman’s momentous graphic novel Maus (1980), about the experiences of Holocaust victims and survivors, deprive potential readers of a critical opportunity to engage with history that raises these vitally important concerns. Spiegelman’s novel challenges the reader to consider the complex ways in which children of Holocaust survivors were shaped by their struggles to come to terms with the horrors that confronted their parents. Shortly after the publication of the first volume of Maus, Spiegelman observed that it was not until he had left for college that he realized that “there was something unusual about growing up with parents who had survived a form of hell.” But as Santayana might have argued, we must all carefully reflect on the terrible reality that Maus depicts if we are to comprehend the depth of our obligation to prevent another human-made hell from coming into being.

What unites the insights of Baldwin and Nussbaum is the recognition that we have a moral interest in history and that this interest should guide moral reflection and moral education at every stage of human development. Few would deny that we have an epistemic interest in history. But comprehensive historical understanding is also a central element of the information we need to be responsible moral agents. It is also a critical support of the morality that makes political cooperation possible, especially in any society shaped by a history of ethnic or racial injustice, colonialism, imperialism, or sectarian conflict.

Confronting history can be unsettling and sometimes even terrifying. As Baldwin observed, it is often “in great pain and terror” that one begins “to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view.” Among the most painful emotions that confronting history may prompt are the guilt and shame that may arise when history raises difficult questions about one’s own potential involvement in sustaining—or possibly even producing—a historical wrong. To avoid such emotions, people may attempt what I call the refusal of history—a distinctive variety of the phenomenon that Aquinas described as “affected ignorance,” by which he meant choosing not to know what we can and should know. Some refusals of history mainly involve suppressing or erasing evidence. Thus, in the Spring of 2022, the Florida State Legislature passed a bill prohibiting schools and workplaces from teaching material that is likely to cause students or employees to feel guilt or shame about collective actions of their race or sex. In other cases, those who refuse history seek to substitute an invented history for the real one. Efforts to rewrite the history of the atrocities committed in 1937 by Japanese forces in Nanjing, China, provide distressing examples. But some of the most dangerous cases of refusing history emanate from an Orwellian intermingling of erasure and invention, such as we find in the “Lost Cause” narrative of America’s Civil War, the revisionist history of the Holocaust that was promoted by prominent German historians in the 1980s, and the large-scale falsification of textbooks recounting the actions of Imperial Japan in World War II.

To be sure, it is sometimes defensible, and even morally desirable, to offer a partial account of an episode or era. Thus, we may properly seek to shield young children from traumatic details of history in order to provide a context in which they can feel “safe” being intellectually curious about the world. However, if we want them to become robustly responsible moral agents and citizens, we must enlarge and deepen their historical knowledge as they mature. This requires engaging them in serious and sometimes discomfiting reflection on the content and consequences of difficult historical truths.

Navigating the Boundary Between Truth and Trauma

Most of us will concede that to teach history responsibly, especially to young children, we must sometimes try to separate morally necessary confrontations with historical truth from morally unnecessary exposure to potentially traumatizing details. Yet the complex relationship between difficult historical truth and potentially traumatizing historical detail raises two important questions. First, is it ever possible to fully separate the two? Second, if we cannot achieve genuine separation, can we effectively mitigate the effects of the permeable boundary between truth and trauma?

Telling the truth about one’s direct experience of brutality and evil can take a terrible psychological toll.

