Month: November 2016

Trump’s Election, the Way History Works, and the Arc of the Moral Universe


One Thing after Another recently read Rebecca Onion’s piece in Slate where she responds to those who, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, have tried to console themselves by referring to history.

Onion responds first to the “school” of thought (if we may dignify it with that name) that claims the United States has survived disasters in the past and can therefore survive future disasters. Yet as Onion points out, such an argument forms a very weak syllogism: America experienced disasters in the past; these disasters did not destroy America; therefore, the disaster of Trump’s election will not destroy America. The problem is that America today is not the America of the past, and the dangers presented by a Trump presidency are not the same as those that confronted the United States on previous occasions. Onion’s argument calls to mind the phrase that the Securities and Exchange Commission compels all mutual funds to include in their brochures: past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Second, Onion takes on the notion that “history” is against Trump. This idea amounts to the claim that events move in a particular direction, and that a Trump presidency is some sort of doomed anachronism that will soon be inundated by an unstoppable progressive tide. Most commonly, this position is expressed with a simple, “It’s 2016!” as if to say that Trump, discrimination, inequality or some other undesirable development is, at the very least, out of joint with our times or, at most, plainly impossible. Others make essentially the same case when they refer to Theodore Parker’s claim (made famous when Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased it in an article and later at a baccalaureate sermon at Wesleyan University): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yes, so the argument goes, Trump has won for now, but the future, which becomes more just as time goes on, is against him. Onion points out, however (and quite rightly), that history has no trajectory of its own that is free from our choices or actions. In other words, following David Sessions, she writes, “we have control over any moral arc that exists,” and “the shape and flavor of the future is in our hands.”

One Thing after Another likes Onion’s essays very much because she relates history to current events in ways that anybody can understand. In this particular case, she is correct so far as she goes. However, she and Sessions make the same mistake that everybody else on Facebook has made when quoting Parker; they have removed his observation about the moral arc of the universe from the context of the sermon in which it was delivered and thus distorted the meaning of his words. Leaving out as they do how and why the arc of the universe bends toward justice, they make Parker’s famous sentence seem, to use Onion’s words, “a big theory of how history happens.” Understood this way, Parker’s statement seems to imply that if we wait long enough, justice will somehow arrive of its own accord. Such was not at all Parker’s message when he wrote “Of Justice and Conscience” in 1852 (which is where his famous statement about the arc of the moral universe appears). As we try to convey his meaning precisely, it makes sense that we use his own words (and refer to  “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws” where he developed his ideas about justice and conscience).

A prominent Unitarian minister who was heavily influenced by the Transcendentalists, Parker (1810-1860) (whose portrait is above) preached in Boston for most of his career. Parker argued there was a natural law that expressed itself, among other ways, as the law of Morals. This law of Morals was immutable, universal, and absolutely right. When one acted according to this law, one fulfilled the moral purpose of his existence and carried out justice. According to Parker, God gave all of us a “Conscience” by which to apprehend this law. The conscience, of course, was imperfect, but it was “adequate to the purpose God meant for it.” If one cultivated one’s conscience, he or she could come to internalize the law and love it. Parker set a high store on the conscience, for it showed the way to “Duty” which was nothing more than obedience to God’s will. Parker stressed that duty trumped everything, including “Business,” which consisted of the obligations laid upon us in our roles as citizens or workers. In making this argument, Parker took especial pains to show how notions of duty then pointed in an abolitionist direction—people ought to follow their duty as dictated by their conscience, disobey man-made laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and free their fellow humans from slavery.

Because of their consciences, Parker asserted, people naturally inclined toward justice. Unfortunately, the world did not always reflect this inclination. In the pursuit of their own self-interest, the wealthy and powerful, whether they be “crafty aristocracies” or “monopolists,” had shunned “moral culture” and “scorned justice.” Partially for this reason, government had become “an organization of selfishness” that seemed “to foster the strong at the expense of the week” and “protect the capitalist and tax the laborer.” In such a world, it should come as no surprise that the unjust did not always appear to receive their due punishment.

It is in this context of a world that only poorly reflected divine justice that Parker argued:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged for long.

