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May 09, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Not long ago, I fretted some about the ethics of panning. When is panning a culturework appropriate and useful, and when is it better avoided? In a general way, I'm all for using positive reinforcement, and for encouraging generosity and pleasure. And -- given that I'm an artsyakker and a conversation-promoter, not a reviewer -- I don't have to go public with any negative reactions. So why not spend what little energy I have trading tips, comparing reactions, and thinking out loud instead? Still, still ... Maybe there are times when it isn't a completely bad thing to be honest about negative or impatient responses.

In that vein, this pan: I'm currently going through a Teaching Company lecture series about Hinduism that I'm not crazy about. It isn't bad. It's quite decent, really -- solid and organized. It represents a lot of hardwon knowledge and eager effort. Despite its good qualities, though, I'm finding the series a dry bore -- a remarkable thing, given how colorful, juicy, and sexy a topic Hinduism is.

For all I know, Prof. Mark Muesse has done his very best to present his material in a vivid and engaging way. Perhaps the Teaching Company helped him make his talks more direct and accessible than they might otherwise have been. And it's not as though Muesse has a lofty or dislikable persona, or an aversion to his subject matter.

Still, the series strikes me as verveless. Like many academics, Muesse seems most content when doing the pedant thang: backtracking, splitting hairs, engaging in scholarly disputes, and footnoting himself. Once past his opening lecture, he doesn't in fact do a tremendous amount of scholarly throat-clearing; my guess is that the Teaching Company's editors stepped in here. Still, you can always sense he'd like to be doing a lot more hemming-and-hawing. The effort of speaking simply and clearly, and of moving on to his next useful point, seems to cost him dearly.

And like many other scholars, Muesse seems under the impression that what an introductory course should do is introduce people not so much to the subject matter as to the academic field that studies it. He sometimes seems to think we're listening to his talks not to learn about Hinduism but to learn about Hinduism Studies. Sigh: Why is it so hard for so many profs to understand that what really interests us -- the general-public Us -- is subject matter? Are they so fascinated by their own field that they can't imagine that their audience might not care about the academic profession?

Come to think of it: it took stupid-young-me much too long to realize that what the English Lit courses I was studying in college were really preparation for wasn't being a writer or an editor. They weren't really preparation for a busy lifetime that might include some reading-and/or-writing-for-pleasure either. No, what my Eng-lit courses were really preparation for was ... becoming an English prof!

And who wants that? Answer: I remember reading somewhere that about one percent of students taking a given class are thinking about becoming an academic in that field. Which means, of course, that 99% of the people in a given lecture hall are wondering why the prof at the podium isn't doing a better job of cutting through the academic baloney and delivering interesting and useful information about the subject matter they signed up to learn about instead.

Muesse strikes me as about as unspontaneous as a speaker can be; he seems to be reading, word for word. And "a flair for the language" doesn't seem to be among his gifts. Good lord, profs can have less knack with language than just about anyone. It's scary to think that we entrust the teaching of reading and writing to people who come out with sentences that begin the way this one does: "In our examination of the Vedic period, we referred briefly to ..." That's an invitation -- almost a command -- for snoozy heads to hit wooden desktops. Final verdict: Solid as it is, this Hinduism series is as about as exciting to go through as an encyclopedia entry.

Perhaps Muesse simply doesn't have the popular touch. Perhaps he deserves sympathy and understanding, not criticism. Perhaps I'd like him personally a whole lot. Still, if he doesn't have the ability to reach out and sparkle, why is the Teaching Company promoting him as a presenter of specialized material to a popular audience?

I'll finish the series but only because I'm very, very interested in Hinduism. I'll even learn a few things. But will they stay with me? I no longer have the ability to absorb new information the way I did as a kid, like a thirsty sponge. Given how arthritic my brain has become, I'm finding more and more that that which doesn't make an impact on me slides right off me. So an impact-less lecture series will, I'm afraid, leave me retaining next to nothing from it.

