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December 12, 2007

History Dud

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Big fan though I am of the Teaching Company, I haven't had a lot of luck with their history series. Exceptions: the fiery, brilliant Alan Charles Kors and the terse, super-organized Kenneth Harl, both of whom are among my Teaching Company faves. Oh, and the expansive, urbane, and amusing Patrick Allitt. He's great too. Hmm, that's three good history profs ... Whatever my disappointments with the Teaching Company, I've still had a better batting average with them than I had at the fancy and overpriced university I attended.

In any case, my latest Teaching Company history-series let-down is Peter Stearns' "A Brief History of the World." I really thought this would be a course for me. As much as I've enjoyed a number of western-civ-centric Histories of Everything, I've always yearned to be marched through all of history from a decentered point of view. Gimme the big picture, baby! Or make that the big pictures, plural! And in his throat-clearing -- er, introductory -- lecture, Stearns announces explicitly that that's what he'll be doing. But I rapidly lost heart, and I put the series aside after only seven lectures.

This is one of those cases where what a lecture series plants in your brain isn't the subject matter it purports to be presenting but the professional field that it's part of. To make my point a little more clearly: As I listened to the series, my brain didn't fill with History -- with images of and information about invasions, migrations, rulers, everyday people, etc. Instead, what filled my mind was a picture of the faculty meetings where the field called "World History" was hashed-out.

(In this, I was reminded of another lousy Teaching Company series. While you might think that a series entitled "Peoples and Cultures of the World" would survey, y'know, some of the world's peoples and cultures, what the course delivers instead is an introduction to the professional field of academic anthropology. You learn far more about the history of this field -- about what anthro professors do, and about the positions profs and researchers have staked out -- than you do about, say, the Masai.)

I have a seat-of-the-pants theory that the worth of a professor can be judged by the number of times he / she uses such words as "of course," "significantly," "obviously," "frankly" and "clearly." I think of these words as "pontificators"; they're words that profs use to puff themselves up in front of their colleagues and to lord it over their students. The more these words are put to use, the worse the course being presented is. Stearns? Well, he gives every one of these words a workout, sometimes cramming several of them together into the same sentence.

But the real problem with the course is how general it is. Even granting that an 18-hour lecture series on world history needs to move like the wind, this one is still amazingly vague. It includes what must be the only treatment of the Classical age that makes not a single mention of the Peloponnesian War, or of Julius Caesar. In short: If what brings history to life for you is facts, anecdotes, stories, and personalities, this course is going to be a severe letdown.

If you're in the market for immense generalizations, on the other hand, this course might well suit. I'd guess that about 90% of what Stearns says falls into the category of Immense Generalization. (Typical sentence: "Theme number one involves the spread of world religions.") Which leads me to suspect that what really concerns the field of "World History" has almost nothing to do with facts. Instead, what the World History crowd wants to pass along is interpretations.

Sigh: Listening to these lectures I often felt like I did as a student back in 1970, when I was in the hands of some "progressive" teacher or other. There's a general attitude in the air that facts are nothing; after all, facts are mere (patooie) things that you can look up in an encyclopedia. No, what really counts is themes. Get the themes right, these progressive teachers feel, and you will have produced a truly educated person.

Well, ix-nay, at least for me. For one thing: Are we really meant to trust a professor to interpret facts usefully? A professor? Forgive a little cynicism here. But, as a group, academics strike me as among the most unworldly, trapped-in-their-heads people on the face of the planet. Some of them may do a good job of archiving and presenting knowledge, granted. But I've run into few profs whose wisdom and / or interpretive skills I've had much respect for. So why should I respect their judgment where historical themes go?

For another thing: Well, I guess I'm just a who-what- where-when-and-how kinda guy. And as that kinda guy, when I'm in the hands of progressive educators I often wind up feeling as though my profs are determined not to give me an education but to keep one from me.

Talk about getting the process ass-backwards ... Generalizations and themes can serve a purpose in terms of getting you situated. And it can certainly be a help to know where the person who's speaking is coming from. But sitting through a lecture series that's 90% themes and interpretations and only 10% facts? It's like flipping through page after page of unlabeled flow charts. The profs who churn out these diagrams might very well feel that they've accomplished something important. But, for this eager listener at least, all that comes across is a blur of abstractions.

Semi-related: Some Teaching Company profs I can recommend are Timothy Taylor (economics), Robert Greenberg (western art music), John McWhorter (history of language), David Zarefsky (argumentation), Robert Sapolsky (biology and behavior), and Bill Messenger (jazz and show music). For more yak about the Teaching Company and its offerings -- from visitors as well as from me -- type "Teaching Company" into the Search box in the left-hand column of this blog.

