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December 03, 2004

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New Kid on the Hallway

Despite advocating for world history in my comments, I completely agree with aj's point, and I think this is the biggest difficulty with world history. I think it would be much better as a senior-level course where people have more tools to try to cope with its demands. Given the way that college curriculums are structured, though, I doubt that will ever happen.

Your example about Patrice Lumumba is really interesting, but I have a hard time seeing it as representative. In multicultural LA that would happen, but in none of the midwestern institutions where I've taught would that happen. There are still a LOT of places where students are not ignorant of Eurocentrism. So I suspect context is really important in how to regard these classes. I recognize that the community college students you're teaching are likely to have different needs from the students I teach.

Personally, I do have a problem with the "ranking" element of history and with saying some things are more important than others, as has been traditionally done in history, because what gets counted as important is so culturally determined (look at any list of "the world's 100 most important people"!). Significance is not absolute but determined by what questions you're trying to answer (if your question is, How did we in the modern US end up with the legal system we have?, then yes, common law is more significant than medieval Mali. If your question is, What are some of the different ways that societies define/organize justice and what determines why a given society uses a given system?, then law codes from medieval Mali are just as useful as English common law. The questions are different, but one isn't inherently better than the other.) I don't think that pointing this out has been a disaster for the profession.

But that just makes me much more of a relativist than you. :-)

NancyP

The judgement that some topics are more important than others and should be incorporated into a never-changing canon is not realistic. Canons change, and rightfully so. Twenty years ago, a degree in Middle-East area studies with a language competency in Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi, Pashto, or Urdu would have been decidedly non-canonic and unimportant. Certainly it would have made getting an academic job difficult, since few undergraduates wanted to study the history of Iraq, and the few jobs available would be through a few major universities with grad programs and through the foriegn services and perhaps a few multinational corps. Twenty years ago, it didn't matter if 60% of the population with at least a high school degree had no clue about the location, leadership, and natural resources/economy of Iraq.

Jeff JP

The judgement that some topics are more important than others and should be incorporated into a never-changing canon is not realistic. Canons change, and rightfully so.

Indeed. I find this encouraging. Someday, people will wake up and see man-hating garbage courses like "Feminist Jurisprudence" as hate propaganda promoted by people who couldn't get real jobs.

Jeff JP

Jonathan Dresner

Is medieval Mali that unimportant? Malaysia and Indonesia are very important countries in the world today, religiously, culturally, economically, geostrategically. Yes, we are the heirs to western civilization, but we are also functioning in a broader world. I think treating world history as "non-western history" is a grave error: for the course to be intellectually coherent I believe it needs to be truly integrative.

We can argue about presentism another time, but I think the surveys are one of the places where it is most justified.

Hugo

It is not that it is that unimportant, but in the contemporary world, there is simply too much to integrate into a survey course. Decisions have to be made; priorities have to be chosen. Every teacher, consciously or not, does this -- and should do it, if for no other reason than to avoid crushing students with work.

joe

"Decisions have to be made; priorities have to be chosen."

I remember getting an answer very close to this (actually shorter) when I asked a professor why mary wollstonecraft was mentioned in class and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wasn't. I couldn't believe it-- a western civ. class, and of six people mentioned during the French revolution, Rousseau isn't talked about. History is a joke in school now days-- it's all about entertainment.

"...if for no other reason than to avoid crushing students with work."

Spare us Hugo. Haven’t you discussed grade inflation already? Most instructors have done this, obviously by way of the "curve". I do hope most instructors realize they have also done this by making courses easier. Heck, they have too; hardly a person would pass if rigid academic standards were upheld.

Fred Vincy

Joe -- Did I miss something? Why the hostility toward Hugo? _Of course_ he's going to have to choose priorities for a Western Civ. or similar survey.

aj

So, Joe, are you saying that Mary Wollstonecraft is more entertaining than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and that's why she was assigned?

Hugo

Indeed, I picked Wollstonecraft over Rousseau (joe is a former student) because I do believe that her work has been more influential than his in the past two centuries. It's not about entertainment, it's about making judgments. Feel free to question my judgments, but please know I make them based upon the question of historical significance above all else.

And I am not sure what is so entertaining about Vindication of the Rights of Woman; it was a bit of a slog to read, but a worthy slog.

joe

so are you saying we studying history because of what people think is important today. or do we study history in context to its time and what was important then.

the entertainment comment was not directed solely to hugo. it was a comment on the general atmosphere of PCC history class and what other professional professors have been complaining about recently.

Tara

Just because everybody's heard of of someone does not mean that he is as important as he seems, it just means that people before us thought he was really important. People before us are just as fallible as we are, no reason to be scared of disagreeing with them, a.

b. I think something is being missed here. To me it does not matter so much were you start with history, as long as you start well! The first uni history courses I took were Jewish history courses - very marginal you might think. But they were taught very well and gave me a good framework for the past, and gave everything I learned after that a place to fit in.