Verve, style and enthusiasm count, and count for a lot, dammit, grrrr. I find that, not only can I not remember facts from many of the duller Teaching Company series I've been through, I can't even remember whether I've listened to them in the first place.

The superwonderful Teaching Company profs -- Greenberg, Taylor, Allitt, Kors, some others -- treat their audiences like what we are: adult civilians with limited time and energy who nonetheless genuinely want to learn about stuff. We aren't recalcitrant, surly kids any longer; we're interested, we're pleased to pay attention, and we're delighted to learn. But we're giving our valued, precious time, attention, and money not just to have a bunch of well-organized facts dumped in our laps. We're paying attention in order to have the facts presented to us in ways that'll make them register. Jokes help. Spontaneity helps. Vivid language helps.

And a passing hint to profs hoping to please and serve a non-academic audience? Avoid all use of the word "problematic."

I've gotten interested in Hinduism in the last few years largely because I've fallen hard for yoga and for Vedanta, both of which are related to Hinduism. I seem to be an impersonal-god person rather than a personal-god person. When I listen to or read about accounts of the various personal-god religions, I follow intellectually, but emotionally and intuitively it all slips through my fingers. On the other hand, I've had many experiences with Hinduism, yoga philosophy, and Buddhism when it was as though the speaker or writer were inside my head, discussing far better than I ever could the questions my own mind spends much of its energy chewing over. These religion/philosophies speak to me intuitively as much as they fascinate me intellectually.

As a result, I've been through -- translation: looked at closely but didn't read every word of -- probably a dozen intros to Hinduism. Many were pretty good. Though I haven't found one yet that struck me as ideal, the intro-to-Hinduism that I've found most satisfying was this book. As a production it's both a bit oddball and a bit amateurish. It's called "Daddy, Am I a Hindu?: The Hinduism Primer"; its layout and design are anything but eye-catching; it's written in q&a form, with a son querying his father. And the book's author, Ed Viswanathan, isn't the usual -- a scholar taking a break from his scholarship. Instead, he's a passionate amateur who has taught himself a lot about the subject that transfixes him.

But the book is oddball and amateurish in a good way: informative, likable, EZ, even charming. Ed Viswanathan knows what you want to know, and he's eager for you to "get it" the way he gets it. A serious-browed scholar might quarrel with some details. But the book entertained and enlightened me, and did so in a way that fit into my scattershot life very pleasingly. I'd imagine that anyone who knows next to nothing about Hinduism and who wants to start filling in some of the larger blanks would find the book an easy and enjoyable way to do so.

Any other impersonal-god types out there?



posted by Michael at May 9, 2005


Why yes, yes there are!

My favorite English edition of a Hindi text is Barbara Miller's translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. I'm pretty much a Buddhist deep down at heart, but have found specific meditational and related practices of value in Hindu and Taoist systems, too.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 9, 2005 6:49 PM

Of course my favorite book, bar none, is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps. Particularly the last section, Centering, that is a list of 112 meditations, and is perhaps the oldest known written work on earth. It was what got me meditating the first time I started, and I always come back to them.

I've gone so far as to copy down Centering by hand, so as to still have a personal copy when my latest copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones had been given away! A truly priceless work.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 9, 2005 6:53 PM

>>And like many other scholars, Muesse seems under the impression that what an introductory course should do is introduce people not so much to the subject matter as to the academic field that studies it.

At my So-So Public University, one of the requirements of all us history majors is to take 3 introductory courses from the "Problems in History" series that cover Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. The focus of these classes isn't history but historiography.
Thus, in my Problems in Latin American History class, we studied how various Mexican political factions influnced the changing perceptions of the Revolution over time; we didn't study the events of the Revolution itself.
The point is to teach us that "history is political" and save us from all those boring names, dates, people and places.

