Sunday, August 23, 2009

What is History?

This is the first class notes post.

These are the notes I used to prepare for class. There is no guarantee that the actual class followed that outline; I will jump around in order to keep the class lively. Contained within these notes are the major themes that had to be covered.

Posted notes are no substitute for the class experience, but if you are absent, they can help you see the basics of what you missed.

What is history?

Ask kids to write down their answer.

Tell every single kid they are wrong in the most egregious way possible.
Learning goal one: Being wrong isn’t the end of the world.
Smart kids are often afraid to participate if they don’t absolutely know the answer. I want you to be daring. Take risks.

Answer: History is ARGUMENT.

Goal: Know the past, understand the present, make good choices for the future.

History is argument because we have to make judgments about the past based on incomplete evidence.

History is argument because different people will make different analogies from the past to the present.

History is argument because we use our analogies to convince others about the best choices for the future.


The past is hard to know. We don’t have a time machine and must rely on sources and indirect evidence.

This shrouds history in a fog.

Something happened. But the who/what/where/why/when/ how may be impossible discover.

Lacking that time machine, historians have to rely on primary sources. But the source record is incomplete.

Primary source: Created by an eyewitness at the same time as an even happened.
Secondary source: Created by a non-witness based on eyewitness accounts.

Fog o’ history drawing.


May be overlooked or just plain wrong; people often are inaccurate in their observations. Let’s see how you guys do with this. In a minute, I’m going to show you a video. Your job is to observe how many completed passes the white team makes. I’ll bet over half of you observe poorly and will come up with the wrong answer. You’ll be focuses when we watch, but most of us don’t go through life that focuses. I’m telling you: even with the focus, over half of you will get it wrong.

Movie link

How many completed passes?
Have kids divide up.

Sometimes observers miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes too much focus means they miss something else. Sometimes people feel peer pressure to modify their observation.

How many of you know what you had for breakfast on Thanksgiving 2007? Were you there? Did you observe what you ate? Why don’t you remember?

Often, people don’t think that something is important enough to write it down. This may be changing with new technology which makes source creation so much easier.
Sometimes the people who observed and remembered an event are illiterate.

18th Century Japanese architecture

1800s court records from Georgia

Ripon, Wisconsin Jury records

Sometimes historians can’t access it.
KGB files.
Classified information.
Diary in some random grandma’s attic.
MLK’s papers.


Other barriers?

So now we have records. But what if the records don’t help us penetrate the fog o’ history?

Historians have two tasks when looking at records:
Validity: Is it real?
Fake/Invalid IDs?
Hitler’s diary
Bush Guard records (Story here)
Fake Obama Kenya birth certificate (Snopes here and here)

Reliability: Is the source honest?
We do this all the time.
Assess boyfriend honesty. Your parent’s assessing curfew excuses.
What factors do we consider?

Even then, historians’ work is just beginning.

So what?

Problem of bias (Eyeglasses on historian)
Hard to beat
We all have them
Zeitgeist (reused vocabulary term!)
But a good historian does her absolute best to set that aside.
Possible? (You can’t stop it; you can only hope to contain it!)

Historical analysis of an event that accounts for ALL the available evidence.

Interpetation is not the same as opinion

Sublesson Two: Your elementary teachers lied to you.

All opinions are not equal.
Blue cheese.
Why do we teach it if it is not true?
What is the danger?

Respect people’s right to have an opinion (rah rah America!)
But be critical of those opinions.
Interpretations will always triumph over blue cheese. It’s Darwinian evolution.

Poor opinions make it hard to understand the true nature of the present and will lead to poor choices.
If your historical opinion is that all people make decisions based on their selfish economic self interest, you’ll have a hard time understanding opposition to the proposed health care plan. Sometimes people are motivated by a range of things.
Sometimes the missionary isn’t trying to economically suppress you. He may be trying to save your soul.

Review interpretation (write down in notes)

Here’s the rub: AVAILABLE evidence. What if something new comes down the pike? We may have to rethink.
Sally Hemmings

Historians make the best possible interpretation based on the evidence BUT also must be ready to change their minds when new evidence becomes available.

Sublesson Three:
Intelligence = changing behavior in response to new information.
Door walking.

Stubborn refusal to change your mind is not a good thing.
“I’ve made up my mind – don’t confuse me with the facts.”
We often lose that idea in a Jerry Springer world.
It’s also a pride thing. Some people cling to bad ideas simply because they can’t admit they were ever wrong. This pride makes it difficult to even consider conflicting evidence.
Let’s practice.

Write down a situation in which you changed your mind. How did it feel to re-interpret the world?

When assessing the present, we have a broad range of historical interpretations to draw on. What past situations are most ANALAGOUS to our current situation?


Buhl vs. Tueting on Gulf War II:
Is it Japan or Vietnam?
Could we use force to install a stable democratic society?

Argued over analogy.

Buhl was right. I was wrong.

Reason: Absolute, soul-crushing apocalypse experienced by the Japanese. The Iraqi people do not feel defeated (World War One Germany analogy).

Health care debate:
What foreign country’s experience is most analogous to America’s situation?
Good argument.
What economic impact of government-subsidized health care have? Can we predict this based on the economic impact of past government programs?
Good argument.
Obama = Hitler.

Bad argument. It’s based on a faulty understanding of the past AND an ignorance of what is actually proposed.