Why? Because human nature, which yearned for justice as conceived by the conscience, would not tolerate evil forever. The important point is that people would have to take action to bend that arc toward justice. As Parker put it, “In human affairs the justice of God must work by human means.” “You and I can help forward that work,” he told his audience, to “prepare the way for the republic of righteousness.”

And so, in his way, Parker did agree with Onion and Sessions. We are responsible for the arc. We determine how, when, and whether it approaches, asymptotically, the law of Morals. This vision of the world is liberating—we are in charge—but it lays a great obligation upon us as well. Of course, this view of matters raises the question of whether we possess a conscience that truly can recognize justice. The next several years might give us an opportunity to find out.

NOTE: One Thing after Another is indebted to the following post on David Weinberger’s blog: “Does the moral universe arc?”

History Students Rock the NEHA Fall Conference

History 359 Class Celebrating

On a recent fall Saturday, eight Saint Anselm College History majors and minors, one Saint Anselm College alum, and Professor Beth Salerno headed down to the New England Historical Association Conference held at Rivier University in Nashua, NH. The New England Historical Association (NEHA) is the regional branch of the American Historical Association (the largest professional organization for historians in America) and offers a conference twice a year. Professor Sean Perrone currently serves as its Treasurer.

Professor Salerno, Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18, and Sarah Hummel ’19 presented research they did in History 359 American Women’s History (see our related post). Other history majors and minors came along to experience their first history conference and explore areas of particular interest. One Thing after Another caught up with the attendees to find out what they learned at the conference.

Q: What made you decide to propose a faculty/student panel for this conference?

Professor Salerno: During the American Women’s History course, I collaborated with Professor Laura Prieto at Simmons College, sharing assignments and research materials. She suggested that we put together a panel for NEHA so our students could experience a professional history conference. I agreed and we wrote up a proposal for a Roundtable on “Teaching and Learning Historical Skills through a Crowdsourced Women’s History Project.” It included the two of us as Chair and Commentator, plus two Saint Anselm undergraduate students, one Simmons College undergraduate, and two Simmons College graduate students.

Q: What motivated the students to participate on the panel?

Sarah Hummel ’19 (History): I agreed to present my research experience because I was eager to share with other students and educators the lessons that the project taught me. The NEHA Conference seemed like the perfect place to network and share my experience as a historian with like-minded history students and professors.

Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18 (History) It was an opportunity in itself to be able to reflect on work in front of an interested audience. There are many times I have completed a research paper for class that I am very proud of, but the paper is never seen by anyone besides my professor. I was also excited to be able to express my enthusiasm about the assignment, because the crowdsourcing project was a memorable process for me.

Q: It must have been a bit intimidating to give a presentation in front of professional historians.

Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18 (History): I learned that it is important to relax. When I was preparing my talk, I was continuously second-guessing the language of my presentation. I wanted to use complicated diction to express my experiences, but I learned that simplifying the language is necessary for clarity. When giving the presentation, I realized that taking a few breaths to calm down really made a difference. Being too serious or too nervous can sometimes hurt a presentation, and calming down before speaking really makes a difference. It took a certain amount of confidence to be able to relax before the presentation, and this confidence came from trusting myself and my abilities.

Sarah Hummel ’19 (History): Presenting in a conference setting forced me to focus not just on paring down my ideas, but also expressions. I also learned that if you are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the information you are going to present, those two factors make presenting much less nerve-racking – but it’s okay to be a little nervous too!

Q: Did all the student attendees come to your session?

Professor Salerno: Whitney Hammond ’18, Alexis LaBrie ’18, and Chris Griebel (’16, now a fourth-grade teacher at St. Pius School, Lynn, MA) all attended our session. They had been part of the American Women’s History class and done the project as well. They contributed their observations about the impact and value of the project during the audience discussion. The rest of the students attended other sessions during the same time block. They had five choices during each block, giving them a wide variety of options.

Q: For those of you who were not presenting, what drew you to the conference?

Caitlin Williamson ’19 (History): I signed up for this conference because I had never done anything like this before and wanted to see what it was like. Before the event, I was a little nervous (despite not having to present anything) just because I wasn’t sure what to expect out of something like this!