Posted by: Bryan on May 9, 2005 6:55 PM

I think it's pretty easy to do a really high-level overview well. "From Firelance to Railgun: A History of Firearms" as a two-hour presentation probably wouldn't take much more than a day to prepare. There is so much material that only the most obvious of high-points could be covered.

Too, a really detailed class, say forty hours on "Slow Match to Percussion Cap: Muzzle-Loading Smallarm Actions Examined", is also pretty easy. You just say everything about everything, and you know that anyone obsessive enough to take the class wants it all.

The problem comes in the middle. Picking the interesting and important details out of a subject that could take 100 times as long to cover in depth is a rare skill. Presumably that's what we pay experts for, but all too often we don't get value for money.

I don't think its a coincidence that to gain the credential of an expert one must usually write a hyper-detailed paper something like my second example above.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 9, 2005 7:01 PM

Hmmm, so I won't get this. The odd thing is I was brought up a hindu (born in India, raised here) and I don't know a darn thing about hinduism. It's possible for it to become a cultural thing, instead of a religious practice: you go to temple, you walk around a bit, you take some prasad, and then you go for an Indian lunch! Yippee.

Still, I'm humbled when I see my mother pray. It is a very simple practice, she has a book of prayers from India (no idea what they are) and she reads them silently to herself. Once, on a bumpy patch on a plane, she took out her book and read quietly. "I'm not afraid," she said, "I have God with me."

So, I'll skip these tapes, then?

Posted by: MD on May 9, 2005 7:01 PM

Diana Eck kills in the first edition. She will be lecturing and then just start singing in a beautiful voice. Her topic was "The Religions of India" and I can see why they wanted a series just on hinduism, but her tapes are definately worth seeking out.

Posted by: joe o on May 9, 2005 9:48 PM

There's a good Vedanta song by Melanie (ca. 1970) called "You gotta be One with the All".

I think that the problem academic lecturers often have isn't some much that they're uninteresting, but that they're fascinated by things that others are bored by.

Posted by: John Emerson on May 9, 2005 10:00 PM

Michael, Do you truly perceive yourself as rarely "panning?" I agree taht you have a generally sunny attitude and prefer to say nice things about worthy work. But boy-oh-boy I sure do think you know how to condemn with the best. :) Which is not a pan on my part. It seems to me that almost all criticism -- except that which clearly misconstrues or rejects the very purpose of the work (and maybe even then) -- can be valuable to both the creator and the observer. So panning is fine so long as the standard of the panner is set forth in a manner clear and there is no "hide the ball."

Posted by: David Sucher on May 9, 2005 11:13 PM

Michael, I hope this doesn't make you a New Age person, does it? I know you're better than that!
Actually, one of my best friends (as the saying goes) is deeply into Vedanta, too, and he writes for NATIONAL REVIEW, hardly a New Age publication.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 10, 2005 12:05 AM

I second David Mercer on Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and he is right about the last book, Centering--Shiva's "voice" is a complex of profundity and compassion. Perhaps the gods are stand-ins or emanations of the impersonal Brahman, but there is a strange sense of being personally addressed and touched by that old Hindu voice.

I'm really interested in and am beginning to investigate the early Indus Valley civilization that predated the Indo-European invasion. There is just something odd and mysterious about the Upanishads, something seemingly older and profounder than the Vedas to which they are attached.

In this connection, I'm also intrigued by the news from a couple of years ago about a sunken city off the West coast of India, a city that appears to be 9500 years ago. If this proves to be true, it would completely overturn our notions of when the earliest civilization arose. If this date is confirmed and if this earlier civilization can be established as the source of the unique Upanishads, perhaps those ancient river valleys gave rise to nascent forms of spiritual consciousness. Maybe Judeo-Christian themes have their vague source in the dim mists rising off those Indian lagoons and grottos.

