Publication Date

March 1, 2017

How do we communicate with individuals across an ideological divide, rather than talking at or past each other? This question seems all the more pressing within the polarized rhetoric of contemporary politics. It is also one that we as educators, and specifically as historians, are uniquely placed to answer. The divisions that cut across society are often reflected in our classrooms, and every class provides an opportunity to address those divisions and experiment with ways of bridging them. I offer my own experiences as one possible approach.

One student, when called on for a comment, declared simply, "I am not a communist." Alvaro Castro Peña, “The People,” from World of Money. Used by permission.

When I started teaching a 19th-century European history survey course in my first job after graduate school, I included the Communist Manifesto on the syllabus, contextualizing Karl Marx’s theories in 19th-century struggles over unionization, worker representation, and European parliamentary politics. I do not consider it possible to teach a course on 19th-century Europe without discussing the work of Marx. This posed no problems at the university where I was trained, so I was surprised that a number of students at my new institution refused to engage with the material.

One student, when called on for a comment, declared simply, “I am not a communist.” I explained that the point of the exercise was to allow him to understand the texts and ideas that had appealed to a great number of 19th-­century industrial workers, and that his personal beliefs should not stand in the way of that. He seemed unmoved. Other students wanted to argue against Marx from a present-day perspective, using language and examples drawn from current events and employing polemical rhetoric that seemed inspired by popular media outlets. A significant portion of the large class participated in the discussion and grounded their comments in the readings and the historical period, but many other students stayed silent, and a few felt compelled to defend their personal beliefs, which they thought were threatened by the material at hand. One student’s comment on a course evaluation, for a class that spanned a range of topics from the French Revolution to the First World War, was simply “less Marx, more Adam Smith.”

There were any number of things that I could have done with that criticism, but I ultimately decided to embrace it. This did not mean abandoning my conviction, based on reading hundreds of books on European history, that Marx was essential for understanding 19th-­century Europe. But my course had no similar primary source reading for Adam Smith, in part because I prefer to assign complete books rather than excerpts, and Wealth of Nations is long. Even so, I decided to correct this imbalance, conscious of the fact that one does not have to read very far into Wealth of Nations to realize just how different it is from most depictions of it. Early in Book I, for example, Smith discusses the “natural price” of goods—one that provides sufficient profits to incentivize production, but no more. In other words, Smith believed that excessive profits disrupted and could even destroy markets.

But assigning such passages would not entirely engage the most skeptical students in dialogue, since they could raise questions about whether the excerpts I selected were representative of the larger work (especially when the passages contradicted expectations). I had success having students read an abridged version of Wealth of Nations, to get the sweep of the overall argument, if not all its details. Were I to teach 19th-century European history again, though, I would look to an even better solution for reading Smith, one that draws on a technique I developed after I stopped teaching that particular course. Taking advantage of digital tools to reinforce the importance of the classroom as a cooperative community of learners, that approach is crowdsourcing an analysis of the entire book.

Students who worked through Smith’s theories about markets seemed more willing to engage with the ideas of Marx.

Full-text versions of Wealth of Nations are freely available online, and the book’s 800-plus pages can be broken up into sections. Depending on the class size, each student may be assigned 20 to 40 pages. Students would report on their part of the reading to the class, in response to specific questions. I’ve employed this technique with other voluminous primary sources, such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, and The Diary of Samuel Pepys. I have found that students read the assigned passages thoroughly and carefully, taking seriously their responsibility to the larger group. Having students raise their hand if certain concepts appeared in their section would quickly establish what Smith’s argument is and is not. Some students already know that the phrase “invisible hand” appears just twice, but that fact will surprise many others. Based on my experience teaching with the abridged version of Wealth of Nations, most were unfamiliar with Smith’s critiques of markets or his arguments for state intervention in the economy.

It is especially interesting (and fun) in this sort of discussion to walk students through Book V’s long, complicated treatment of the division of labor. Smith argues that even though the division of labor has vastly increased the material wealth and physical safety of society, it has also hurt the large number of people who must engage in monotonous, repetitive work. Smith’s solution is for the state to take action, creating a system of universal education to counteract the detrimental effects of the division of labor. The welfare of society at large takes precedence over the market: some things must be done by the state to benefit the society because private individuals cannot possibly undertake them profitably. Engaging with these theories complicates the idea that the late 18th and early 19th century saw a polarized debate between free markets and state intervention. Students who worked through Smith in this way seemed far more willing to engage with the ideas of Marx later in the term.

This technique cannot be applied universally; for example, it should not be used to engage with individuals who are skeptical of the Holocaust as an established historical fact or who insist that slavery was a benign or even benevolent institution. Yet we would do well to think about the assumptions underlying many students’ beliefs and help them see how these assumptions have a history.

Once, at a conference, a hostile questioner asked what common ground I would hope to find with the ideas of the late Pastor Fred Phelps, whose vitriolic denunciations of LGBTQ people included enormous, offensive signs carried by his followers outside funerals of people with AIDS and even service members who had died fighting for a country Phelps found decadent. Even if he were alive, I said, Phelps would never be in my classroom, but I do teach students who share his underlying view that God actively intervenes in his creation, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Thinking about these students influenced the way I developed courses on 17th-century England. I immersed myself in the details of a world in which the vast majority of people assumed God’s active intervention in his creation and accepted it.

King Charles I, whom God ordained as rightful monarch, was executed for profoundly religious reasons, by one of the most deeply religious cohorts of political actors ever to control England. Still, the resulting crisis of governmental legitimacy in England led to Hobbes’s secular theories of government, from which Locke and other Enlightenment figures built their theories. And as Christopher Hill showed, intense Protestant belief sometimes led to arguments for the leveling of all social hierarchies, the abolition of private property, justifications for sex out of wedlock, and even rejection of the word of the Bible in favor of heart religion. Presenting this history allows deeply religious students to explore several fiercely contested issues on more neutral ground, considering and respecting alternative viewpoints even when they do not embrace them.

Finding areas of common ground with those whose beliefs differ from mine, taking their concerns seriously without compromising the experience and training that put me at the front of the classroom in the first place, prompted me to use a new range of historical examples and improved my ability to engage my students. Sometimes bad and even dangerous ideas need to be confronted and refuted in the classroom, and we should not shy away from doing this when necessary. But we should first ask if such situations might be opportunities to develop arguments that bridge previously disconnected viewpoints. The vast array of historical examples we might draw on makes this approach more accessible to us than to other educators, and by embracing it we may add an additional technique to help us break down dichotomies, foster critical thinking, and encourage responsible citizenship.

, associate professor of British history at Florida State University, is the author of Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (Univ. of California Press, 2009).

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

The American Historical Association welcomes comments in the discussion area below, at AHA Communities, and in letters to the editor. Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.