If the best interpretations and analogies rise to the top in the Darwinian marketplace of ideas, then we are well equipped to make choices. But analogies are never perfect. Philosophies vary. Argument never goes away.

With all the difficulties associated with writing accurate, analogous, and predictive history, some say we shouldn’t even try.

Postmodernists say that there isn’t a truth. All truth is manufactured. You may have some of those professors in college.

I’m not one of those guys.

Just because something is hard or impossible doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

I’d love to be a perfect teacher. Ain’t gonna happen. Should I say “screw it, I’m showing videos and playing solitaire?”

In past history classes, you may have been expected to memorize facts without interpreting them or arguing over them.

Some teachers fear that if we teach you to question things, you’ll go over the edge and deny that there is any reality at all:

“All history is bunk!” – Henry Ford

Or worse, that you’ll challenge your teachers! Great googly-moogly.

I like it when you challenge me. This isn’t to say that I won’t challenge back. But if you have better evidence, interpretation or analogies, I’ll change my mind.

Meg and the war.
Nick and Sweet Home Alabama
Camila on rape prevention strategies

Don’t give up on truth. Do the hard work to penetrate that fog.


  1. A few things about this post (would you expect less?). First, I would say the Obama-Hitler is more widespread than the Bush-Hitler comparisons. I heard the comparisons with Bush but sparingly and I never heard it on the "liberal mainstream media" (Thanks, Sarah!). With the Obama-Hitler comparisons, you have the largest conservative network in the country (Fair and Balanced remember) offering up side by side comparisons. [[]] If you can find CNN (which I find to be pretty middle of the road) or MSNBC comparing Bush to Hitler, I'll gladly look.

    Also, the "birthers" are getting really ridiculous. Again, with most conspiracy theorists (Bush with 9/11, etc.), it's a VERY small portion of the opposition promoting these ideas. With this, you have Glenn Beck arguing that Obama isn't even legally the President on national TV. Again, promoted by the right-wing MAINSTREAM in a way that the left-wing didn't do to Bush.

    How you managed to get through this post without mentioning FOX, I don't know. I suspect you didn't want to come off as biased or something by calling them out by name. Anyway, I realize this has little to do with the actual content of the post.

  2. David,

    I didn't mention folks by name because I wasn't trying to score partisan points - I was illustrating historical concepts. Which, of course, often get used to score partisan points - "understand the past, draw analogies to the present, and influence choices for the future."

    You are right about the imbalance between the left and the right's violation of Godwin's Law. To some extent I think this is a result of technological change. The right has been much more effective at using their media as a force for mobilization. One of the main points of this lecture was to emphasize the importance of changing our minds when new evidence becomes available. A sizable segment of American society has been vaccinated against acquiring new evidence: "Oh, that's just the mainstream liberal media" being an easy way to dismiss contrary evidence. It's human nature not to want to change our minds, but we are able to do so when the mound of evidence gets too high. But when people believe that all non-Fox reported facts are LIES!, then it is easier for people to get into a rut.

  3. Addendum to the above:

    The use of the Bushitler examples wasn't to smack liberalism. Okay, maybe it was a little love smack to you.

    But it is important to realize that the use of historical analogy to demonize the political opposition isn't the sole property of one party. There are people on the left who are mobilized by the "Darth Cheney" imagery. They aren't as influential within the Democratic party as the "Chairman Maobama" folks are within theirs, but they do exist.

    And rather than just scoring partisan points, perhaps we should condemn ALL blue-cheese thinking.

    If everyone is making their historical arguments, there is a better chance that better ideas will win out in the end. Maybe those aren't the ideas you or I hold at this moment, but I'm willing to be convinced that someone else's argument is better.

  4. I definitely agree that any(every?)one should change their mind when new evidence presents itself. That being said, and as I know you know, politics has turned into near ideological warfare (see: town halls) with one side wanting to score "victory" over the other side like it's a football game. Just look at Sen. DeMint with his "break Obama" comments. He has no interest in making the country a better place, he wants victory.

    As much as the left beat Bush down through words, the Republicans never had an overwhelming majority in either house. The Democrats gave Bush major legislative accomplishments (Tax cuts, Patriot Act, Iraq, the crap that is NCLB, etc. etc.). Especially after the attacks, the left gave Bush a MAJOR pass, though the argument can definitely be made that was the safest move politically. Anyway, my point is that while the Democrats threw Bush a bone (several), the Republicans, other than the rapidly shrinking number of moderates, have no desire to reach ANY middle ground on ANYTHING. They want to "break him".

    They speak of their alternate budgets filled with colorful pictures (must have been printed with some of their constituents reading levels in mind), alternate health care "reform" plans that do nothing but preserve the status quo, and think that these are real alternatives.

    Right now, the civil discourse (if it can even be called that) that's going on is nothing but both sides screaming at each other with nobody listening. Say what you want about Ted Kennedy, but I think Washington took a big hit by losing him. He was one of a few that would actually sit down and hammer out concrete plans that were legislatively feasible.

    The point of this entirely too long post is to just say that I agree wholeheartedly that we should condemn ALL blue-cheese thinking. And of course I agree with your last comment. Unfortunately, it's not like people are sitting down and calmly making their historical arguments. Even if it starts that way, it inevitably ends up with everyone screaming, "I'm right, you're wrong!". Or others who argue whatever is beneficial to them to them or their party and refuse to consider any evidence outside of their preferred media source. History has really become (probably always has been) politicized, wouldn't you agree?


Questions? Comments? Bueller? Bueller?