Posted by: Tim B. on May 10, 2005 10:58 AM

What gets me is that most people - even the "Hindus" - don't realize that "Hinduism" really isn't an -ism at all. It's more interested in developing an acceptable philosophy for living life the right way (done with the Vedas, by the way) and cultivating a deep respect for nature. If you think about it, most gods in the Hindu pantheon are forces of nature - what better way to preserve the environment than elevate the elements to a god-like status. I'm willing to bet that it is exactly what the Greeks had in mind too. At its deepest, it's tied to Buddhism in that it tries to find the one single truth that defines life and works its way to the freedom of the soul. Meditation is as important here as it is with Buddhism.

By the way, if you're interested, there's an entire collection of the Mahabharata out there on DVD produced by B.R. Chopra. It's ridiculously long, but its the only one I've seen that comes closest to the epic and the Gita. You might enjoy it.

Posted by: Neha on May 10, 2005 11:25 AM

Mercerdude -- Funny how some of this stuff can hit you, isn't it? At least if you're the impersonal-god sort, I guess. I wonder if anyone's done a study of the diffs between personal-god types and impersonal-god types. I wonder what they'd boil down to?

Bryan -- Three classes in historiography? Wow, that's even worse than when I was in college. I remember taking a modern European history class -- the first month consisted of large, boring discussions about "history" generally. By the time the prof got to telling us a thing or two about events and people, there were about 10 people left in the lecture hall. But three classes in historiography? No wonder kids are cynical. It must sometimes feel like teachers are doing their best to actively prevent you from learning anything.

Doug -- I think that's a really good point: how rare a talent it is to be able to do a good and verve-y mid-length intro. I'm a huge fan of people who can do it. How do you feel about the whole craft/trade of popularizing? I think good popularizers are worth their weight in gold myself. I confess that I'm a little mystified why intro classes use dull and dry textbooks instead of good popular accounts. I'm a little mystified too why the Teaching Company doesn't put someone like this Hinduism prof together with a good popularizer. Fear of losing academic cred?

MD - One thing this prof is pretty good on is conveying that for most Hindus it's a way of life more than a "religion" in the narrow Western, something-to-do-on-Sunday sense. But you've got me wondering if anyone's done any thinking about the relationship between Hinduism and Indian cuisine. There must be such a relationship, don't you think? The colorfulness, the richness, the transporting-yet-contemplative thing ... But all I know really is that there's such a thing as really good Indian cooking, and then there's the restaurants that only offer a choice between what The Wife and I refer to as "spicey green glop" and "spicey red glop." But the good, non-glop stuff is great.

Joe O -- Thanks for the rec, I'll look into it.

John -- I think you're probably right. In a way it must be hard for profs to pop out of their own heads and pay attention to what their audience needs and wants. They get into their fields because they're fascinated by 'em, and they probably just want to keep on going with it. On the other hand, nearly all of us in our jobs are being paid to set aside our personal prefs and serve other people instead, so it's not like they're alone in having to wrestle with the challenge. Also, between you and me, I'm starting to suspect that a lot of profs are a little ... tone-deaf, maybe even a touch Asperger-y. They seem to have trouble picking up what "normals" are radiacting and looking for. Hey, I remember reading that a folk term for Asperger's is the "little professor syndrome."

David - I'm probably deluding myself on many levels! Yeah, I agree that criticism can be useful -- which is a good question in its own right: when is criticism useful and when is it ... dumb, or destructive, or something. Nine out of ten times I think the critic has to be able to show some appreciation and sympathy for what the artist/creator is attempting. But there's always that tenth time, when what's being attempted is in and of itself stupid. Those are the rough ones to handle.

Winifer -- Vedanta at the National Review? Are the Dems aware of this?

Tim B. -- Hindus and Indians (if I'm to believe what I've read, anyway) seem to like to think of India as the mother of all civilization, and the true heartland of all spirituality. From what you're saying, it sounds like they may not be misleading themselves.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 10, 2005 11:53 AM

Oops, I hit "post" at the same time Neha did ...