One way to address the question is to consider post-conflict, peace building efforts that have relied on truth telling in the hope of promoting forgiveness and social reconciliation. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, truth-and-reconciliation projects were assumed to have the additional benefit of promoting psychological healing for those who served as witnesses. But empirical research has challenged this assumption. In a study of the Rwandan gacaca tribunals created after the 1994 genocide, Karen Brounéus showed that five years after the tribunals began, people who had participated as witnesses often suffered from higher levels of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than those who had not. Even controlling for such factors as the length of exposure to the original harms, there was no evidence that testifying about the experience of human brutality either prevented depression or promoted psychological healing. The researchers who conducted this study did not take their findings to cast doubt on the value of truth-telling tribunals. Indeed, they urged that having a reliable archive of the atrocities committed in Rwanda would be an essential bulwark against efforts to erase history or to create fictitious accounts of what transpired. But the fact remains: telling the truth about one’s direct experience of brutality and evil can take a terrible psychological toll. Remedying that damage must, therefore, rely on methods other than truth telling itself.

It can also be difficult to separate brutality itself from traumatizing detail in vicarious encounters with it. When such encounters are not carefully contextualized and framed, they pose especially serious psychological risks to children. Susan Sontag offers an instructive example in a passage from her book On Photography (1973) describing her unexpected encounter, in a bookstore, with photographs from Bergen-Belsen and Dachau:

Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was 12) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about.

What Sontag experienced was a traumatic psychological rupture, a radical divide between her understanding of the world before and after viewing the photographs. Her account bears a striking resemblance to experiences of rupture described in literature on PTSD—though, of course, many of those experiences are accompanied by significant physical trauma.

Further, even adults can be traumatized by historical evidence of brutality and evil, as is confirmed by the reaction of New York Times columnist Brent Staples to the infamous “Without Sanctuary” exhibition of lynching photography that was shown at the New-York Historical Society in 2000. Staples vehemently objected to the exhibition, which consisted of more than seventy photographs taken between 1880 and 1961:

Like … Sontag in that bookstore, I reached my “limit” quickly and left the room. I returned briefly to take some notes and was on my way, never to return. There is an unbearable measure of horror here that I have no interest in learning to endure.

Staples noted that the anti-lynching activist Ida Wells-Barnett had always made sparing use of any images of lynching, understanding that they could often be “a form of brutality in themselves.” Staples was especially troubled by the failure of the “Without Sanctuary” exhibition to frame its photos in a manner that might stimulate a “thoughtful meditation” on the nature of racial evil. The collector who originally assembled the images conceded the point, acknowledging that the exhibition simply left white visitors feeling “guilty and reticent,” and Black visitors feeling horrified and angry.

For people in the 3.5 percent of the population with genuine PTSD, trigger warnings may actually increase anxiety by encouraging them to believe that susceptibility to disabling trauma is an inescapable element of their identities. 

Yet these unsettling encounters yield three valuable lessons about how to lessen the likelihood of lingering trauma as an effect of confronting difficult historical truths. First, evidence of brutality and evil should be framed by descriptions that carefully contextualize the depicted events and promote nuanced consideration of their historical importance. Second, those who encourage us to consider the evidence should provide substantive opportunities to discuss any distress it produces and to consider why—despite such distress—we have a moral duty not to avert our gaze entirely. But third, as far as possible, vicarious encounters with discomfiting evidence should be preceded by intelligent “content warnings” to prevent the kind of shock and mystification that the young Sontag experienced viewing photographs of Holocaust victims.

A content warning is not the same thing as a “trigger warning.” Advocates of trigger warnings originally focused on depictions of sexual assault, concerned that such depictions might “trigger” disabling memories in survivors, as well as panic, anxiety, and fear. But over time, demands for trigger warnings extended well beyond this initial concern. On one American campus, a controversial but unsuccessful proposal would have required trigger warnings for any course material “expressing racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” Yet even independent of concerns about the excesses of so-called “cancel culture,” an increasing body of data shows that trigger warnings do not actually work. That is, trigger warnings neither decrease nor alleviate emotional distress as their defenders have claimed. In a 2021 article, “The Data is in—Trigger Warnings Don’t Work,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder cite compelling evidence that for people in the 3.5 percent of the population with genuine PTSD, trigger warnings may actually increase anxiety by encouraging them to believe that susceptibility to disabling trauma is an inescapable element of their identities. Still further, reliable clinical data has long suggested that carefully controlled “exposure therapy” is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD.

