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Making Value Judgments

By April 27, 2015 No Comments

by Rebecca Koerselman

Teaching history requires me to walk a fine line between understanding and judgment. On the one hand, I want my students to try to understand people, decisions, and events in the past. Why did people do what they did? What motivations did they have? What choices were legitimate options for them? On the other hand, I want my students to be able to point out when someone (or something) was wrong. In the past, people did awful things, behaved badly, treated certain people like animals, or made poor decisions with significant consequences.

When studying the past, this pendulum between right and wrong plays out in interesting ways. Usually, I spend my classes complicating our understanding of the past. People in the past, much like people today, are not simple. They are complex and full of nuance. Some might even say that I spend a lot of time blurring the black and white of history into many shades of grey (not THAT kind of Shades of Gray…). When I first began teaching sections of US history as a graduate student and we arrived at the topic of slavery, I thought, surely this is a topic we can all agree is WRONG. Yet I had a few students that suggested we could not blame slave-owners for having slaves. Everyone was doing it, the students reasoned; it was common and accepted in that day and age. Some even ventured to say that slavery wasn’t “that bad.” Yikes.Koerselman 9

There are times when we should make a value judgment. Slavery was and is wrong. Yes, it was nuanced and complicated for many slave owners with regard to their economies of labor, treatment of their slaves, and rationalization for slavery. But it was still wrong. And there were people in the 17th and 18th centuries that believed wholeheartedly that slavery was wrong. Everyone did not accept slavery, during that day and age, even when many did.

More recently, one of my classes spent some time creating biblical arguments for why God was on the side of the North during the Civil War and why God was on the side of the South during the Civil War. Clergy and other leaders on both sides of the conflict sincerely believed they were in the right and that God ordained and blessed their cause.

Yet just as I was feeling smugly proud and self-righteous about the fact that I could and did make a value judgment about the wrongness of slavery and the fact that the North was ‘right’ and the South was ‘wrong,’ God spoke through His word and our pastor on Sunday morning.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a story of a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. According to Jesus,
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

Jesus concluded: “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

So often I feel justified that I am a good person who would never do anything wrong like own slaves. Too often my tendency is to look down on those fools from the past that made such obviously wrong decisions. I am just like the Pharisee who praised God for being so righteous and not like that sinner tax-collector. When examining the past, we are often tempted to become self-righteous and feel good about making value judgments about the past.

While thinking this over, I read a blog post by Robert Tracy McKenzie, chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, ( regarding the legal controversy over using the Confederate Flag as a symbol for the Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate. He ended his post this way: “So on what grounds can we condemn white Confederates or feel smug about our own more enlightened views? Can we really take credit for when we were born? To pose the question is to answer it.”

Yes, there are times when we are called to make value judgments. But we should always do so with humility. In a hundred or a thousand years from now, what will people say about us? What did we do ‘wrong’?

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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