Neha -- That's a nice way of putting it. I think part of what entrances me about the Hindu/Vedanta/yoga axis is just what you're talking about: the way it's religion, philosophy, psychology, diet and breathing tips, self-help, and (with the asanas) physical exercise too. It's a kind of all-encompassing system, but without being an intricate, it-all-crumbles-if-you-fail-to-follow-every-rule kind of system. It's loose and helpful, and if you fall off for a while, hey that's OK too. Solid, but very forgiving. Which I suspect is something a lot of people might get something out of. Thanks fot the tip about the Mahabharata too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 10, 2005 12:01 PM

You might want to check out Wendy Doniger (some of her earlier works are under the last name Doniger O'Flaherty). She's erudite and fascinating--a combination of an eminence grise Hindu scholar and a prima ballerina.

Posted by: Chan S. on May 10, 2005 12:37 PM

Michael: "How do you feel about the whole craft/trade of popularizing?"

That's a really interesting question that caused me to think more deeply about the question than I have before. "Popularizer" seems often used in much the same way "Illustrator" is used by "Fine" artists -- to mean "them as can't". I think this is exactly wrong.

By definition, a popularizer is someone who makes a subject popular. That is, someone who makes people want to learn about a subject. And that sounds like the definition of "good teacher" to me. This is valued less than "good researcher", but I think should not be. Teaching many people things new to them is, to my mind, more valuable in most cases than teaching a few people (academics) things new to the world. Exceptions allowed for really valuable new things, but that would exclude most doctoral dissertations in every field.

More than that, I'd say that good fiction with a strong grounding in history, science, culture, or whatever can teach far better (and more broadly) than most university professors can dream of. James Clavell probably brought a greater understanding about China and Japan to more people than any historian ever has. Some of that understanding is wrong, of course, but some of the understanding of a history professor is wrong too. The balance is overwhelmingly positive.

This does not excuse, say, "Braveheart", but history has its Belleisleses (what is the plural of Belleisles?) too.

"I confess that I'm a little mystified why intro classes use dull and dry textbooks instead of good popular accounts."

Four interlocking answers:

1) Bad teachers don't understand or recognize good teaching, so do a bad job of picking texts.

2) Professors have different interests than their students and pick texts that satisfy their own needs rather than those of their students.

3) In many cases there aren't any really good textbooks.

4) The persistence of the puritan ethic that pain and effort are virtuous in themselves. ("Sure its boring; suffering is good for you.")

"I'm a little mystified too why the Teaching Company doesn't put someone like this Hinduism prof together with a good popularizer. Fear of losing academic cred?"

That might be true too, either on the part of the Teaching Company or the professor. Or perhaps its just that a professional public speaker (that is, after all, what a professor is) doesn't want to hear that he isn't a very good public speaker. ("Nice song, Bob, it'll really sound great when we get a pro to record it.")

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 10, 2005 1:56 PM

"We aren't recalcitrant, surly kids any longer; we're interested, we're pleased to pay attention, and we're delighted to learn. But we're giving our valued, precious time, attention, and money not just to have a bunch of well-organized facts dumped in our laps. We're paying attention in order to have the facts presented to us in ways that'll make them register."

Just wanted to point out that this sentiment is shared unanimously by the 'kids' too. Especially the ones footing the bill themselves!

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on May 10, 2005 5:01 PM

>>, I've had many experiences with Hinduism, yoga philosophy, and Buddhism when it was as though the speaker or writer were inside my head, discussing far better than I ever could the questions my own mind spends much of its energy chewing over. These religion/philosophies speak to me intuitively as much as they fascinate me intellectually.