For the 96.5 percent of the population not suffering from PTSD, demands for trigger warnings also obscure two important facts. First, vicarious encounters with the truth about brutality and evil can sometimes be critical to understanding contemporary concerns about justice. How, for example, can students of human rights understand the efforts of activists to prevent and redress violence against marginalized groups unless they have some sense of what that violence involved? Second, and equally important, encountering evidence of the truth about brutality and evil should cause distress. People who are not troubled by the brutality of lynching, the evil of the Holocaust, or the horrors of war should genuinely concern us. Some of them can be assumed to show signs of a dangerous “compassion fatigue.” Moreover, as Khalid and Snyder contend, some may actually be sociopaths.

Of course, the boundary between truth and trauma is especially permeable when vicarious encounters involve visual imagery—especially photography. Both Sontag and Staples argue that photography is an especially unwieldy vehicle for provoking encounters with history. Yet visual imagery often plays a central role in efforts to deepen young people’s engagement with history. Indeed, it may be difficult for children to come to terms with history at all unless verbal accounts are supplemented by visual imagery. This means that responsible educators must take special care to prevent or mitigate trauma when children confront difficult truths. Teachers must provide appropriate content warnings, developmentally appropriate contextualization and framing, and substantive opportunities for children to express discomfort, even while learning that discomfort can be a catalyst for an epistemically comprehensive and morally constructive understanding of history.

Transcending the Pain and Terror of History

At this point, some critics will object that, given the difficulty of separating traumatizing details from difficult historical truths, we should not include any such truths in a curriculum for pre-adolescent students. There are four good reasons to resist this conclusion. First, children become aware of disturbing facts far earlier than many of us—especially parents—want to acknowledge. This is especially true of the attitudes, practices, and institutions associated with race and ethnicity, and with corresponding concerns about social injustice. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (2020) strongly suggests that most children start to become aware of the social realities of race in infancy—far earlier than the age of five, at which many deem it appropriate to start conversations about racial attitudes and beliefs.

Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

Jerome Bruner (1977)

Second, while it is tempting to accept the still influential assumption that children go through discrete developmental stages, a great deal of recent data suggest that children’s development is more continuous than stage-like. As the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham contends, it may be difficult to defend the idea that some kinds of historical material can be deemed “inherently developmentally appropriate” for children at a particular age. Third, if we postpone serious engagement with history for too long, we leave too much time for students to acquire dangerous confusions, misinformation, and myths. As Natalie Wexler argues in “Misguided Attacks Shouldn’t Derail Tennessee’s Curriculum,” it is harder to counter entrenched beliefs than to simply teach the truth, or at least an important part of the truth, in the first place. We may be skeptical of psychologist Jerome Bruner’s suggestion, in The Process of Education (1960), that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” But many educators (and many parents) have too little confidence in students’ ability to handle difficult historical facts and too little willingness to frame those facts in an intellectually honest way. This not only shortchanges students but endangers the societies that must eventually contend with them as poorly informed and civically disengaged citizens.

Fourth, even high-school students can be subject to intense emotions as the result of encounters with vivid depictions of disturbing truths. Indeed, sometimes their emotions are just as intense—or more so—than what we encounter in very young children. In November of 2021, Washington Post columnist Christine Emba recalled the experience of reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in her Virginia high-school English class. Emba acknowledged that Beloved is “an intense, at times frightening book” that sometimes kept her up at night. She reminded us that the novel contains depictions of sex, violence, and bestiality—and most importantly, that it “centers on the story of a mother who kills her own child, desperate to ensure the infant won’t have to experience the horrors of slavery as she did.” Emba also admitted that she found the novel “visceral, and haunting, and deeply sad.” Yet she nonetheless insisted that reading Beloved taught her “the power of literature” and “how words could transmit deep emotion,” and plausibly speculated that what Beloved’s critics really fear is not its effects on the 17- and 18-year-olds in Virginia high schools but that “examining our racial history, engaging in empathy for the enslaved and their descendants, might occasion a bit of guilt, a bit of knowledge that our national mythology (and its embedded racial hierarchy) is false, and a bit of responsibility to address racial inequality.”

