Super Tuesday’s results are in, making Bernie Sanders a leading candidate to battle Donald Trump for the White House. The fact that this previously “unelectable” Democratic socialist, along with his platform of universal healthcare, has moved into the mainstream should enlighten historians about how seemingly static cultural abstractions such as the zeitgeist actually change over time. Four short years ago, pundits claimed that Sanders was too left for most Americans. As teachers, we can use Sanders’s recent success to reflect on the historical shifts in social mores.
To provide one recent example, the Carr Building at Duke University, which housed the history department, has been nominally changed to Classroom Building. Duke’s faculty and students recently petitioned that the Carr Building—named after Julian Shakespeare Carr, a wealthy white supremacist and former Confederate soldier—be changed since they no longer wanted to work, teach, and study under the name of a man who supported slavery, segregation, and boasted about assaulting women of color. However, this distaste for all things Carr emerged within a particular historical context. It did not manifest in a vacuum.
When I arrived in Durham, North Carolina in 2016, Carr’s legacy seemed just as secure as it always had been. Those that I came into contact with did not protest Carr’s association with Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, or Carrboro—a nearby town that bestows his name. Things changed, however, after Charlottesville precipitated a national debate about the names associated with public monuments in the South. The extensive media attention given to this issue prompted many people, including myself, to reevaluate how communities experienced public spaces. The confluence of these events shifted the zeitgeist at Duke University even though the Carr Building had been around long before the Charlottesville protests. While abstractions, due to their accessibility, are useful for storytelling, they conceal the dynamic political, economic, and cultural events of a given era.
Take, for example, how the Middle Ages are depicted as a period of intellectual and scientific stagnation with terms like the Dark Ages. When Petrarch, a fourteenth-century Italian scholar, coined the term “Dark Ages,” he did so to refer to the ongoing perceived linguistic degradation since the fall of Rome. Due to its simplicity, among other factors, the term stuck. Petrarch’s pejorative designation thus transformed a complex, versatile reality into a synchronic fantasy. This abstraction enabled a thousand years of history to remain stagnate until the Renaissance suddenly materialized. Adhering to this mode of historical interpretation too closely, however, fails to inform us about the important societal changes that took place during the centuries and decades leading to the early modern era.
Necessarily, historians look to the past from the vantage point of the present. However, when we teach history, we often relegate epochs and generations to static abstractions, making change seem unlikely—precisely the opposite of what historians are supposed to do. We may partially forgive ourselves for wrapping up semester-long courses with broad sweeping generalizations due to time constraints and the need to captivate audiences with a good story. However, if we want to dig deeper to understand important issues such as the abolition of slavery and the emergence of human rights, we need to recognize when fascicle abstractions function as intellectual crutches.
I propose that one takeaway from Sanders’s campaign, whether he wins the primary election or not, should be that the social conventions such as the zeitgeist are more pliable than we care to admit. That much of the American public supports Sanders shows that his political message resonated with many in 2016—back when many media outlets deemed him “unelectable.” Though Sanders eventually lost to Hillary Clinton at that time, his message spread among the public, changing the discourse of Democrats in 2020. Teaching that the zeitgeist is malleable should dissuade subsequent generations from making hasty generalizations, lest they perpetrate Petrarch’s blunder by labeling 2020 as the year of benighted millennials.