Hear hear. One of the only times in recent years I can remember being absolutely rapt, fascinated, hanging on every word in a lecture - even wishing I had a tape recorder with me instead of relying on notebook and recollection, which have always served me well enough in the past - was a philospohy course I attended with BNS Iyengar, a senior Indian yoga teacher (not *the* famous elderly Indian yoga teacher Mr Iyengar, the other one. Iyengar is a common name)

Posted by: Alan Little on May 10, 2005 5:12 PM

As one who knows nothing about Hinduism I would like to ask a perhaps impertinent question. Can the essence of Hinduism be encapsulated in a sentence or two?

I ask this as a Jew (secular branch) who has often heard Judaism summed up in three words: be a mensch.

Do I dare ask the same question regarding Christianity? I do.

Posted by: ricpic on May 10, 2005 5:32 PM

Chan -- Thanks for the rec.

Doug -- Wow, you've given this a lot of thought. When you say "that sounds like the definition of "good teacher" to me," it seems to me you've hit the nail on the head. Wasn't it Camille Paglia who argued that all profs should be required to teach 101-level classes regularly, to force them to stay good (or develop some skills at) communicating the basics? But the "being a good teacher" side of "being a prof" seems to go wildly neglected.

Rob -- Generations have changed, that's for sure. Me and my buds were pothead nogoodniks who did most our learning on our own in the library, or among and with each other. Which was OK, since most of the profs weren't any good anyway. It's great new if kids are starting to make harsher demands on their teachers than we did.

Alan -- I envy you that lecture series, which sounds like a great one. It's very impressive,what some of these philosophers and teachers can do. At a Vedanta temple I like attending, they kind of start talking, and they tend to improvise from notes. And there's no thunder and brimstone, no charisma-mongering -- just ... a nice talk. But about halfway through it's like your whole head is opening up. And you look around at the people listening with you and you know they're experiencing the same thing -- that's why we're all here. After these talks, the Wife and I like to go out, have a good lunch (avec du vin, of course), and blab -- relaxedly -- about the meaning of life. Really lovely. I find it so satisfying and pleasing a ritual and experience that I marvel that anyone bothers much with western philosophy. What are they hoping to get from it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 10, 2005 5:35 PM

Tim B

Your comments on the upanishads are fascinating. I've heard people talking about the idea that Shaivism (and hence yoga, which is where it starts to get interesting for me) is a pre-Vedic survival. But I don't think we will ever know for sure until/unless somebody convincingly deciphers the Indus Valley script and finds proto-Upanishads in it.

I'm not hopeful. The whole thing is so tied up in current Indian political agendas - anticolonialists vs Imperialist running dogs, North vs South, caste vs non-caste etc. etc. etc. - that there's a lot more heat than light being generated over it currently and likely to be for a long time to come.

Can you give a cite on the very, very ancient sunken city? I read about one off the coast of Gujarat that was supposed to be Krishna's city from the Mahabharata, but that was nowhere that old - somewhere circa mid-second millneium BC and therefore tying in with the conventional guesstimate of the age of the Vedas & MB.

And (sorry guys, but I am a history PhD and did intend to be an academic when I started it) the historiographical stuff is really, really important. Nobody living has ever or will ever directly observed the distant past. Everything we think we "know" about it is filtered through layers of prejudices, agendas, preconceptions about what somebody thought it was worthwhile to record, what records happened to survive, what subset of those records somebody found it interesting to study and what they were looking for. Etc. etc.

Yes, there was an objectively real set of events that happened in the past. But that set of events is so infinitely large, and the subset of them that got recorded and regarded as historically "interesting" by somebody is so infinitesimally small and determined by people's agendas, that I think it is fair to say "history" is a social construct and it is crucial for students of it to understand that.

Posted by: Alan Little on May 10, 2005 5:38 PM

Ricpic -- What a fun challenge. And one that I -- as a person whose knowledge of Hinduism couldn't be more shallow -- will take.

Well, personally anyway, what I like about the Hindu/yoga/Vedanta axis includes:

* Pluralism. It's about as pluralist and non-dogmatic as can be: "one truth, many paths" is the saying. There's no One True Church, let alone One True God's Spokesperson On Earth.

