So, recently a teacher asked a relatively routine question of history, and was fired for it.
FIRE talks about it here.
It's worth saying, thinking about our personal opinions isn't actually history per se. But if you want history to do work for you, it's important to think about trade-offs, to think about what you value. If you want to learn from history, you've got to ask after the consequences of something. Knowing what we know now, was it a good idea? How can we build wisdom from that?
Of course, the people saying he committed a crime and should be fired, they are students. Students who maybe see the classroom differently than I do. Or see his exercise as offering no wisdom. I disagree.
Some said, nothing can possibly justify slavery. This is true. And nothing can possibly justify letting people die of famine. Nothing could possibly justify letting innocent people be hurt. And nothing could justify hurting them.
And yet, I find myself ill-equipped by those insights. How do I decide what to do? I'm not going to enslave someone. I'm not going to hurt them. Is that the only wisdom history offers us? That all action, even today, risks death, and injustice, so all action is unjustified and abhorrent? Terrible and horrific crimes are not so well banished from the world that we should feel comfortable being paralyzed by them. Saddam Hussein was a bad man. ISIS is worse. But to give immunity to dictators to avoid chaos is an acceptance of horrific acts. Is it justified? Am I obligated to flog myself into paralysis, all options unjustified, no longer able to make a choice?
Can we no longer learn anything from history? History isn't over yet. We keep making more, and there's plenty of horrifying stories left to be told, and many of them will be unavoidable. Can we not distinguish between bad situations and less bad situations?
No, these students were flummoxed, I believe. They heard a difficult question, because the question asks them to take responsibility for a decision, if only in their minds. To face a trade-off where sacred values are weighed not just against secular ones, but against each other. Where an idol will be burned, no matter what. And they thought it was wisdom to reject the choice. To say, it's obvious, or to say they're not allowed to consider it. But that is the way of children. If you have principles, show me what you will sacrifice to keep them. I'm willing to sacrifice quite a lot. My ledger is busy with the costs I'd be willing to accept. That's the burden of responsibility.