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August 23, 2009

Popular History = Drama

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Longtime readers might recall that from time to time I claim inability to create works of fiction: to plot, in particular.

That doesn't mean I ignore the craft of fiction. Occasionally I'll thumb (or scroll) through a how-to book or article on the subject. One source on science-fiction writing I recall from many years ago stressed putting the protagonist into a dramatic situation right off the bat; this advice was primarily for short stories, but applicable to novels also.

There is good reason for such advice. People like drama -- but usually if the drama applies to someone else, I might add. Personally experienced drama can be upsetting or even frightening while its outcome remains uncertain. For example, how do you feel when flying through turbulent air and the airplane is lurching and skewing while its wings flex alarmingly?

You might also recall that I'm a history buff. When I was young, I gravitated to the exciting parts. This was pretty much the same experience as when I watched U.S. Cavalry movies such as "Fort Apache" or "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" -- I squirmed during the romantic scenes hoping the movie would quickly get to the Indian-fighting sequences.

So my history reading focused on wars and other conflicts or adventures. For that reason, I've never paid detailed attention to U.S. political history between 1915 and 1898 except for the Mexican and Civil wars. If my interest concerns itself with science and technology, then other years and eras would apply. Nevertheless, I didn't get very far into Paul Johnson's The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 because it dealt with a period I never really wanted to sink my teeth into.

Please don't think my history reading focuses exclusively on 1861-65, 1914-18, 1939-45 and other strictly war-delimited periods. I've always been fascinated by the interwar (1919-1938) years, for instance. Moreover, I have read about plenty of non-wartime periods; it's just that this reading is comparatively thin compared to the action bits.

And I do read biographies. But again, I tend to focus on important personalities associated with dramatic times. Examples include political personalities Louis XIV, Richelieu, Talleyrand, T. Roosevelt, F.D. Roosevelt and Churchill as well as military figures such as Napoleon, U.S. Grant, Foch, Eisenhower and Patton.

I should admit that as I've gotten older, I've delved more deeply into nuts-'n'-bolts aspects of history. This is related to an increasing interest in what makes things in general tick.

Too many people these days (I base this on anecdotal evidence) seem pretty ignorant of history. Biased me, I think this is a bad thing because history is what allows us to put current times into perspective, and lack of perspective likely leads to making more mistakes than otherwise. I think our president's current problems are partly due to his seeming ignorance of history (and economics). (Just what subjects did he take while in college? Does anyone know?)

I might be wrong -- I'm relying on snippets I've read on the Internet as well as having thumbed through a state history text my kids had in high school -- but I suspect that one reason why history has lost popularity among the young is that much of the drama has been sucked out of it. Instead of heroes and villains and clashes of arms that entice boys, history courses and texts increasingly seem to have been populated by victim groups and various breeds of relativism. What red-blooded boy is going to get excited about someone whining about how unjust life has been?

No doubt the education establishment is living in dread that youngsters might grow up to become the likes of me -- a man trained to kill (at taxpayer expense). Sorry, but I think teaching kids the exciting stuff is just fine. In the first place, it's more likely to kindle a useful interest in history. Secondly, as the young people mature they can learn about the minuses as well as the pluses of the past and begin to form their own judgments; I think this is better than forming judgments without much knowledge of any history.

I expect a lot of disagreement with what I stated above: pitch in.



posted by Donald at August 23, 2009


Girls don't like the whiny-victim version of history -- or at least this girl doesn't. My father was a history teacher; that probably helped, as was my upbringing by people with old-fashioned New England and Southern values, one of which is "whiners are losers."

Posted by: Andrea Harris on August 23, 2009 10:57 PM

It's a good point. There's a Rashomon factor in every history, even if based on masses of documents and eyewitness experience. And much history lacks for such support.

The other problem is values. Bonaparte and Julius Caesar were great killers of men. Should we equate them with Pol Pot? The Flavian emperors of Rome were great killers of jews. So...Vespasian and Titus were proto-Hitlers?

It's little comfort to the millions who perish, but motivation and legacy do have to enter into our assessment of major historical figures. Bonaparte and Caesar were ruthless, ambitious beyond reason, yet their notions of liberal reform were carried forward into the world I live in. Caesar, in particular, amazes us by his genuine magnanimity and sense of honour...and his ability to switch them off. Abolutism in the service of reform may seem like a contradiction, yet one only has to consider the more recent case of Ataturk to see the possibilities of such a contradiction. Imagine that vast Anatolian region today without his influence: it's almost a tipping point now!

Civil war was the worst thing that could befall the Roman world, the humblest slave or beggar had reason to dread it. The Flavians had stability of the empire as their priority, and they achieved it. Vespasian and Titus were practical and conscientious: they would have had little interest in kinky racial theories. Yet they massacred jews.