Have you been through any Teaching Company courses recently that you enjoyed? And can anyone recommend a good history of the world? Shorter is always better, at least for this Blowhard.



UDPATE: Doug van Orsow runs a discussion board about the Teaching Company and its products. You can join in the fun here. I notice that one visitor says of the Stearns course that I've just panned, "I love it. One of my top favorites."

posted by Michael at December 12, 2007


Some universities make their lessons avaliable on on Youtube, but the videos I've found so far are about technical subjects. Does anyone know if history lessons are avaliable in this format?

Posted by: Tim R. Mortiss on December 12, 2007 4:21 PM

Hello Michael!

I wonder if you are just provoking? With your wits you well know that there isn't A Consice History of the World. All of those b earing that name are just pretending. All, I say, all history essentially is just imagination. There are artefacts but otherwise no real facts. Only the things you or some other guy form in your heads. And those heads are mostly dead now.
But you knew it, you just got angry because these proffs can be so covardly carefull in their wording or just so dull, didn't you?

All right, I did exaggerate a bit but you got it?

OK. Some names I have found interesting.
- Leo Tolstoi, War and peace, of course.
- Works of Eric Hobsbawn, be carefull though
- Barbara Tuchmans book of "folly in history" is a great favourite!

Then ...
What about visiting Alias Clio. She might well know what there is
in english regarding history of the whole world.

Posted by: HannuHoo on December 12, 2007 4:38 PM


Great summary indeed. My response will be very terse. I feel your pain. I'm at lecture six and have had serious doubts about Dr. Stearn. Yes, he can sound like a politician, lots of talking but not really saying much. Your points are perfectly valid. I wonder what it would be like with Dr. Bucholz in his place? If you've not seen him, he is fast than Dr. Harl, enunciates even better, and is just as knowledgeable. I can't see Dr. Stearns coming back for an encore, so it really seems a shame to have a broad course topic like this, not be taught by a professor who returns to expand on his original course. But they could get another professor to do that, as they have before.

You may find my Teaching Company user forum useful. I review all lectures in all new courses:

Feel free to read, reply or post any thoughts like this.


Doug van Orsow
forum moderator

Posted by: Doug van Orsow on December 12, 2007 6:07 PM

I have benefited from some Teaching Company tapes, however I find some of audio lecture companies very uneven. For example, in one lecture series concerned with the post-war red scare and Joe McCarthy the professor described the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, etc.
as "American dissidents." Passing atomic secrets and
national security information to Joe Stalin the work of a dissident?

Posted by: Larry on December 12, 2007 6:19 PM

Michael, please rewrite your post thematically, defusing chronistic/patrilinear constraints while intertwining gender/ethnicity/sexuality/environment perspectives.

And blame Bush.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 12, 2007 9:01 PM

Just buy all of Harl and Greenberg's lectures and call it a day.

My biggest disappointment was Bob Brier's Ancient Egypt course. He went for breezy over informative and flogged his "King Tut was murdered" theory over-enthusiastically.

Posted by: CyndiF on December 12, 2007 9:10 PM

"... can anyone recommend a good history of the world?"

This somewhat older book (1st ed. 1963) is nicely free of PC neuroses. It is fact-laden and uses theory and themes to organize facts, not as a substitute for them.

The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community
by William H. McNeill.

A History of the World by Hugh Thomas, is reputed to be good. I have had one kicking around the house for years and never yet gotten to it. But it has a good reputation.

Of course, if someone writes a history of the world, inevitably, very few individuals rise to sufficient prominence that they can get mentioned by name. Founders of religions, a few others. Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Alexander, maybe Caesar. Sad fact is that if you step back far enough the story of the human race becomes the story of aggregates and populations and communities. For many readers, this lacks a certain propulsive narrative drive. And this gets more and more true the shorter the book is. You can do a history of the world in 100 words if you want. But there won't be any specific people in it.

Posted by: Lexington Green on December 12, 2007 9:52 PM

I *really* like Thomas Noble's Teaching Company lectures. Just finished listening to his "Popes and the Papacy" for the second time. Maybe not your cup of tea on the subject matter front, but he has some general Western Civ courses as well. And he was surprisingly good teaching literature in the "Great Authors" series.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on December 12, 2007 10:15 PM

Historians like Stearns were trained in a period where the universities were determined to turn historians into social scientists. What that meant in practise was that they did not study or want to work with facts; they constructed "working" hypotheses and then carried out the largest-scale studies that surviving records (and budget constraints) would permit, to test the truth or falsehood of those hypotheses.