* Yet an open acknowledgment, even embrace, of spiritual and aesthetic experience. There's no quarreling over whether such a thing exists -- it's simply accepted as a part of life. We all have our own experiences of the divine.

* And the impersonal-god thing appeals to me a bunch. The divine is conceived of not a Big Daddy-figure who's out there somewhere, judging, but as a self-generating self-manifesting all-pervasiveness that we're all part of and which is happening (to some small extent) through us.

I like Buddhism fine, too, but by comparison find it a little austere and barren. Have you ever spent a little time entranced by eastern religion-philosophies?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 10, 2005 5:58 PM


Excellent post! You capture the essential problem with this particular lecture series.

This is not unique to Hindu studies, of course. Too many computer courses begin with a history of the computer and computing, rather than getting to the meat of the subject and telling students how to accomplish something.

I have added you to my list of new links. I will be back...

Posted by: David St Lawrence on May 10, 2005 5:59 PM


Don't worry, not too much has changed! Even the best students are potheads who do all the work on the side.... My point was, isn't every student recalcitrant largely because they get such lackluster presentations of the information? Those young adults who are paying for it out-of-pocket are just more bitter about paying for lousy lectures than those who are in college solely for a 5-10 year extention of adolescence, courtesy Dad&Co. These audio books just set you back a couple hundred bucks -- whereas the student pays tens of thousands of dollars while holding down a couple jobs and eating ramen for the lousier, even-less-coherent, unedited version. So it's kinda sad that we're at the point where it's more natural to expect more out of audio books as a matter of "product quality" than a lecture. "Excuse me Dr. Bobbinhead, that was the most boring, irrelevant rant I've heard in quite a long time - can I get my money back after class?"

Inversely, Isaac Asimov got to the point where he was making ridiculous sums of money to do lectures without even a predefined topic in mind because they knew whatever he presented was sure to be engaging, informative, and relevant to human life.

I was talking to a 50-something the other day who said she's never had an interest in studying history because of all the dates... Dates? What do you mean, dates? How can you not be interested in HUMAN HISTORY? It took me a minute to realize that she had been hoodwinked at an early age into confusing a fascination with what humans have been up to the last 10,000 years with a bone dry academic emphasis on memorizing dates of battles and so forth.

That was an excellent statistic, 99% of students in a given class have no intention of becoming academics in the field.... Please let us know if you recall the source!

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on May 10, 2005 6:29 PM

On historiography classes and history more generally:

First, let me say that I'm neither a history major nor a professional historian. Rather, I'm a historian by avocation with an emphasis on military history. It might be well to take what I say with that in mind.

I absolutely agree that you need to understand that the relation between history and reported history is never exact, commonly not close, and occasionally nonexistent. If you wish to understand late Republican Roman history, you would do well to recall that Caesar had a distinct political purpose for writing de Bello Gallico.

Does this idea of history as an individual record really need separate classes though? I understand raising the issue regularly in history classes; what I don't understand is why you would need to separate it for special study, or at least repetive special study.

In the sciences, the scientific method is discussed along with the idea that the class is covering only the best current theories and data, and that any or all could be invalidated tomorrow by new data or conflicts between data and theory. This, plus discussions of specific instances of probable observer bias, seems to me like it would work equally well in History.

All this does raise, for me at least, the question of why we study history at all. My view is that there are three reasons: Prurience, Propaganda, and Prudence*.

Prurience: We just like to read stories about those quaint old people and their quaint old ways. If it involves salacious gossip about Catherine of Russia and a horse, even better, and it doesn't much matter that the story is probably false.

Propaganda: Our forefathers, in their infinite wisdom and courage, gained from centuries of goatherding, set us the correct example for our course of action in the future.

Prudence: Our enemies' forefathers ran into a situation vaguely related in some trivial way to the situation we now find ourselves in. From their horrible example, we can infer (by paths of twisted logic not to be understood by mortal man) what not to do.