So maybe the heroic approach to history - Livy's approach - is a handy one. You get to see the arena, the competitors, the winners, the losers...and maybe such “digests” are a good starting point and a rough moral compass. (I did say “rough” and “starting point”. We need to move on.)

“And kings crept out again to feel the sun.” That's Mrs Browning's summation of Bonaparte, a man I could never like. Heroism is real, it just isn't nice.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 24, 2009 6:12 AM

History is a giant mosaic. When you get up close and examine the individual stones, you don't see the overall pattern. But when you step back, you see how the colors begin to form a pattern. This is what is missing in education. It's best to step back and show students the broad outlines where characters like Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, Otto, Louix XIV and others stand out. These are the exciting stories. It's when you get closer and examine these periods of history that the various strands holding them together become obvious...and far more subtle at the same time. I might also mention that a good grasp of history is essential if we are to have any meaningful appreciation of the art and literature of those periods.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on August 24, 2009 10:51 AM

History disappeared for young men when it became dominated by "thematic" history, as opposed to "events" history. Thematic history covers a lot of territory (and an awful lot of extremely good history work), but its focus on themes means perforce a focus on enduring, underlying, foundational, relational, etc. aspects of history. "Events" based history focuses necessarily on the unusual, the rare, the critical, hence revolutions, wars, disasters, etc.

To push perhaps too far a cliche about men and women: men are interested in critical, extreme situations, women much more focused on recurring patterns. As well, men like to think about big picture, drastic stuff, women more about details.

When history dropped its focus on dates, battles, kingships, revolutions, and moved to focusing on social developments, cultural patterns, underlying forces in general, it moved away from the kind of thing that snags male attention, and toward what interests females. The cliche can be pushed too far, and perhaps I've done it here. After all, "underlying forces" can be big, titanic, grand explanatory frameworks, and hence of interest to men. And of course, many of the social historians of note were men, and their work was heavily thematic, often focusing on the quotidian (Le Roy Ladourie in Montaillou for example). All great stuff.

But...boys still like swords and guns and heads getting lopped off--especially if the head has a crown on it. When that stuff stopped dominating history class, boys disappeared, in spirit if not in body. It's going to take some really good historical work, featuring lots of explosions, decapitations and maybe even atrocities of various hideous kinds, to get boys back.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 24, 2009 12:47 PM

Having some experience teaching history and reading (awful) textbooks, I can only partly agree with your suggestion that the drama has been stripped out of history, and the heroes and villains replaced with whiner/victims.

I do think that by the time they reach university, the young have been so filled with a sense of righteous anger against the "villains" of Western history - including religion and particularly Catholicism, white male sexism, the lies of our political regimes, and so forth - that they are unable to feel much interest in learning more about the peoples and events of the past.

Lacking this interest, they don't study much if any history at the university level, and if they become teachers, they pass on their distaste and their ignorance to their pupils.

Another important, but quite different, factor in the widespread ignorance of history is silly theories of education that dismiss the importance of memory work, so that dates and chronology, essential the the grasp of history, are given little emphasis. Instead, elementary and high-school pupils are taught in "themes": history of women; history of the environment; history of human rights. In addition to encouraging a lazy attitude to chronology, this method of teaching does indeed encourage the sense that history is nothing but the study of victims.

Posted by: aliasclio on August 24, 2009 12:50 PM

Forgive me for saying so, but it seems the complaint here is less about how and whether actual history is being taught and learned, but rather nostalgia for a time when the teaching of history was more generally focused on Great Men and Perpetual Progress. A tousled haired lad could see himself as a Hero blasting the Bad Guys with the best weaponry of the day and saving some fair maiden who would fall instantly in love her savior.

John Wayne riding in with the cavalry to rescue Maureen O'Hara from heathen savages who were, without provocation, bent on burning homesteads and scalping settlers is certainly far more likely to appeal to twelve year old boys at the Saturday matinee than Dustin Hoffman in "Little Big Man." John Wayne films appeal because the nuance, ambiguity, and moral uncertainty of real history have been stripped away, leaving a clean cut, square jawed, WASP hero battling clearly evil, swarthy, Others and always emerging victorious.

To understand the history of, for example, westward expansion in North America without dealing with events such as the Trail of Tears is to expunge reality from history and thus render it merely a myth that serves to make the beneficiaries of the victors more comfortable. Imagine a modern Germany sweeping the Holocaust under the rug ... But wait, they lost and so must do penance by teaching the whole history of the Nazi era, not just the parts that make today's German feel good. The ability to do this is a boon awarded to victors not the vanquished. Nevertheless, those who overuse this boon (e.g. the Russians) are more likely to commit future mistakes because they fail to learn the lessons of the past.

