uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Friday, July 15, 2011

How Studying History Can Undercut Bullying

On Thursday, I tweeted a link to the news that California had passed an LBGT history requirement for its public schools with a countdown to the inevitable right-wing outrage that would ensue. Sure enough, it came, and where else would one expect it than on Fox News?

The above video shows Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council up against Mitchell Gold of Faith in America. Note that Fox chose not to interview actual historians about this measure but rather two political pundits, which is of course in keeping with the network’s aim of “fair and balanced” reporting, truth notwithstanding. To Fox, everything can be summed up by interviewing two (and usually only two) opposing political voices on a given issue, and usually giving credence to one of them in the process.

But I digress. The revealing moments of the interview were these: on the one hand, Gold mentions that the teaching of LGBT history will be encouraging to LGBT youth who are struggling with their identities and probably dealing with bullying to boot. Sprigg’s first counterargument is that this is not the point of history – to build up students’ self-esteem. He then migrates to an objection over calling historical figures like Alexander the Great and Michelangelo “gay” (which we’ll get to in a minute), before ultimately asserting that this sort of education will be offensive to religious conservatives who think homosexuality is wrong (the impetus of his opposition from the beginning, most obviously).

But regardless of whether it’s appropriate or not to pass curricula with the aim of building up students’ self-esteem and stemming bullying, any good approach to history will do just this.

Bullying is by and large provoked by the targeted student’s nonconformity, or his/her perceived nonconformity. Conformity is, of course, always dependent on a given culture’s current attitudes and ideologies, and those attitudes and ideologies change, even within a given culture, over time. So a good study of history often mitigates and frustrates attempts at enforced conformity because it illustrates how dominant ways of thinking have changed. When a mom posted a blog post last year defending her decision to let her son dress as Daphne from Scooby-Doo for Halloween, the outrage across the country was palpable from those accusing her of creating “gender confusion.” Of course, if putting on tights, a wig, and makeup makes one a woman and less than a man, the men of George Washington’s time might have something to say about that.

And that appeared to be Gold’s point about Alexander the Great and Michelangelo – sexuality in premodern times, most especially in ancient times, was differently conceived than it is today, and same-sex relations were often normalized, albeit in different ways than they are today. Sprigg is correct that the binary of homosexual/heterosexual is a modern invention and that speaking of Alexander in terms of “gay” or “straight” is problematic. But he then goes on to fret that teaching students that same-sex relations have been around for time immemorial, even among some of history’s “greats” (if we want to think of them in those terms), would be offensive to religious conservatives who denounce the practice. But wait – denounce what practice? If the paradigm of gay/straight is a modern one, to what were ancient Christians objecting? The novelty of our modern notions of sexuality equally problematizes the very Bible passages Sprigg and others reference when condemning homosexuality.

The fact is, the more historical knowledge one has, the more one sees dominant ideology – the preservation of which is the social conservative’s overarching goal – as a temporary, fluctuating thing. Perhaps that’s why social conservatives are so often at odds with historical scholarship, which charts the messy process of change and undercuts the tidy, simplistic narrative that conservatives often posit in its place.

Notions of gender and sexuality change. Exposed to this via the teaching of history, it’s possible the bully in the classroom will realize that the presumptions upon which he is terrorizing a fellow student are fluid and unstable, and the targeted student will feel emboldened and far less alone. Of course, as any teacher knows, it's equally possible it will go into one ear and out the other.

Whether mitigating bullying and emboldening the marginalized should be the ultimate aim of history is perhaps up for debate, but it is often the inevitable side effect, nonetheless. The more one studies history, the more one realizes that the "common sense" used to cudgel those who differ from them is not so common after all.

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