In only the last of these cases is what actually happened (rather than the legend) really important. In that last case, it is usual for the parallels to be loose and history rife with cases of equal similarity and a different result. How practically useful is history really?

Now, as I said, I'm an amateur historian (I study for love, not compensation), so I find it important to attempt to come as close as possible to what actually happened. I just don't understand why.

* Sorry, I just liked the alliteration too much to cut it.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 10, 2005 6:33 PM

Asia Society did a great show on Indus Valley culture a few years ago:
Bet they still have a catalogue in their bookshop.
Here's a good history lesson on Aryans and Vedic civilization:

Michael: there is such a book:

by Kurma Dasa, one of the Hare Krishna movement's most celebrated chefs!
published by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 10 Rochester Street, Botany, NSW 2019, Australia.
Copyright 1990.
I found it at 10% off at Borders.

I notice Francis hasn't commented here. He doesn't like Indian food!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 10, 2005 11:07 PM

ricpic: RE the essence of Hinduism:
go to this site for a Vedanta retreat center in upstate NY and read what the swami says at the top:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 10, 2005 11:22 PM


you're probably right on *how* to present the historiographical issues, and I certainly wasn't suggesting they should be at the forefront of a presentation for non-specialists (*); I still think they should for full time history students. Otherwise what are they doing that doesn't boil down to memorising dates of battles, or US presidents, or coal output statistics, whatever else happens to be the accepted interesting/important historical fact du jour?

By the way, I found undergraduate historigography classes a chore too - perhaps because they were important and potentially interesting material, tediously presented to reluctant freshmen. It was only much later that I realised that what they were trying to tell me than was how to understand the whole nature of the endeavour I was supposed to be engaged in.

(*) I would make an exception to that for areas that are right now very controversial and agenda-driven, e.g. the whole Indus Valley Civilization/"Aryans"/age & origin of the Vedas thang. In such cases it would be dishonest and irresponsible not to point out that there is little agreed firm "evidence" and opinions differ radically.

Posted by: Alan Little on May 11, 2005 2:58 AM

Alan Little,

I first came across mention of that old city in Scientific American online. I just now tried to search their archives but couldn't find it. Here's another link with some information about the Bay of Cambay discovery:

From what I remember in that earlier article, the site had such tremendous currents and murky water that it would require a hugely expensive undertaking for exploration and recovery of artifacts. If I recall right, there was a link from SI to a Dept. of Indian Oceanography webpage that discussed the Indian government's refusal to allow a US-financed mission. They were afraid that the US would have a religious stake in misdating anything recovered...a prejudice against India being the real cradle of civilization and spirituality (I found this strange; can't really imagine an American scientist distorting data; of course, I can imagine a fundamentalist president ordering such a coverup). Anyway, that was the worry from India. They wished to mount their own expedition, which would take years to gather the required wealth and resources.

This all seems a bit surreal, almost National Enquirer-like. I do hope it turns out to be the real thing -- the oldest advanced civilization, putting it at least 3000 years prior to Sumer.

Posted by: Tim B. on May 11, 2005 9:18 AM


thanks for the links and yes, the whole subject is very much fraught with Indian nationalist (and other) agendas

Depends what you mean by "advanced civilization", though. I belive Jericho is supposed to be the oldest generally accepted "urban" location at around 10,000 years, and I think I read about something in Pakistan of a similar age (google "Mehgarh"). But people still seem to talk about Egypt/Sumer/Indus Valley as the oldest real "civilizations". The difference? I dunno.

Posted by: Alan Little on May 11, 2005 9:44 AM

2 "world's oldest city" claimants:
2 claimants to be the world's oldest city:

Also another book by Rynn Berry, called FOOD FOR THE GODS, about vegetarianism throughout world religions, available at Integral Yoga in the Village:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 11, 2005 5:22 PM

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