History reduced to tales of Great Men leading troops to glorious victory, then fading from the stage until some new Enemy appears and another Great Man rises to the challenge may have the drama and clarity that appeals to more boys than the messy reality of what actually happened in the long (or not so long) distant past. It doesn't, however, make it good history, nor does it necessarily help those boys grow into men who have the needed grasp of history to help them sort out better pathways through the troubles of today.

And lets just keep forgetting about half the human race because girls and women don't make or understand history, they're too busy waiting for John Wayne and the cavalry to arrive and save them.

Posted by: Chris White on August 24, 2009 4:09 PM

I've got history degrees myself, and work in the field.

My interest in the past was sparked by my father's war stories (he was dying young, and told his sons something about his own experiences while preparing a couple of scrapbooks) and to a lesser degree by his parents' tales of immigrating here. My mother's people were fairly unreconstructed Rebs, and so I heard quite a bit about The Woah when that title meant only the American Civil War, but it was hard for that to compete in my mind with the adventure of being a bomber pilot in a war that could be seen on "The Late Show"--that is, the movie feature on Friday and Saturday nights starting at 10:30, for you youngsters.

I remember learning sometime in high school that history was "more than lists of kings and battles." I agree, but that doesn't mean the kings and battles don't have their own inherent interest. I think my study of military history and affairs has provided me with a good skeleton or armature by which to understand other aspects of past and present.

And I know good and well that I'm more open to other approaches than most aficionados and practitioners of the other approaches are to mine ;-)

Posted by: Narr on August 24, 2009 5:19 PM

Chris, your characterization of John Wayne movies is...mistaken. I've seen enough of them to know that their portrayal of native peoples is a good deal more sympathetic than you make out. It's true that they always assume that "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do", and if that includes killing Indians, well, then he has to do it, even if he finds them more likeable than the white folks that surround him. So there's plenty of moral ambiguity there.

Now, I may seem to be taking you up on a rather arcane point, but not really. What I'm trying to say is that your description of how popular histories depict the past is more inaccurate, and more of a caricature, as that of the popular histories you find so distasteful.

Meanwhile, the fact remains that history today is not often taught well in schools nor depicted with any greater accuracy on screen, than it was fifty years ago, in spite of its well-intentioned efforts to correct the errors of the past and be as inclusive as possible. I'm not sure why this is, but I've tried to provide what I think is a reasonable explanation. There may be others. Why not suggest a few yourself, rather than grumble that everyone else lacks your moral awareness?

Posted by: aliasclio on August 25, 2009 12:24 AM

History is simply that which is written by historians. It has no more credence than that.

If historians change, history changes.

Posted by: Marik on August 25, 2009 2:05 AM

Kings and such are just wonderful to read about.

But in real life, the price of wheat is more important.

Posted by: Marik on August 25, 2009 2:11 AM

aliasclio - Point well taken.

I was reacting more to the content in Donald's post rather than the actual state of history instruction ... or John Wayne movies. My poorly made point was intended to question the idea that one reason why history has lost popularity among the young is that much of the drama has been sucked out of it. Instead of heroes and villains and clashes of arms that entice boys, history courses and texts increasingly seem to have been populated by victim groups and various breeds of relativism.

This seems more an expression of nostalgia for a time when the K-12 teaching of history supported white men's sense of entitlement and superiority rather than a valid critique of how history is currently being taught. I am not sure whether history is really any less popular than it once was among the young any more than whether math or English are less popular than they once were. The expansion of what groups and individuals get covered in history classes to include more about women and minorities might indeed appeal less to certain boys, but that does not necessarily equate to all of "the young." In my experience "the young" today seem quite open to and interested in nuanced complexity rather than looking for simple drama. (Just think of the complexity in the Harry Potter tales where the battle between good and evil is far from easy and filled with internal as well as external conflicts.)

Perhaps, rather than being specific to the teaching of history, the real issue is how well education, especially in public schools, is functioning.

Posted by: Chris White on August 25, 2009 8:38 AM

Clio: Meanwhile, the fact remains that history today is not often taught well in schools nor depicted with any greater accuracy on screen, than it was fifty years ago, in spite of its well-intentioned efforts to correct the errors of the past and be as inclusive as possible.

