How much historical context when teaching topically?

A colleague recently wrote to me saying that he was:

…inspired by the topical discussion in the Neo-Confucianism book you co-authored and so I decided to structure my course on Neo-Confucianism according to a thematic/topical discussion instead of the usual historical or thinker structure. However, how does one mitigate the pitfalls of sacrificing historicity? Specifically, how much context or historicity should I provide?

I would love to hear any thoughts that folks out there have, either as it relates to teaching Neo-Confucianism or any other relevant subject. Justin Tiwald and I share some thoughts here about why we prefer to teach in a thematic way, and have collected a few teaching ideas here, but I am sure there are some great ideas out there. Please share!

2 replies on “How much historical context when teaching topically?”

  1. Left to my own devices, I would teach a lot of history, but have learned that I usually need to rein it in. I both love the history for my own reasons and also find it useful (for purposes of understanding the ideas and arguments) to think about the possible motives of the great writers and teachers. It also just makes for more compelling and engaging teaching if you can frame some of the debates narratively. However, there is a level of historical detail that clearly tests the patience of the students, especially when students are expected to remember lots of names of different factions or political figures. The students are often Philosophy majors or taking the course to learn more about the big ideas and not the political or social history. And they are very mindful of the fact that they’ll be assessed on how well they understand things like Wang Yangming’s unity of knowledge and action (rather than, say, how a particular philosopher’s views were shaped by contingent friendship networks or political alliances).

    With that in mind, here’s a possible rule of thumb: think of knowing the historical context as an instrumental good and think of philosophical understanding as a non-instrumental (e.g., intrinsic) good. The value of introducing historical context will depend on whether it adds to the net amount of philosophical understanding. In many cases, knowing historical context will yield much greater philosophical understanding overall. For example, if students know that Buddhism was seen as something of a foreign interloper that prized personal salvation at the expense of human relationships and social obligations, that will surely help them understand many of the Neo-Confucian ideas and arguments in general. If they know about the rise of jianghui 講會 (private discussion societies? private self-cultivation societies?) in the Ming, that will help them spot shifting assumptions about the popular accessibility or availability of Confucian insight and virtue. Knowing that there was a period of major political reforms near the end of the Northern Song — reforms that came to be seen as catastrophic — clearly helps students better understand the more character-centered political thought of Confucians in the Southern Song through the Ming. In contrast, it takes up a lot of valuable class time and cognitive labor to name and describe the major players in the “war faction” in Zhu Xi’s day, and the gains in philosophical understanding are probably quite small compared with the gains from just reading more of Zhu Xi’s philosophical work. So it’s worth taking some time to talk about attitudes toward Buddhism, the discussion societies, and the failed political reforms in the late Northern Song, but probably not worth talking about which specific Buddhists and rival Neo-Confucians were in the war faction.

    No doubt, that’s a pretty crude rule of thumb, but I thought I’d mention it anyway, just for the sake of having a rough-and-ready tool. Also, just for the record, I don’t actually think that knowing historical context can only be instrumentally justified — quite the contrary! I think that in history courses, history instructors probably should be treating historical knowledge or understanding as the non-instrumental good and knowledge of philosophical ideas and arguments as an instrumental good. I just offer the instrumental-vs.-non-instrumental scheme as a heuristic device or useful fiction. I sometimes use a similar heuristic when explaining to students why they shouldn’t write philosophy papers for their economics professors and vice-versa.

  2. In general, I find the tendency to isolate philosophically worthy propositions and topics from their historical and cultural contexts, and then analyze them within the framework of contemporary analytic philosophy, is not the most effective approach for teaching Eastern philosophies (particularly regarding Hinduism and Ruism). In the case of Neo-Confucianism (which name I do not like, and deem as an example of out-of-context philosophizing), the strong consciousness of lineage of the Dao is evident among major thinkers and practitioners. This consciousness encompasses not only a series of historical events that contextualize philosophical ideas. More importantly, it constitutes the very motivation of them to continue the contributions of predecessors within the same lineage aspiring to the future. In other words, “historicity” is an essential aspect of Ruist “philosophicity.” Therefore, in my humble opinion, when teaching the Song through Ming Ruism, we should adopt an even-handed approach that considers both historical and philosophical dimensions, without favoring one over the other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.