Friday, August 10, 2012

The past is never dead. It's not even past.

I've recently become interested in history. I'm kind of going about it lackadaisically, listening to pop history books in half-hour long chunks when I'm taking a walk at lunch, but it's a start.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've always wanted to know why things are as they are. I just like working backwards and seeing how something came to be, how, given the proper circumstances, how what had happened was not just likely, but inevitable, a natural consequence of its antecedents.

And the study of history would seem like a natural fit for that mindset, but I was never interested in history as a kid, or really, up until a couple years ago. Indeed, I dreaded it. History was always my worst subject. (Except for spelling. Part of the reason I worked to develop an expansive vocabulary was so that I could find single-syllabled synonyms for hard to spell words.)

And the reason, I think is that, grade school through college, I've never had a good history teacher. I've had plenty of good teachers covering all aspects of English, from lit to composition, and I grew up with a hunger for the subject, and maybe even a little bit of an aptitude. Same with science. My best friend's stepfather is a chemist, and he's one of those multidisciplinary mad genius types that knows everything about everything. So I grew up with a healthy respect for science in general. I never realized how much those early teachers shaped the person I would become. The science and the writing are a strong part of how I see myself.

But the same was never true of history. It was always rote memorization of names and dates, with no discussion of the wider context. It was about as engaging as those Old Testament lists of begats. We never looked at why anything happened.  In the words of Milhouse Van Houten, "First it started to fall over. Then it fell over."

Also, I'm still annoyed that my history teacher in high school marked this wrong.

Q: Who was Barbarossa?

Willie Nelson's character in the film of the same name. Also, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I.

Come on, Mrs. Skoog! Which part of that is wrong?!

I was talking about  the NPR radio show, This American Life, with my friend Greg one time. He had listened to an episode of which I had spoken highly, and he said that while he enjoyed it, it didn't strike him as particularly balanced. I said that I didn't think that it was their goal to present a balanced look at the topic, but rather to tell a story about it. So, while it was factual, different facts were given different emphasis in service of the narrative they had crafted. (And I do think they are pretty good about addressing rather than ignoring points that would undermine their thesis.)

And I find a similar sensibility at work in Sarah Vowell's work. She's not attempting to give a comprehensive overview, but rather, to make a point, to tell a story. And all the while through, she'll pepper it with digressions, and anecdotes and how she sees its relevance to events occurring in the world today, a technique I naturally find appealing, in that I employ it myself.

And that's the kind of history teacher I never had, the kind that showed me why I should care. . I went to a teeny-tiny grade school, but we had some really phenomenal teachers who worked wonders on a shoestring budget.  Her school experience is going to be very different than mine was, but I hope Lily has that kind of teacher. Because a good teacher will change your life.


  1. I'm famous again! Seriously, I wish I remembered this conversation as clearly as you do. Which is to say I don't remember it at all.

    If I read you right now, I think I'm more in agreement with you then I was when we had that conversation. What interests me most about what I study and about any piece of literature is how we tell our stories, how any story becomes the story it tells and doesn't tell. For me, that usually means looking at the things a story tries not to say, what the story's author (or the person passing the story on) attempts to downplay or outright pretend has no bearing on the story being told. I do this with just about everything I read, whether we're talking about Harry Potter's ideas about the kind of man his father was or team Romney's ridiculous claims that they are running a morally superior campaign that focuses on the economy and creating jobs, in, so the story goes, contrast to the Obama campaign. To borrow a rather old and worn out cliche that nonetheless points to the way I approach stories, for me the devil is in the details or lack of them.

    I don't know how many history teachers I had that taught history that way. I think we grew up in a generation where you covered as much as possible, which necessarily meant boiling history down to dates and figures. I don't know that history teachers do that or do that as much anymore. I attended a very good lecture by Paul Dutton, author of Charlemagne's Mustache. The book is about, among other things, Charlegmagne's Mustache and what closely reading the particulars can can tell us about a given culture's attitudes and customs.

    1. Greg: Seriously, I wish I remembered this conversation as clearly as you do.

      It was a back and forth on Facebook before I moved my blog over here.

      From the original post: I've been listening to an account on This American Life on the efforts that led to getting homosexuality removed from the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). TAL is a great show, and they do a wonderful job of telling a compelling story and making the outcome seem an inevitable consequence of what has come before. My favorite part was the Army psychiatrist who was enlightened for the era, and thought that homosexuals needed therapy rather than punishment, and couldn't understand why that was so offensive to gay people.