Indeed. As my daughter describes it, every year in her school career, from the time history was taught as a separate subject (3rd or 4th grade, I think), the teacher began the year by telling the students that he or she is not going to teach that rah-rah, Great Man, patriotic booshwa which the teacher is sure is all they've ever heard. But they never, as a matter of fact, and have never, gotten anything but the Howard Zinn version. This is in two different states, leaving my daughter to wonder where this fabled Fatherland indoctrination is going on. As she summarizes the view of American history she'd have if she had no independent reading life: "American Revolution. Genocide of natives. Slavery. Civil War. Jim Crow. Susan B. Anthony. Jim Crow, Jim Crow, Jim Crow, Jim Crow, Jim Crow, Jim Crow, Jim Crow. Civil Rights." (Actually, since she got into high-school and the advanced history classes it's not quite that bad, and a lot more rigorous, systematic, and even-handed. They now use several textbooks only one of which is by Howard Zinn. But the teachers still seem to think they're rockin' the students' smug bourgeois world, man.)

Good point about "thematics" and lack of memory work. I'd be very uncomfortable in the state of temporal vertigo that appears to be the common lot of the young.

I do think that by the time they reach university, the young have been so filled with a sense of righteous anger against the "villains" of Western history - including religion and particularly Catholicism, white male sexism, the lies of our political regimes, and so forth - that they are unable to feel much interest in learning more about the peoples and events of the past.

When discussing "teaching history" people often talk as if they believed that children show up for 3rd grade with the cognitive development and critical skills proper to young adults. I would argue that "heroic history" is exactly the type of history that is appropriate for young minds - it serves the purpose of capturing their imaginations and stuffing their brains with facts while they're not looking.

I absorbed an enormous amount of "romantic" history when young which had the effect of whetting my appetite for reading more, and more "serious" history. For example, Moorehead's compelling and beautifully written Nile books "fired my imagination", as per the cliché, and led me to read every book I could get my hands on about African history and colonialism. And yet there are people who are horrifed at the notion of putting Moorehead's books, once bestsellers, into the hands of innocent children. Not because they are inaccurate, but because they are "racist" - i.e., they are the stories of extraordinary white men, and if a child is ever once exposed to a Euro-centric history, I suppose he can't ever read another book with a different focus.

Romantic and picaresque literature, even the pulpiest ripping yarn, can have the same salutary effect. (This reminds me that I ought to get my daughter to read more of the Flashman series. Not only are they funny as hell, but a young person would effortlessly absorb an enormous amount of factual information about the Victorian Age while reading them - leading on to broader reading, as similar books did for me. And reading them would also be much more likely to plant the seed of healthy skepticism toward heroes and authority, than all the PC lecturing in the world.) The pious conviction that exposing children to heroic history will turn them into mindless drones, and is opposed or damaging to the ability to advance to a more complex and critical understanding of history, is flatly false.

Interestingly, the same persons who insist that white boys must be shielded from romantic history, and instead given a historical education exclusively critical and demoralizing, lest they be rendered murderous jingo zombies, enthusiastically promote cramped and distorted "heroic histories" for women and minorities, as necessary for their healthy emotional and intellectual development.

Posted by: Moira Breen on August 25, 2009 11:35 AM

I'd take a history class called "Heroes of Revolutions". :)

Win or lose--every side has its heroes.

Posted by: Steve-O on August 25, 2009 1:05 PM

Just what subjects did [Obama] take while in college? Does anyone know?

No. He doesn't say much about his college courses in his two "autobiographies". And his college transcripts are locked up. (Along with a lot of other personal information that other candidates and officeholders have released.)

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on August 26, 2009 7:13 PM

Chris's problem is too much SWPL moralizing.

The great thing about the history of Westward expansion is the lessons the history teaches.

The Cherokee were disunited, some being very Westernized and others nearly as so, but engaging in what would be today labeled terrorism, including mass murders of fellow Westernized Cherokee and White settlers. Result? The White population wanted them ethnically cleansed and go their way with a populist instead of an elitist in the WH.

This was a pattern repeated over and over again, despite often BETTER weapons than the US Army (Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had Henry and Winchester repeaters, the US Army single-shot Springfields) and magnificent warriors who knew the terrain intimately and had superior mobility, the Indians had one fatal flaw -- as a tribal people they were subject to disunity and tribal enemies. Who would gladly assist in their destruction even knowing it meant their own, ala the Navajo with the Apache. Given the historic depradations.

Lesson: cooperation kills, tribal warriors no matter how brave, mobile, and able in combat, are no match for steady and cooperative infantrymen.

The story of Westward expansion in America is the story of the fatal flaw of all tribal peoples, whether Celtic (vs. Rome) or Aztec or Zulu or Aborigine. When up against a united, agricultural/industrial power of cooperative soldiers, the tribal types always lose in the end.

After Little Big Horn -- the gigantic mustering out of the tribes -- dissolved. They tribes figured they got a big victory and that was that -- the Whites would stop fighting. Primitivism kills.

Posted by: whiskey on August 29, 2009 6:38 PM

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