Monday, April 21, 2008

History: What's the Point?

I love history, always have, and I’m astonished that other people–most others!–don’t.

History is life and death, war and peace, courage and betrayal, sex and violence…a lot of sex and violence!

What’s not to like?

But dislike it they do, and from that distaste ignorance has grown.

“We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate,” popular historian David McCullough has warned.

Evidence of that illiteracy is rampant…and hilarious.

Dr. Anders Henriksson, a history professor, has collected college students’ history bloopers in a book, Non Campus Mentis. Among many other hysterical things, you will find that some students think:

Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

Gothic cathedrals were held up by flying buttocks.

At the end of World War Two, Hitler had his wife Evita put to sleep, and then shot himself in the bonker.


Appalling, right?

Yet another professor, Sam Wineburg, insists we shouldn’t be too, surprised or upset. Testing that dates back to 1917 has show American students have always had a tenuous grasp of history. He further notes that “ when historians trained at Stanford, Berkeley and Harvard answered questions from a leading high school textbook, they scored a mere 35 percent – in some cases lower than a comparison group of high school students taking Advanced Placement U.S. History.”

Geez, Prof, that’s supposed to make me feel better?

Most disturbingly, though, is a study in which people “were asked to "pick one word or phrase to describe your experience with history classes in elementary or high school.”

"Boring" was the most frequent answer.

David McCullough is not surprised, saying, “The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good.”

But there is a solution and it comes from famed historian Barbara Tuchman: “Tell stories.”

“That’s what history is: a story,” McCullough explains. A story “calls for empathy on the part of the teller…and of the reader or listener to the story…. (Children) should not have to read anything that we, you and I, wouldn’t want to read ourselves. And there are wonderful books, past and present. There is literature in history.”

For a writer of history, they’re not bad words to hang a career on.


Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

My school presentations include a slide show/game involving my cartoons, one of which depicts Noah. Now I'm nowhere close to a great artist but it's pretty clear--Biblically dressed bearded guy, boat, animals, rainstorm. There have been times when a student identifies him as "Jesus." Wrong testament...but at least they didn't say Hitler, right?

Bone-dry textbooks are indeed part of the reason that history has a boring reputation among some kids. Another part is the limitations of some teachers. To be clear, I am the biggest teacher advocate and I recognize how draining and often thankless their job is, so I understand why some may lack the motivation to make history vivid for kids. And some also lack the time for flourish--relentless testing forces them to squeeze a lot into a little amount of time.

But those teachers who package history in the terms you describe (minus the sex and a lot of the violence, of course) can make a major difference. They're history's cheerleaders. Even if they must use the droning textbook as their basis.

Speaking of cartoons, one of my history teachers assigned us political cartoons--of past eras. It was a wonderfully entertaining way for us to digest the material.

Generally, sadly, unsurprisingly, students will often say EVERY school subject has a boring reputation--unless they luck out and get one of the visionary teachers.

Of course, an equally valuable force in making history pop are authors like you, Don, who not only choose unconventional subjects much of the time but also write about them in an accessible and lively way.

History is sword fights and maroonings and daring rescues and heroes-against-all-odds and spooky mysteries...just like today's summer blockbusters...

Bob Raczka said...

My oldest son, who is 14, loves history. And I know that at least some of that has to do with the fact that he loves to read. Because many of the young adult novels he reads are set during different time periods, he picks up history without even realizing it.

I would also give some credit to Ken Burns. My son was glued to his latest documentary on WWII, which was essentially people telling stories about their war experiences.

He's also lucky enough to have an 8th grade history teacher who has connected with him. My son came home one day and said, "Dad, I could listen to Mr. G talk all day about history."

History is story. The more personal, the better.

Anonymous said...

Bob makes a good point. There is a LOT of historical fiction out there for young people. From the American Girl series through to some really interesting novels. There is a reasonable amount of well written non-fiction history particularly about American history, too.

Educational policy that tries to standardize and then test has left teachers a lot less room to maneuver and they end up relying on boring texts written by committee (which probably start from the premise that history is boring and chop up the text with lots of "exciting" facts).

There are a few people out there trying to help elementary teachers do interesting things with history but it is tough.

Richard said...

I found history to be incredibly boring; so much so that in Gr 12 I earned only 40%. My teacher called me into his classroom for an 'interview' well after school was out. He inquired what my interests were and what kind of career I wanted... (biology related anything). He made me an offer: promise to never have anything to do with history and he would give me 55%.