In the introduction to her essays and speeches collected in The Source of Self-Regard, Morrison eloquently defended the power of literature to “translate … trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.” This stance echoes the arguments that most high-school literature teachers (including my own daughter’s teachers) offer for exposing high-school seniors to the terrors and traumas experienced by the enslaved people in Beloved. Yet teachers’ plausible confidence in the transformative power of literature has not stopped school districts across America from rejecting several of Morrison’s novels as too terrifying for high school students to read. The 2020 gubernatorial race in Virginia made skepticism about Morrison’s stance into a dangerously influential force in a pivotal political contest.

Yet some of the most vigorous challenges to the teaching of difficult truths have centered on books intended for the very young. Several challenges target a pair of books about Ruby Bridges, who at the age of six, found herself at the center of New Orleans’ 1961 effort at school integration, eventually becoming the subject of Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting The Problem We All Live With (1964). One of the targeted books, intended for the average 6- to 7-year-old reader, is entitled Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story, and was written in 2003 by Ruby Bridges herself, who is now in her 60s. The other commonly targeted book, for more confident readers, is The Story of Ruby Bridges (2010), by child psychiatrist Robert Coles. To disentangle the forces at work in this controversy, we should begin by recalling some critical details of 6-year-old Ruby’s experience. Each day for an entire school year, Ruby walked into the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, accompanied by U.S. marshals, to a chorus of hate-filled screams from white protesters. The protesters didn’t just carry signs condemning school integration; they yelled vicious racial epithets and threatened Ruby with lynching and death. For that year, she and the lone instructor who was willing to teach an African American child on school grounds were the only people in the building beside the marshals.

The Moms for Liberty allege that teachers are told to encourage students to describe protesters with language that makes them out to be an “angry,” “scary,” and “vicious” mob. But isn’t that exactly what they were?

Despite these harrowing details, Ruby Bridges Goes to School is written in what one commentator appropriately describes as “anodyne” language that entirely avoids shocking its readers. Three excerpts from the book support this assessment. The first excerpt consists of five simple declarative statements:

Some people did not want a black child to go to the white school. They stood near the school. They yelled at me to go away. Parents took their children out of the school. I was alone with my teacher Mrs. Henry.

 A second excerpt describes Ruby’s reactions to her teacher and the subjects they covered:

I loved Mrs. Henry. And Mrs. Henry loved me. I was a very good student. I learned math. I learned how to read. But I wished the children would come back.

The third excerpt offers a surprisingly upbeat resolution. Months and months passed:

Then one day, children began to come back to school. At last, I had friends to play with! I was very happy!

Given this anodyne language, it is jarring to read an op-ed by a U.S. Senator from Tennessee who describes the book as the source of extreme “mental and emotional trauma” and exhorts readers to ensure that such material cannot “worm its way into every classroom in America.” But the real target of the objections, as revealed in a complaint filed by a group called “Tennessee Moms for Liberty” (and eventually rejected by the Tennessee Board of Education) is a school-district manual about how to frame the book. This complaint alleges, for instance, that the manual directs teachers to focus on the book’s disturbing “racist images,”  which consist mainly of two photographs, one showing a child with a poster declaring that he doesn’t want to attend school with “negroes,” a second showing a group of adolescents and adults with placards declaring support for segregation. The Moms for Liberty allege, further, that teachers are told to encourage students to describe protesters with language that makes them out to be an “angry,” “scary,” and “vicious” mob. But isn’t that exactly what they were? Yet the most important charge, and the one that is now getting political traction, is that teachers are encouraged to make white children feel “ashamed” of who they are. The cultural and political power of this objection should not be ignored.