Much of my initial training in the mid-1980s was of this type too. We were scarcely asked to read either secondary sources or primary "literary" sources (manuscripts, letters, printed books etc.). The only primary sources that counted to our masters were the kind that could be exploited for statistics on income, living standards, birth and death rates, and so forth.

That kind of thing was what led me to walk away from Academe after I finished my MA. When I went back in 1992, intellectual fashions had changed and narrative history was all the rage again. And this time, rather than insisting that only huge social patterns were of historical interest, the up-and-coming historians were declaring that only "marginalized" people were worth studying.

A strange atmosphere, but it was nothing like the straightforward left vs right contests that we hear about, though. It was several kinds of leftish thought doing battle: old-style Marxists; New Leftists whose careers began in the 1970s; and the "theory" people from the 1980s. I liked the Marxists best, though I agreed with them about very little: they were the eldest and usually had a broader training than their juniors.

Posted by: alias clio on December 12, 2007 11:35 PM

I find that Histories generally lack a review of alternatives forgone. Thus, I am at the moment rereading Schama's "Citizens", a history of the French Revolution. He makes it clear that the King's government had got itself into a horrible financial pickle, and that this coincided with bad harvests and widespread dearth, and with a rise of liberal sentiment. But he does not discuss why The Crown didn't get out of its mess by copying Henry VIII and nationalising the Church. If that's "unthinkable", he should tell me why - that would probably give me a deeper understanding of the time and place. Another alternative would have been to copy the policy eventually adopted by The Revolution: aggressive wars of looting that brought in heaps of cash. Why didn't Louis XVI do that? What did happen was a tiny sample of the many things that might have happened, but rarely does a historian give you any feel for those futures spurned.

Posted by: dearieme on December 13, 2007 10:24 AM

Dearieme, Catherine de Medici took tentative steps towards constructing a "national" church, or at any rate a kind of compromised Catholicism, during her reign as regent in the sixteenth century, and nearly tore France apart in the process. Seizing Church lands and revenues didn't risk offending only the Church (which often didn't actually own these properties anyway); it risked enraging the powerful families who controlled them and who were perfectly capable of raising armies themselves in order to defend their property and sources of income.

Nothing that worked in England could be expected to work as well on the Continent because England was, you know, an island. Meaning that it was easier to defend from foreign invasion. Any attempt to pull of something like that in France, or any other nation in continental Europe, always brought the risk masses of troops assembling on the borders, led by nobles eager to step in and assist their relatives, fight for the Church, or get in on the looting themselves.

I expect Schama knows this as well as I do, but either thought it wasn't necessary to explain, or didn't think the explanation could be worked into his already long book.

Posted by: alias clio on December 13, 2007 11:59 AM

Tim -- I've run into some good academic podcasts at the iTunes Store, they've got a whole section devoted to education there. Have you explored that yet? Of course it's a lot to wade through. Let us know about any worthwhile finds!

HannuHoo -- What a great handle you use. Where does it come from? Methinks you're a real philosopher of history. Me, I'm just trying to fill my brain up with what I'm willing (at this point anyway) to think of as "facts." Hmm, maybe I should check out books like "Don't Know Much About History" ... It's always back to the basics with me.

Doug -- That's a great forum, thanks for letting us know about it. I haven't tried Bucholz -- I'll put him on my list.

Larry -- That does seem like a ... I dunno, stupid way of putting it, doesn't it? Academics, sheesh.

Robert T. -- Funny. We should take that idea and run with it. Podcasts, comedy videos ... I'm sure there's a market for it.

CyndiF -- Brier isn't any good? Dang, I'd have liked to learn about Egypt. Amazing how good Harl and Greenberg are, isn't it? I wonder how they keep it up.

Lex -- Thanks for the recs. I may actually have that McNeill book around the apartment somewhere. It's good, eh? Time for me to dig in. Great to have real history buffs giving me tips!

Chris -- I'll look out for Noble's courses, thanks. Funny, isn't it, the way running into a good prof can affect your education? I've wound up learning a lot about subjects I wasn't all that drawn to just because I followed a good prof. Which is probably a good thing. Still it would be nice to be able to dial up a good prof on whatever subject you happen to be interested in. But life doesn't seem to work that way ...