Twenty years later I finally learned why history is so boring (Bob Racska's comment just barely touches on it).

History is taught without an explanation of the ideas and philosophical principles that drive men's actions... and history is, solely, about Man's actions. And, no less importantly, the ideas need to be shown via events the students can relate to, and then be presented in the historical context the course requires. [History should also be taught chronologically, rather than split into regional chunks, or types of events.)

For example, tribalism is a form of racism. Indians, various tribes in the Middle East, were composed of individuals. But, the individuals in those tribes not only saw themselves as subordinate to their particular group, but also were threatened when their group believed they were threatened. They so identified with their group that they practiced a tribal mentality, much as many American Blacks today practice racism by judging themselves as 'Black', and adopting all things 'Black' regardless of the various damaging aspects Black Culture may hold for them. Reason was irrelevant, independence from the group was unthinkable and frequently dangerous. Tribe or Race was everything.

This communalism (a form of collectivism, all of which lack reason) resulted in constant battles, territorial wars and so forth. But it also caused individuals in a tribe to suffer all sorts of losses at the hands of their neighbors, for the 'greater good' of the tribe. Such is the role of tribalism, but now consider its similarity to religious groupings. Consider what this means for a pro-deists. In each histrical event one can find such philosophical motivators. It is those ideas that motivate history, and that will also motivate students --IF each type of motivation is also placed in a modern context the students can grasp.

Then the student can not only interpret the past, but also his present. That is the point of history (without which we are doomed to repeat)!

Racksa's son read books, so he was picking up, in bits and pieces, the ideas of which I speak. The boy was, however crudely, able to fill in that gap.

One historian who is trying to correct this is Scot Powell.

Don Brown said...

I am not familiar with Scot Powell beyond his website. However his assertion that historical "politicization runs rampant, making history look like a mere tool for propagandists--especially of the anti-capitalist variety. Even more insidious is the proliferation of more fundamentally anti-American and anti-western perspectives, including multiculturalism, environmentalism, and feminism" seems to smack of the political correctness that perverts a mature view of history.

Richard said...

Don Brown says, "seems to" and he is right! It does seem that way, provided one is already steeped in the more typical views that are the pop and politically correct views.

Powell pokes through that PC view to expose the real case, because he has done deeper research than is typical. By "deeper", I mean that he has considered the real essentials, the things that really mattered in any given historical event, rather than focusing on what issues of the *present* concern us. Those present issues may make no sense at all, historically. He asks, "What was the most important element that occurred at that time, regardless of whether the actors knew it explicitly, or even acted in contradiction to it. If it came through, and influenced future generations more than the more superficial activities of the time, then it is what really matters.

That is the nature of thinking in essentials. Such thinking can go beyond the obvious, and can evaluate matters on a broader scale than is typically found in academia.

Elaine Magliaro said...

Having worked as an elementary school teacher for more than thirty years, I can attest to the fact that it isn't easy to teach all of the subjects in the early grades when so much classroom time must be spent on reading and writing instruction. With good reason...I might add. Fortunately, for most of my teaching years, I was not required to use a social studies textbook. I found the use of quality children's books--nonfiction, biographies, and historical fiction--a fine way to introduce my students to historical figures, artists and composers, scientists and inventors, different periods in American history. My students most definitely enjoyed learning about such subjects through well-written literature--literature that connected them to the stories of people's lives and to the "story" that history has to tell.

Wendie O said...

At a school visit one day, a girl surprised me with the question, "How can you write about history -- it's so boring.' (I write biographies and about historical events.)

I was flabbergasted. And could only come up with, "If it were boring, I couldn't write about it. I have to find the interesting parts to share with you."

I agree with what others have said -- history is people and their actions and the consequences of those actions. (History is also always written by the victors, so the perception of history keeps changing.)

What I really find objectionable is people who condemn historical people and actions because they judge history by modern standards. (Through a static framework.) But by the standards of those long-ago times, most people who lived then thought they were moral people.

I'm thinking that it's because many modern people do not know or understand history that they think life long ago was exactly like today.


Don Brown said...

Richard, Let me be direct:
The assertion that multiculturalism, environmentalism, and feminism are "fundamentally anti-American or Anti-Western" is a paranoid screed from the historically ignorant.

Richard said...

Don, the evidence abounds.