It seems highly unlikely that very many elementary school teachers are deliberately trying to shame 6- and 7-year-old students for the evils of slavery and segregation. Yet it is almost inevitable that many students—whatever their ethnic or racial affiliation—will feel distressed by Ruby’s experience. It is also quite likely that many children who are not Black may feel embarrassed and possibly ashamed at the thought that they could have been a part—or possibly still are a part—of practices to which Ruby was subjected. Shame is an especially durable emotion, which even adults are not easily relieved of. Further, while shame can certainly be a catalyst for constructive moral action—as thinkers from Aristotle to Martin Luther King understood—unrelenting feelings of shame can be destructive. Unrelenting shame can be especially destructive when accompanied by fear that one will be humiliated if the reasons for one’s shame become publicly known.

To prevent the unproductive spiraling of shame in the classroom, some educators—though, in my view, still too few—follow the advice of education consultant Tim Wise, who urges that stories like Ruby Bridges’ should be accompanied by lessons giving substantive attention to people, especially white people, who tried to help. Indeed, the term “anti-racist” seems to have first gained currency in academic circles when white American historian Herbert Aptheker began to publish articles in the 1980s, and then a book in 1993, about the centuries-long history of white Americans who stood up against the brutality and violence of slavery and segregation. School curricula could profitably draw on that history alongside stories of the cruelty, brutality, and violence.

When teachers want students to learn arithmetic, they do not say that they are teaching them to be “anti-innumeracy.” Why, then, when they want students to appreciate the value of a world in which every human being is treated justly, should they say that they are teaching students to be “anti-racist”?

Some critics in evangelical communities have insisted that Ruby Bridges Goes to School would be more acceptable if it had more of a focus on “redemption.” This is a familiar trope in challenges to the straw man now labelled “critical race theory,” especially in evangelical Christian communities. Yet many teachers already encourage their stronger readers to explore Robert Coles’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges, which explicitly discusses the forgiveness that Ruby learned from her parents—the forgiveness that she now credits with helping her get through that challenging year. Moreover, as an adult, Ms. Bridges has been a tireless proponent of forgiveness in her visits to schools and colleges. In her recent short memoir, Ruby Bridges: This is Your Time, she urges readers to approach others with “a heart full of grace.” Hence, to deny children access to Ruby Bridges’ story, and the morally rich and unfailingly compassionate way in which she frames her story, is to deny them access to the very moral understanding that some critics claim to value. Of course, too many of the critics are interested not in teaching moral understanding but in refusing history and in retailing a xenophobic defensiveness and racial resentment that allows them to construct themselves as victims of supposedly relentless “anti-white shaming.” Regrettably, the xenophobes and refusers of history are convincing an increasing number of their fellow citizens that they too are “victims” of such shaming.

How should we respond to these efforts to deprive students of epistemically and morally critical perspectives on history? I urge that school districts show that they are asking students to engage with difficult truths in service of constructive pedagogical goals. And I have come to the possibly unpopular conclusion that they cannot demonstrate this while framing their efforts as a project of “anti-racism.” For where else in the curriculum do teachers tell students what they are against rather than what they are for and what they hope to achieve? When teachers want students to learn to read, and to appreciate the value of a life in which reading is a central component, they do not say that they are teaching them to be “anti-illiteracy.” When they want students to learn the importance of supporting their ideas and convictions by means of rational argument, they do not say that they are teaching them to be “anti-irrationality.” When they want students to learn arithmetic, and then sophisticated mathematics, they do not say that they are teaching them to be “anti-innumeracy.” Why, then, when they want students to appreciate the value of a world in which every human being is treated justly, should they say that they are teaching students to be “anti-racist”?  