Whitney Hammond ’18 (History): I signed up for the conference because as a senior history major I want to experience as much as I can before I graduate. I think attending this conference was a great opportunity for history majors because we were able to listen to historians and connect what they study to what we studied in our own history classes. It was also nice to be a part of a community of historians and listen to the work they dedicate themselves to.

Q: Can you describe your favorite session?

Cody Face ’20 (History): One panel I went to was War and Order. I found the presentation by Nathan Marzoli (Historian, US Army Center of Military History) rather intriguing. He discussed the 12th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, a Union regiment during the Civil War that fought at Chancellorsville. This battle happened to be one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, and a major Union defeat (It is often seen as one of Robert E. Lee’s greatest victories). Instead of focusing on the battle itself, Mr. Marzoli focused on the view of the soldiers. We heard about two brothers lying next to each other amidst the chaos of gunfire, shrapnel, and screams of agony when all of a sudden one of the brothers was shot and killed instantly. Such an incident was eye-opening in that it gave us a sense of what these soldiers faced. It added a sense of gravity to the Civil War, as if I myself was affected by it. His presentation was engaging, and his use of technology made it easy to imagine the battle being fought (he provided pictures of the battleground). All in all, it was a very effective performance on his part.

Lisette Labbè ’19 (Psychology Major and History Minor):  I went to one of the panels that discussed new and different historical approaches—which made me realize that although history is the study of the past, the discipline is still very much alive and adaptive. I think it’s fascinating to see historians find different ways to approach history, because it seems like there are many different approaches that have yet to be discovered.

Caitlin Williamson ’19 (History): My favorite panel of the day was focused on the 1860s and 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. I immediately chose this panel because I’m in Professor [Andy] Moore’s Civil Rights Movement class this semester and was excited to see what different perspectives the papers on the panel would give me. My favorite paper out of the whole day was from this panel. It was on modern civil rights action and how college campuses are confronting their various histories, especially with notable alumni of many prominent institutions being slaveholders or having otherwise done something in the past that is unacceptable today. The professor had many examples at universities like Harvard and Yale, and her paper got me thinking more about how the Civil Rights Movement that is thought to be a thing of the 1950s and 60s is not over just yet.

Q: Did attending the conference change your sense of the past or the profession?

Alexis LaBrie ’18 (History and Criminal Justice Major): I gained a better sense that much of the historical profession is devoted to research. A person picks a topic that she find interesting and then she spend her whole life analyzing it. The other side of that is historians are constantly reevaluating moments in the past to incorporate new findings and perspectives. The questions that most commonly came up were, “What was the impact on the community/state/country?” I was struck by historians’ curiosity concerning the effect of the event and its lasting impact.

Sarah Hummel ’19 (History): Up until now, I thought the bulk of what historians did was researching and writing. This conference, both in presenting and in attending other panels, taught me that while writing and researching are important, the process of sharing this knowledge is just as important – and just as thrilling! It is comforting for me to have a better idea of how people can make a living and enjoy their career in a major that is often overlooked or underappreciated. Now, I am even more excited to be a history major – there are so many ways to share knowledge which are just as exciting as acquiring it.

Q: Would you recommend this opportunity to other history majors?

Whitney Hammond ’18 (History): I think it is a great opportunity for those interested in History, and I would definitely try to attend at least one conference before you graduate. I was even thinking of attending the next one because of how much I enjoyed it. It was really great to be surrounded by a community of people who all care about and appreciate history.

Lisette Labbè ’19 (Psychology Major and History Minor): I think more students should go to these conferences to really experience the culture of historians and learn about new topics that you may never have thought about. I think it is also a great opportunity to listen and learn about topics you are truly passionate about and to be able to talk to those scholars who specialize in it.

Caitlin Williamson ’19 (History): I learned from this conference how specific research such as this gets. Many papers looked at one specific individual, or a specific time period, rather than an entire group of people or a trend throughout decades. This was especially helpful as I look forward to possibly writing a thesis in the coming years. This conference presented me with examples of what historical research really looks like.