Is Jewish history less important than other kinds of history? I don't really think so. The truth is, any history you're going to learn is going to follow a timeline and choose events from a certain perspective. A history class focussing completely on Western history could be massively different depending on whether it followed the evolution of western religion, science, geopolitics, philosophy, war, etc. Even within those, each topic is so broad that choices will be made. Nevertheless, no matter which one you teach, there are certain things that will have to come up. For example, in my Jewish history classes, we learned about some of the Roman emporers, Babylonian Kings, medieval philosophers, etc, because it's just necessary to give context.

The truth is that every generation makes up it's own history, picks and chooses events and people from the past and puts them together and attaches the meaning to them that suits it. The very *best* thing we can do, it seems to me, is STOP pretending that the generation-before-our's history is sacrosanct.

shannon

I agree Tara. The problem with 'importance' is that it is inherently subjective. For example, is society created from the top or from the bottom? Some people would say that it was from the top, and that the rules and laws and suchlike of the few are the only thing that matters.

Others would say that all the people create the society- whether they are considered to be important by some people or not.

Another big problem with structuring courses as white rich males only is that people pick up on that. It kinda teaches them to be racist. (You may say "I didn't intend.." but the thing is that it doesn't matter what you intend) If only rich white males did anything, well they must deserve everything they get- the rest of us? we're just inferior losers that never did anything at all.

Also, an interesting thing about 'importance' is that people can easily manipulate it so that only the desired group is on top. You can start with an axiom- "blacks never invented anything" and if someone gives you facts like "they invented fire, also blood transfusions" Then invention will be redefined to significant invention and so on and so forth until the original belief is reinforced. And this is if you have a rational person who isn't just doing this to brag about how ignorant they are.

Hugo

Well, Shannon, you're absolutely right that deciding importance is subjective -- but that's what history IS. The job of the historian (or as joe puts it, the "professional professors" -- perhaps I don't deserve the adjective) is to interpret, subjectively, the facts that we have about the past. I've never met a colleague who didn't do that, though some were dishonest in their claims of radical objectivity!

joe

Fred: I sensed a sort of bitter irony that a western civ. Professor would critique a world history course because of … (see his comments). When in fact the same or similar arguments could be raised against how western civ. and American history are taught and compared today. They’re all trying to debunk each other and themselves. The trend is to reexamine history for what is socially acceptable to today. This is not the same as the victor writes history. Retelling history to what is relevant to today crap; well doesn’t that defeat the importance of what was relevant then?

“Indeed, I picked Wollstonecraft over Rousseau (joe is a former student) because I do believe that her work has been more influential than his in the past two centuries” you mean from the perspective of feminism—right? Please say yes.

Hugo you are one of the best professors I have taken, you’ve inspired me to do better. Hell, sometimes I’m even civil because of your example. But, “The job of the historian (or as joe puts it, the "professional professors" -- perhaps I don't deserve the adjective) is to interpret, subjectively, the facts that we have about the past” is post- modernist thinking and I don’t subscribe to that school of thought.

zuzu

What's wrong with questioning canonical thinking?

I have to wonder if the Socratic method might benefit undergrads; I certainly got surprised by it in law school and was forced to think about and defend my beliefs. (In fact, one of my best days was after I'd snuck off to Canada the night before with a couple of classmates and had to wing it through a hangover since I hadn't finished the reading.)

DJW

Joe, if you think Wollstonecraft is only important because of her feminism, either Hugo didn't do his job or you weren't paying attention. (And I think both Vindications are enormously entertaining and witty!)

I don't include Wollstonecraft and do include Rousseau in my Western Political Thought class, btw. And I fairly regularly have conservative students complain about leftist bias when I have the temerity to ask them to take Discourse on the Origins of Inequality seriously. Can't win, can we?

Fred Vincy

Joe,

My original comment was about tone, not content.

On the merits, I'm not sure what you're trying to argue. If by "retelling" you mean "changing" history to suit a modern agenda, then I agree with you that that's not the job of the historian. However, what historians choose to focus on is unavoidably influenced by the concerns of today. That is not a new or "post-modern" idea. For example, Thucydides reinterpreted stories of the past with a "modern" skepticism and himself set out to write a history that would be "useful [for] those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it" -- i.e., for future generations whose circumstances made the history of the Peloponnesian War relevant. The English in the 18th & 19th Centuries emphasized the study of ancient Rome, which they found relevant to their circumstances. The history of early Christianity has long received vastly more attention than that of other contemporary religious movements that were no less prominent in their time, because Christianity was more "relevant" to the historians studying it.

Before Hugo's comment, I would have assumed that Rousseau was more influential over the last two centuries than Wollstonecraft, but I'm sure I'd learn something from Hugo's reasons for thinking otherwise -- and I suspect his students do as well.

DJW

For the record, I've always considered Rousseau to be a bit more important and influential than Wollstonecraft (at least in my disciple, Political Theory), but--it's a really judgement call, and I can't imagine why anyone with a sense of the importance of both of them would attribute a decision either way to some nefarious ulterior motive. They're both in the top tier of importance and quality, and most courses don't have room for all the A-listers.