Treating people justly, as I argue in Making Space for Justice, involves showing them “humane regard”: a combination of robust respect for their autonomy as rational agents and compassionate concern for their capacity to suffer. Being against racism is obviously a central part of what any such project entails. But being against racism has never been the whole of justice, even in relation to people who have historically been targets of racism. Surely, what we should promote is a world in which people can choose and act without unwarranted interference, coercion, or violence on the basis of morally arbitrary characteristics, and in which they can live relatively free from unnecessary pain and suffering. Justice requires that our social and political institutions, as well as the actions of individuals, embody humane regard in the broadest sense. Social justice is a matter of providing robust respect and compassionate concern to human beings simply as their due..

Encouraging widespread reflection on significant failures of humane regard—from discrimination on the basis of categories such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, and religion—is an important step in moving us closer to a world that realizes humane regard. This is why high-school literature teachers can be justified in expecting sensitive adolescents to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, despite the terror and sorrow that it recounts. This is also why elementary-school teachers can be justified in expecting first-graders to read about the fear and loneliness endured by 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, even if it initially makes them sad and anxious—and even if it leads them to ask uncomfortable questions of influential adults in their lives. Vicarious confrontations with prejudice, cruelty, and brutality are sometimes the most effective vehicle for reflecting on the values that support democratic cooperation and equal democratic citizenship. We should defend curricula that sometimes require such confrontations, because they engage students in a historically extended conversation about the value of treating everyone with robust respect and compassionate concern.

But when educators understand their mission as teaching “anti-racism,” even the most well-intentioned can be tempted to give short shrift to the ideals by reference to which we can even assert grounds for anti-racist grievance, and through which we might envision a substantively just alternative. In this vein, it has become commonplace in defenses of the anti-racism approach to object that current understandings of Martin Luther King’s thought too often downplay the depth of his righteous indignation at racism. Yet like many African American political thinkers, King never believed that righteous indignation at racism, or even the rightful insistence on its shamefulness, could be the ultimate goal of social activism:

[A] boycott is not an end within itself; it is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority. But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. … It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.

King thus reminds us that the goal of protesting injustice should be to create conditions in which everyone can flourish. He was obviously opposed to racism. But anyone who has ever read King’s pivotal “Beyond Vietnam” speech (1986) will know that he sought a “true revolution of values” through which we could eliminate persistent obstacles to creating a flourishing life for people of all colors and nationalities.

There may be a glimmer of hope: the rigors of pandemic social distancing and the spectacle of inhumane disregard epitomized by the murder of George Floyd may be encouraging a cultural resurgence of empathy.

It is also important to recall that human actions and practices are often overdetermined by available motives, and that sometimes resistance to narratives of suffering is not only—or even mostly—about race. Sometimes this resistance mainly, or at least partly, expresses a dangerous but now culturally widespread lack of empathy. In the War for Kindness (2020), psychologist and neuroscientist Jamil Zaki discusses research showing a documentable decline in empathy over the last 50 years. One study suggests that the average person in 2009 was less empathic than 75 percent of people in 1979. This decline in empathy has been accompanied by a tendency to “normalize” cruelty and brutality. In a terrifying example from the 2012 presidential election cycle, a large group of Americans attending a televised “town hall” openly laughed at the idea that someone might die if turned away from an emergency room for lack of health insurance. As Albert Camus observed in his powerful 1946 lecture, “The Crisis of Man,” the human species confronted a whole new array of moral dangers in the aftermath of World War II. There is a human crisis, Camus argued, when “the death or torture of a human being can in our world be examined with a feeling of indifference, or friendly interest, or experimentation, or mere passivity.”  

Yet there may be a glimmer of hope: the rigors of pandemic social distancing and the spectacle of inhumane disregard epitomized by the murder of George Floyd may be encouraging a cultural resurgence of empathy, at least in some quarters. Given that possibility, it is more urgent than ever that educators at every level constructively defend the project of asking students to study painful history. As Nussbaum would urge, education should help students learn to ask what it is like to walk in another’s shoes, and to engage in moral reflection about traveling the roads the other must walk. A comprehensive understanding of history is critical to these projects.