      Gorgeous Greg: Don't you find the idea that This American Life is telling a "compelling" and "inevitable" narrative a bit troubling? I mean, while I am pro-science, there is no doubt that scientific progress- progress in general, in fact- does not happen in a linear fashion, since people are people.

      Jugular Josh: I'm not bothered by the nature of their narrative. They don't purport to be a documentary, and the intent of the show isn't to give a comprehensive overview of a subject, but rather to tell a personal tale.

      My *real* gripe with TAL is the fact that they recycle their best radio stories for the TV version.

      GG: Hmm, while I see your point, the name of the show (which implies that it is a documentary to an extent) suggests that they are selling something as authentic, which is inevitably not going to be the case. I don't really have a problem with it myself. I'm just usually suspicious of the words linear, inevitable and narrative.

      JJ: Ah, I can see where you're coming from, but I was using inevitable to denote a kind of elegance in the way the stories are told. They are very tightly produced. Everything pieces together in the end.

  2. Thanks for sharing! When did the conversation take place? I suspect within the last one or two years given my response to particular words, but I'm not certain.

    1. It was March 4, 2010. I can send you the link to it if you want.

  3. @Josh:

    I agree with your point that history is like literature. You need someone who can tell a good story. In my experience though, I was interested in the material regardless of the teacher in most circumstances. The material drives my interested more than the teacher, but I can see how most need to engaged, and it appears growing up you had better lit & science teachers. I enjoyed most of my teachers at at P'burg (history, lit, & science), EXCEPT math with Bisco (Though I no longer begrudge her today for how she taught, as I do a similar method).

    Some of the best historical studies I've read weren't necessarily written by historians either. I've read a couple from journalists that are quite fascinating (1491 by Charles Mann, Genghis Khan & the Making of the Modern World by Jack Wetherford). That hasn't meant I don't read long winded, pithy histories either (the Peloponnesian Wars by Donald Kagan, Caeasr: Life of A Collossus by Adrian Goldsworthy). AND, there are some experts who are awful writers (Paul Cartledge, the authority on ancient Greece, Sparta, is terrible). This also turns people off as well, as they prefer "a story" or "an epic" instead of an analysis.

    I think the problem with teaching history at any level is that the student still needs to learn the who, the what, and where BEFORE they can analyze the how & the why. That is why most give up on history at an early age. History isn't fun until you already know & understand the background details. Then. you can dive into the analysis & the interpretation.

    In my class, very few questions are off limits, as long as I sense a general curiosity from the student, and not one who trying to be distracting. And I mean mundane questions, like, topics of medicine, shopping, cuisine, fashion, or even the lack of public restrooms. At most times when such questions occur, I feel the Almighty in "God Shuffled His Feet" by the Crash Test Dummies (I've been wanting to do a skit at our annual Talent Show of that one. . .:).

    @Josh & GGM

    Finally, I want a very balanced approach, not just a story. I also focus on the omissions by writers, as the reader needs to always be mindful of the author's intent or agenda. But, regardless, when assessing history, we in the present my always be mindful that people are products of their age. I hate using modern labels on the past before the labels existed. History is complex, as people are complex. Students should be taught the humanity of the people in some form or another, and I do my best to teach this in my classes.

    1. GDM: I think the problem with teaching history at any level is that the student still needs to learn the who, the what, and where BEFORE they can analyze the how & the why. That is why most give up on history at an early age.

      You're the expert, and I'll agree, with the following caveat. I think the why and the what can work in concert to a greater extent than they did in classes I took as a kid. I would have been a lot more interested in learning about the American Revolution as a consequence of the factors present in the world at the time and not just as something that *happened*. A little context would have provided a a positive feedback loop for me, where I became more interested in the subject matter because I understood it better.

      Since you went on to teach, you're obviously much better informed about the subject and the instruction than I, and I can only speak to what I directly experienced. The history education I received in third grade covered pretty much the same territory as the history education I received in tenth grade. "Memorize these facts and dates from the 1600 to 1940." Unlike my other classes, they never built on what I had learned in previous years. And I don't know how representative this was of how basic history was taught in the 80s; it's just what I got.

      The books that to which I'm listening now, while entertaining, exist to tell a story, and while well-researched, the focus is so narrow that they basically amount to trivia. It's educational trivia, to be sure, but no substitute for a comprehensive overview on the subject. I think they could serve as a supplement to dryer and broader works, and, at the very least, they've served to whet my appetite, but they're not in the class of the stuff you've mentioned.

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