One interesting read on the matter is "Vindicating the Fathers", which shows how multiculturalists and feminists have introduced muddled misinterpretations of American principles.

Environmentalism is a religion with no justification in science. I am a research biologist and have been following the 'cause' ever since I read Silent Spring in the 1970s. We still have robins in suburbia, long after her prediction they would be all gone by 1985. Paul Erlich's prediction of world starvation by the same year is equally false. Nonetheless revised versions of these scares are repeated endlessly. Anthropogenic Global Warming is an egregious scam with its proponents encouraging governments to further curtail individual rights on a grand scale. The list goes on. In 200 years history will show this to be a bizarre age of chicken littles --unless they have their way and plunge everyone 'back' to a new Dark Ages, just as a certain earlier set of religious beliefs did in the first Dark Ages.

Don Brown said...


You claim to have read Silent Spring in the 1970s and remark that "We still have robins in suburbia, long after her prediction they would be all gone by 1985."

Perhaps you have forgotten that Silent Spring sparked a rejection of widespread DDT use, a turn of events that might have assured the robins survival?

As to your blanket denial of Global Warming, I am heartened that a one time fisheries biologist currently working as a school teacher feels the authority to reject the opinion of 30 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Joint Science Academies of the major industrialized and developing nations explicitly use the word "consensus" when referring to this conclusion.

Richard said...

Your point on DDT has limited merit. As I recall she was not targeting DDT on the songbird thing, but she may have been.

In my Wildlife Bio program at University DDT was blamed for eggshell breakage in the nests of raptors (hawks, eagles etc.). It was made very clear that the banning of DDT in 1972 would not show any positive effects until the breakdown products were cleared from the environment. Studies assured that this would take at leas 12 years in most areas, and over twenty in others. Yet the raptor populations rebounded in five years. Research attributed the rebound to other factors entirely.

Meanwhile the DDT ban occurred when malarial deaths, world wide, had declined to 50 people, where before DDT became widely used it was tens of millions. After DDT was banned, malarial deaths among humans climbed to a million in about 15 years. It is now over 1.7 million deaths, mostly of children. This one environmental issue now kills more human beings a year than did the Nazi death camps.

I see no reason to believe that a few eggshells or robins are worth that kind of genocide. Such misogyny is just plain evil.

Your next point speaks of consensus among scientists. First of all 'consensus' is NOT science and confirms nothing.

That said, the Oregon Instute of Science and Medicine has hosted a petition for use by science professionals. OISM now has nearly 18,000 signatures of knowledgeable people who do not accept popular interpretations of various global warming studies. The two primary reasons are that either the studies were insufficient as science, or that adequate studies did not warrant the conclusions drawn.

Many people argue that there are large and conclusive studies that make AGW a certain and robust conclusion, but one must (know how to) distinguish between the fundamental and the derivative. Fundamental facts contradict those studies very bluntly. It is only through dismissal of inconvenient and fundamental facts, that one can conclude that AGW is a real.

It is yet another level of argument to then assert that AGW will have negative and Global effects about which one should be concerned.

Computer models being used are very much "garbage in garbage out" --partly because the model makers already believe AGW is a problem, and design the models accordingly. They continue to overlook factors that are of serious importance to model predictions (which on backward predictions report England to have a desert climate and the Sahara to be rainforest. Then they ignore that rather fundamental point, run their model ahead 50 years and say the continents are going to become dust-bowls with 'flooded' shorelines. Modelers have repeatedly downgraded their predictions, now to a mere 1/2 degree Celsius. A 100 mile move would adequately compensate for such a temperature increase, if anyone actually notices it.

For those able to recognize fundamental factors from derivative or coincidental factors, the weight of evidence is clear. Climate change has been occurring naturally throughout the Earth's history.
*This is primarily due to grand scale, cosmological forces, planetary precession and ocean currents, some of which are cyclical.

Here is a *sampling* of other fundamental facts:
*In the year 100 AD Scotland had the climate of Southern France, they had vineyards, polar bears did not go extinct and you can bet glaciers receded far more than at present.
*[CO2] has been 100X higher in the past without the dire consequences predicted today. (Square brackets indicate "concentration".)
*Environmentalists want us to commit economic suicide over so paltry a [CO2]change as a tenth of one percent!
*But that said, [CO2] change is more of a response to temperature, not the other way around.
*[CO2] is so low that most species of plants are starved for it, such that a simple doubling of [CO2] would dramatically increase crop growth.

