I had not intended to make this last week the week of criticizing historians, but I suppose it is turning out that way. As people know, many leading universities, such as MIT and Yale, have made many courses available on line for free. This is a great service. But this does not merely spread knowledge, it also opens a window to the educational bias that is going on in elite college classrooms.
I have been listening to a course given by Yale Historian David Blight entitled The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877. I was interested in the course because I am writing an article this summer involving Reconstruction. So I have listened to the second half of the course.
I would strongly recommend the course based on the content of the history taught as well as the engaging style of lecture. Blight also does a good job of debunking the Dunning school of Reconstruction History, which somehow I was taught as a lad in New York City of all places.
Despite these virtues, Blight’s course has a serious deficiency: his regular expressions of political prejudice. I would say every other lecture has a statement that involves a snide wisecrack attacking modern conservatives or Republicans. These statements have nothing to do with the course. The most recent example involves a crack about how Ronald Reagan is these days generally rated in the top 5 of presidents in American history, but Blight can think of no reason for this, except perhaps that there is an airport name for Reagan.
Now, one might think that these remarks are relatively harmless. But I can tell you as a student in many classrooms with professors who made such remarks, they are not. Imagine for a second that Blight inserted negative statements about blacks or gays in his lectures. I am sure it would be obvious to Blight that this would be seriously inappropriate in part because of the way it would marginalize the black or gay students in the audience as well as leading the other students to view the black or gay students more negatively. It would be a serious misuse of the Professor’s authority in a way that has no connection with the subject matter of the course. Instead, it would be a self indulgent expression of the professor’s prejudices.
The same is true of Blight’s snide comments about conservatives. I am not equating negative statements about black or gay students with statements about conservatives. The two categories differ in significant ways, but there are some important similarities. Blight’s authority is being used to diminish and attack the political positions of conservative students, without any good reason. They are made to feel stupid and morally deficient. And hopefully the cure for both types of inappropriate behavior is the same: consciousness raising. Blight should be confronted with the harm that his behavior is causing, lest the students in the class become professors and reproduce the same type of inappropriateness.
When I was a Yale Law student, this type of snideness occurred in the classrooms, although, as I remember it, it was more the expression of students who behaved badly and the misdeeds of the professors were their failure to make clear that such statements were inappropriate. There were no conservatives or libertarians on the faculty in those days. I remember the breaths of fresh air that were Richard Epstein’s visits to the law school, especially in my first two years. Since I knew so little law and virtually everyone on the faculty seemed liberal, it was easy to believe that no one smart could believe the things I did. But here was a strong libertarian who was obviously as smart as the Yale Law professors were.
I hope that Blight will correct this aspect of his course. In other respects, the course is first rate. But it could be blemish free.