Finding a Middle Path Between Idealization and Cancellation

But before we can consider the substantive moral implications of any historical account, we must acknowledge, as the 20th century Dutch historian Pieter Geyl argued, that history is fundamentally “an argument without end.” By this he meant that history is unavoidably “perspectival”: any historian can see the past “only from a point of view” and it is always possible to challenge the accuracy and comprehensiveness of that point of view. But Geyl understood that the exercise of critically examining any given historical interpretation will always enrich its critics’ historical understanding: even when there is little or no truth in an account, trying to identify its strengths and weaknesses can have genuine epistemic value. We should therefore resist the temptation to shy away from disagreements about history. Careful scrutiny of conflicting historical accounts can be an especially effective means of pursuing our moral interest in history.

We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion.

Hannah Arendt

One barrier to constructive discussions of this kind is a tendency to assume that when we reflect on history, we must always choose between unreflective idealization of the past and unforgiving deprecation of it. Much of the time, our moral interest in history is best served by seeking a middle path between these extremes. To be sure, there will not always be a defensible middle path, as when we reflect on the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, the brutality committed by King Leopold of Belgium, the horrors of the Holocaust, or the terrors enacted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In these contexts, there is no good reason to resist unmitigated condemnation. But for figures like Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and even Martin Luther King, there is good reason to consider the possibility of condemning their moral failings without jettisoning the legacy of those of their actions that had morally praiseworthy consequences.

We cannot find this evaluative middle ground—wherever it is appropriate—unless we reject the unreflective idealization that results when it is assumed that we must judge the wrongs of the past by reference to standards allegedly “of the time,” even as we praise the good by reference to contemporary standards. As Hannah Arendt argued in the Preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism (1976), “We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion.” Along with Camus and Baldwin, Arendt recognizes that to be human is to be a being who must claim a place in histories that may contain the worst, as well as the best, of human action and organization.

Yet we must also reject the unforgiving deprecation of the past that assumes that the stain of past wrongs can never be fully erased. This produces an implacable pessimism, and often a dangerous political quietism, about citizens’ capacities to constructively transcend the consequences of their nation’s past. Camus was correct to argue that we cannot claim “to escape from history, for we are in history.” But he understood that “without turning away from history,” we must find a way to “no longer be enslaved by it.” Indeed, we properly pursue our moral interest in history only when concern about present implications of a morally problematic past does not extinguish hope that we can create a better future.

Works Cited

Aptheker, Herbert, Anti-Racism in U.S. History: The First Two Hundred Years (Westport CT, 1993).

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando: Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, 1976).

Baldwin, James. Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998).

Bridges, Ruby. Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story (New York: Scholastic Cartwheel Books, 2003).

Karen Brounéus. “The Trauma of Truth Telling: Effects of Witnessing in the Rwandan Gacaca Courts on Psychological Health,” 54 The Journal of Conflict Resolution 408-437 (2010).

Bruner, Jerome S. The Process of Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977)

Camus, Albert. Speaking Out: Lectures and Speeches 1937-1958. (New York: Vintage International, 2021).

Coles, Robert, and George Ford. The Story of Ruby Bridges (New York: Scholastic Paperbacks, 2010).

Geyl, Pieter. Napoleon: For and Against, trans. Olive Renier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949).

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Moody-Adams, Michele. “Culture, Responsibility, and Affected Ignorance,” 104 Ethics 91-309 (1994) . 

——Making Space for Justice: Social Movements, Collective Imagination, and Political Hope (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022).

Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Knopf, 2019).

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Zaki, Jamil. The War For Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World (New York: Crown, 2020).


Michele Moody-Adams is Joseph Straus Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory at Columbia University and author most recently of Making Space for Justice: Social Movements, Collective Imagination, and Political Hope.