On 30 October, AHI co-founder Douglas Ambrose participated in an NEH-sponsored faculty development initiative at CUNY’s Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. The initiative’s “goal is to promote the study of the humanities through workshops and seminars centered on the theme of ‘conflict and dialogue.’”
Professor Ambrose spoke on “The Past is Another Country: Reflections on History and the Humanities.” One of the main objectives of historical inquiry, he told attendants, was to enable students to develop “historical sympathy” with the subjects they study. Doing so requires students to enter the worldviews of people with fundamentally different understandings and assumptions about everything from human nature, social and familial relations, the nature of the “good,” and the ends of human striving. Practicing historical sympathy enriches students by helping them to recognize their own assumptions and beliefs as, in some ways, historically conditioned. It thus broadens their understanding of what it means, and has meant, to be human. It also allows students to recognize those aspects of the human condition that are not historically specific or conditioned, that there are fundamental questions of human existence that all people and societies must ask and, explicitly or implicitly, answer. We gain through historical study an appreciation for both the differences and the commonalities that mark the human experience across time and space.
Professor Ambrose also conducted a workshop in which he and more than a dozen participants examined a text that would help them understand how historians practice their craft. He focused on James Henley Thornwell’s sermon The Rights and Duties of Masters (Charleston, 1850), which Thornwell delivered at the 1850 dedication of Charleston’s Zion church. Thornwell (1812-1862), born and raised in South Carolina, a Presbyterian minister, and one of the most influential antebellum theologians,
published widely on theological matters, although he is best known to historians for his writings in defense of slavery. The subtitle of The Rights and Duties of Masters clearly establishes the sermon’s context: A Sermon Preached at the Dedication of a Church Erected in Charleston, S.C. for the Benefit and Instruction of the Colored Population. According to Professor Ambrose, a lively discussion on Thornwell, proslavery thought, the clash of civilizations, and the limits of “dialogue” during certain historical–and contemporary–conflicts ensued.
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