Random teaching thought

February 09, 2004

Class went well, at least I liked it.

We did intellectual history: enlightenment thinkers and some of their ideas. On Wednesday we get to do the Freddy and Maria show - enlightened monarchs in Eastern Europe.

I am putting the full writeup on my teaching blog, not here. I just wanted to use this forum to comment that my notion of starting by explaining why I love the Englightenment and why I hate the Enlightenment seemed to work well as both an overview of the movement and a chance to suggest the relationship between a historian, moral judgement, and the events of the past. I argued that a historian wears two hats: we seek to understand the past and recapture the choices and decisions that people in the past made, and yet as human being we also judge the people in the past, just as we judge everyone around us. The trick is to make those judgements not directly by our criteria but rather on the standard of the best practices available at the time.

Thus while I get very frustrated at the way that many enlightenment thinkers made up stories about their past, and I judged them for it using Franklin's satire: "What a wonderful thing it is to be a reasonable creature, for we may find a reason for anything we wish to do" I also placed those stories within the context of reaction to the Counter-Reformation and within the context of a generation of thinkers misled by the implications of their guiding metaphor. The enlightenment was about light, shedding the light of reason into the dark corners of tradition and superstition. Their metaphors, their language, their examples all hinged on the image of bringing light into dark places. But, if you want to change the world and you have a candle, you need to locate yourself within a dark room and not outdoors at noon. In other words, in order for their metaphor to tell an attractive story about their project, then all that came before them had to be wrong, ignorant, or stupid. And so, they found it easy to tell and easier to believe stories that made the past appear to be stupid - the notion that everyone before Columbus thought the earth was flat was an enlightenment tall tale, as is the very concept of the medeival period as the "dark ages."

Oddly enough, the notion that the people who came before were stupid and ignorant, while we bring reason, light and knowledge to improve on their understanding, is a notion that continues to be popular at the present. It may well be the most lasting legacy of the enlightenment.

And from here, I think I can go back to the writeup that the kids will see.

Posted by Red Ted at February 9, 2004 09:12 AM | TrackBack