Clio -- Interesting to learn about, tks. Behind the scenes in academia and how it shapes what's actually taught and how it's taught, eh? Reminds me very much of the Eng Lit scene back when I was a grad student. Like you I saw it happening and thought, I gotta get outta here.

Dearieme -- That's really well-put. And smart, needless to say. "Futures spurned" ... That's really nice.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2007 12:08 PM

"Brier isn't any good?"

That's perhaps too harsh. You will learn about ancient Egypt from him, but I found his course shallow and his manner too casual.

Posted by: CyndiF on December 13, 2007 12:36 PM

I have been through many Teaching company courses and I consider Brier’s courses on Egypt to be among the best. I really appreciate it when a professor exudes enthusiasm and conveys why it is that they consider the subject matter important and worthy of study. For me Brier does this in spades. I love his enthusiasm, his sense of humor and personality and the way he emphasizes the individual accomplishments of various individual Egyptians. He obviously loves the subject.

I will admit to not knowing that much about ancient Egypt before his course but I can’t imagine finding a 48 lecture series , taught by a guy who speaks nearly as fast as Harl or Greenberg, and combining a seemingly in-depth knowledge of the subject “shallow”. Since listening to the course several months ago I’ve joined a couple of Egyptological societies, read several books, and am traveling to Egypt next month.

If you take a look at the Teaching company web site and look at the excerpts of the reviews of his course you will see many positive reviews. It would be preferable, of course, if they published full reviews with star rankings ala Amazon but I think the postive reviews are significant because many Teaching company professors have none. I put Brier up their with Harl, Greenberg, Sapolsky, Allitt and Saccio.

If you are on the fence you might consider his short Great Pharaohs course when it’s on sale. Although the disadvantage is that the same material is covered in his History of Egypt course.

Posted by: mark on December 14, 2007 1:25 PM

Sorry Michael, Too great a handle in deed!

The day before yesterday I put word after an other, late at night in a speedy tempo and got justly punished. Commenting the way I did was no answer to your question and was therefor no help.

The topics you were touching are near my heart, though and I was tempted. Also, being "a real philosopher" is a dear lot.

Still, the question what is factual in real world and what's happening in our heads only (and then may be leading to concrete deeds) is worth considering, damded, the most important one.
That's what you are doing in the first hand I guess.

I do like you Blowhards, no offence meant.

Posted by: HannuHoo on December 14, 2007 3:12 PM

Mark -- Thanks for the reaction and info. Trying out his "Pharaohs" series sounds like an excellent way to test it out.

HannuHoo -- Heavens, no offense taken. Enjoyed your comment, pleased you've stopped by, and eager to hear your thoughts.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 14, 2007 3:51 PM

Speaking of history and the why's there.There is a card that's playd pretty often nowadays. Let's play it a minut.

-there is Eva
-There is, well not Adam but an other man, A ... never mind, I forget
-There is lust
- and an obstacle
- but there is help, too .. if only ..iiif ..
- there was'nt the Party and the program
- there cuold be the circumcision
- frustration
- "and why in hell do I have to be so shy
- could have been done in the twenties, though
- and then I have this Hell to run
- believe me, it's really .. there must be a plot there! - Nobody to speak to, not about these things.

All this in monotone but pleasant Bavarian note.
In the background some music is heard. Sentimental words.

I wonder if Norman Mailer took to this hook in his last novel?

Posted by: HannuHoo on December 15, 2007 8:27 AM


Thanks for the reference to my forum in your update, and to everyone else for checking it out.

On the Brier/Harl discussion, I think they are meant for different audiences. I imagine a wider spectrum of ages would appeal to Bob Brier's courses, enough to be good for home schooling at one extreme. But also for the adult viewer at the other, such as myself. But I am biased in that I have ever met a Teaching Company professor yet, that I didn't least like something about their presentation.

Kenneth Harl lectures at a quicker pace and expects the viewer to learn the material and use it throughout the course. I've seen his course materials on the Tulane website and it looks intimidating. Memorizing names and dates is the default because one won't be able to follow his lectures without them. He spontaneously refers to obscure names dates at will. Bob Brier insists he just wants you to recognize the differences between the various Egyptian dynasties next time you attend a museum. And that may be a little more realistic than memorizing names and dates for the final exam.


Posted by: Doug van Orsow on December 15, 2007 4:00 PM

I have loved every course I've listened to by Elizabeth Vandiver. Usually my only complaint on her courses is that I wish they could go longer or into more depth, but that's because I like her approach so much.

Posted by: ken on December 19, 2007 12:41 PM

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