Environmentalists are also worried about overpopulation, yet all the World's present population, if placed in Texas, would give Texas a human population density not much more that that of downtown Paris, France. Now consider how much land is actually available to feed that 6 billion! That number could be tripled with little problem, if they lived by the political principles of the Founding Fathers of America. It is the capitalist countries that have the lower birth rates, that have people who think more about how they want to live in the world, and who ultimately have the better natural environment. Let those principles flourish.

In contrast Environmentalist, Chicken Littles seek to pass legislation that forcibly override individuals' right to Liberty: limiting his peaceful business activities and use of natural resources, limiting a Man's choice of energy, his choice of materials for building his home, and so on. They also seek to limit his right to Property by taxing him to enforce such legislation or imposing penalties on such things as certain car models etc.. They seek to regulate his use of his land so that it is his only in name (Wetland Regulations do this) --which, politically, is fascism. This is tyranny through Environmentalism.

Learn from history... this issue is only a new variant of past ideas that have led to tyranny. Seek out the opposing ideas & ask how significantly they are in casting doubt on popular conclusions. More often than not I find the opposite conclusion from the popular one is more credible.

As a Man, my moral code will not permit me to advocate the enslavement of one man to another by diminishing that man's right to life, liberty, and property. I wish to live where no man has a right to what is mine.

As a biologist I am proud, not only of my own "carbon footprint" but also admire the 'carbon footprint' of every honest capitalist, and capitalist business, in the world.

Bob Raczka said...

So let me get this straight: The banning of DDT has caused a modern day holocaust. Global warming is a myth. Everybody in the world can live in Texas. And my carbon footprint is something to be proud of. I guess you do learn something new every day.

Richard said...

Jeebus Bob,

Do I detect a note of incredulity?

I can hardly blame you, because the media ("no news is good news")and the activists have been 'working' those things for decades.

"Those who read nothing at all are better educated than those who read nothing but the newspapers [read: mainstream media, including certain science journals]"
Thomas Jefferson.

Even the prestigious Science magazine has been caught publishing falsified information concerning AGW. Wikipedia has an editor that searches the entries almost hourly to delete arguments that contradict the AGW slant. The most popular radio talk show host in Toronto poo-poohs contrary arguments by ridiculing them without addressing their meaning.

The real trick, you might say,"Due Diligence", lies in seeking out and evaluating the nature of studies on both sides of an issue, such as AGW, to identify what factors are more fundamental to the rest.

If it is a true science journal article this means reading more than just the results and the conclusions of a scientific article. Really, one should first read only those portions that explain the experimental design and the Results, and then draw one's own conclusions. Then, to be informed, one reads the Conclusions etc. and evaluates how they mesh with your existing knowledge. Does it follow? What else might affect the way the data appeared? What exceptions might there be? How would this study be interpreted if the opposite conclusion were the case? How do the data and results compare with other studies drawing the same, and then the opposite, conclusions? Is this necessarily a consequence of something else? Might it happen this way in the absence of the expected causes? Then one considers alternative ways of answering the same question the article appeared to answered. Especially ways that might actually give the opposite answer.

All of the above are regularly ignored, even by scientists... two blatant examples,k on from science and one from a news report and scientists' comments.

A recent journal article reported that methane was escaping from warming permafrost, and concluded it would dramatically hasten global warming because methane was a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. But wait, maybe it is true that methane is escaping from the permafrost, but how do they know it will be in a quantity that will actually alter global climate. Just because it is a greenhouse does not guarantee this methane will actually change the climate! They have jumped to a sweeping conclusion that goes far beyond the limits of what they studied.

The drowning of a few polar bears were blamed on global warming causing stretches of water too great for the polar bears to swim across. But wait, who said they were crossing anything? Yes, they had drowned, but no one has a clue as to the real reason. But that did not stop people from announcing that Global Warming was going to render polar bears extinct.

Both stories utterly ignore the fact that 1000 yrs ago when Scotland had the same temperature as Southern France, and Greenland truly was green, the permafrost was likely pumping out a lot more methane than at present, and the polar bears did not go extinct.

The popular interpretations of the *true* facts those stories present are irrational hysteria... Chicken Littles crying that the sky is falling. This use of truths, deceitfully stripped of relevant context, then interpreted according to pet conclusions is a travesty of science, a major danger of mainstream media & many blogger-comments, and the stock in trade of men like Michael Moore and Al Gore.