History Thread: One Damn Thing After Another

It’s common knowledge that fewer people are studying history as a major. There are a lot of reasons for this: the general difficulty in finding jobs in the field, the push towards STEM education over the humanities, the fact that education and history have become a massive political football (and headache). But Matt Yglesias, Twitter’s King of Brain Farts, has a much simpler explanation: History isn’t taught like a podcast.

It’s easy to dump on Yglesias, a moron who believes his every thought deserves enshrined in a museum. But his Tweet at least points to the common divide between popular approaches to history and those who treat history as a serious discipline. Many who don’t study in the field view history as a narrative from which the exciting events (battles, political clashes, larger-than-life Great Men, and less frequently Women) need to be separated from the “boring stuff” – the experiences of ordinary people, economic and political developments, social and cultural history, the experiences of minority groups and economic underclasses. David Greenberg put his finger on this fault of popular history:

The major failing of much popular history is that it betrays no interest in making intellectual contributions to our understanding of an issue. The Barnes & Noble historian seems to treat history as a pageant of larger-than-life events and people to be marveled at, rather than a set of social, political, and cultural problems to engage. Unless you wrestle with the ways in which the problems of the past have been defined, interpreted, ignored, or mischaracterized by other historians—the historiography—your writing will seem unsophisticated. You won’t know which of your ideas are novel or trite, simple or complex, suspiciously trendy or embarrassingly out of date, or what avenues of research have already been pursued. Historians have to try to build upon what’s been written, while keeping in mind that the goal is broader than just revising or applying other scholars’ findings.

The other problem is that such histories risk becoming, in the immortal words of Arnold Toynbee, “one damn thing after another.” A narrative of names, dates and big events, despite Yglesias’s ill-informed opining, is exactly how history is taught, especially at the grade and high school level. One could make an argument that a focus on Great Man history tends to alienate people who aren’t already interested in the field; while ostensibly offering a dramatic, easy-to-follow narrative, it offers readers and students little that they can relate to. It’s convenient for those who view history primarily as instruction for how children should act, rather than a historical discipline of conflicting events that requires analysis and understanding.

Another distinguished historian, Richard J. Evans, argues that “a return to narrative in the classroom – to passive consumption instead of active critical engagement – is more likely to be a recipe for boredom and disaffection.” After all, if history is simply a list of facts to learn and recite, what’s the point? A student isn’t likely to retain more of them than they are calculus or vocabulary words once the semester ends. Critiquing Michael Gove’s attempts to reform British school curriculum in the early 2010s, Evans remarks that:

Even more calamitous is the prospect of history teaching in the schools confining itself to the transmission and regurgitation of ‘facts’. According to the critics, facts have all but disappeared from the classroom, and the inclusion in the curriculum of exercises in source-criticism are useless. Yet source-criticism teaches students not to accept passively every fact and argument they are presented with. When I started teaching history at university in the 1970s, many first-year students were incapable of critical reading of this kind. (I ran into trouble with one class when I began to point out the problems in the arguments put forward by one of the books I had set them to read. ‘Why did you make us read it,’ one of them complained, ‘if you don’t agree with it?’) Better history teaching in schools changed all that, but now Gove wants to abandon these skills all over again. Better History declares that ‘it is by the acquisition and use of historical knowledge that historians are primarily judged’ – but in reality that only makes a Mastermind contestant.

This isn’t to say that popular history books, podcasts and even the occasional History Channel documentary don’t have their place. Not everyone needs to engage with history on a deep level; one can read that Doris Kearns Goodwin book without any more guilt than you should feel guilty about watching TV after a long work day. But to treat this as the sum total of what history is, or should be, betrays a limited understanding of its purpose or function. History exists, regardless of whether Matt Yglesias finds it interesting.