In my Western Political Thought course, I do seven theorists (dead, white and male each and every one). I don't do Kant. I often think Kant is more important than any of the rest of them, but he just doesn't fit given the themes and reading selections I use for the course, so he doesn't make the cut. There are other valuable and necessary considerations that go into course design that Joe's not considering.

And Joe, if you consider "subjective interpretation of facts about the past" to be so much post-modern nonsense, I'd love to see an account of what "objective interpretation of the facts about the past" might look like. I can't imagine A) what the objective criteria for judgment are, and B) How you could conclusively demonstrate that they were, in fact, objective. I never considered myself much of a postmodernist, but by your definition, it seems we all must be.

joe

I will point out again, articulation is not a strong attribute I possess and that this is an excuse of what is obviously a lack of knowledge.

“But the desire to "do it all" at once, without much willingness to say that some things are more important than others -- that, I think, has been a disaster for our profession.”

I don’t think World History is a “desire to ‘do it all’ at once” nor an attack on Euro centrism; but, a product of postmodernism and multiculturalism and one fueling the other. Is this a “nefarious ulterior motive” or backlash, I don’t know. Some folks want a utopian multicultural society and maybe one way of getting there is the classroom—equalize all cultures in a multicultural classroom. The least gained would justify or prove the importance of multiculturalism by creating the illusion of a “world history” (equal importance of all cultures, ethnicities etc.). Of course, this crafty tool of postmodernism is being used all over the place (western civ, American history, etc.) to blur lines of truth and objectivity. How is this done? 1. There is no objectivity 2. Even if there is, one cannot prove objectivity. We are then left with subjectivity and a pursuit of an egalitarian society in a multicultural state; what does one do—World history, replace a man of greater importance with a feminist, minimize the founding fathers (school texts are full of egalitarianism i.e. Pocahontas’s insert bio. is of equal length as Washington’s). As Hugo says, “some things are more important than others.” I would argue that this statement is not as objective as it appears, or paradoxically, egalitarianism is more important than some things being more important than others are.

DJW

Listen, I'm not familiar with the world history curriculum at PCC or anywhere else for that matter. The claims you make about this course--its intentions and nature--seem implausible (in their strong form) to me, but I can't argue with you about them from any experience.

And I understand (in theory, I'm not convinced it's the problem you think it is, but I can't challenge you directly on that) your substantive point about allowing one's modern egalitarian sensibilities influence our interpretation of the past in ways that make for a lower quality interpretation of history than we otherwise would have. It's a claim--a contestable one, but a possible and plausible one. What I can't begin to wrap my mind around is what this has to do with objectivity and subjectivity (let alone postmodernism!)

But you don't try to answer my question. What does "objective interpretation of facts" mean to you? Not objective facts. John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln at Ford Theatre. Objective fact, we all agree, I hope. We all probably agree this is more important than, say, what Lincoln had for breakfast that morning. But what on earth do you mean when you say we should interpret that objectively? I suppose you mean without rank ideological bias, or fairly, or something like that. In which case, I think we'd all probably agree that such a thing would be a laudable goal. How to do that isn't simple or easy or obvious, though, and even if we achieve it, it's not the same thing as objectivity. Once you offer an interpretation, rather than simply assert a more or less "raw" fact, you've left the realm of objectivity behind (again, if you're using objectivity in a different way than I, please explain).

My point is this--I understand your substantive point about modern egalitarian ideology driving historical understanding to the detriment of the quality of that history. I don't think Wollstonecraft/Rouuseau is a valuable supporting data point, but that doesn't mean you're wrong, it just means you haven't made your case. But I wouldn't be surprised if, at the end of the day, your point might have some merit.

But here's why I'm harping on about this--this assertion you're making is a substantive disagreement about actual historical issues, but your adopting a line of argumentation that allows you to avoid debate on those grounds. You do occasionally take up the argument in substantive terms, you seem much more interested in this big, broad argument about objectivity, subjectivity and postmodernism that's a) somewhat insulting to the professors you are critiquing, and b) a dodge you use to not have to make your case on substantive grounds. I'd be much more inclined to take you seriously if you focused on saying "History curriculum at PCC suffers from the following tendencies in errors of judgement, and here's some examples..." rather than "Historians at PCC have abandoned the proper task of history because of their commitment to an ideology and a bunch of stuff about a lack of objectivity and so on..."

The first approach is certainly harder to do, and exposes you to counterarguments and so on, but it's the reasonable and respectable way to make your case. The second approach assumes facts you simply can't prove that serve as evidence for your position. See, for example, the following two claims.

"The choice of Wollstonecraft over Rousseau is a poor judgement of historical import."

"The choice of W. over R. is driven by ideological motives rather than proper historical judgement."

The first claim leads to a good old-fashioned hashing out of a real, substantive historical question. The second claim a) assumes the first has been established, whether it has or not, and b) leads to a bunch of pointless speculation about people's motives rather than a serious discussion about historical importance. When you insist on making the second kind of argument, it makes me think that you aren't really able to make the first argument successfully, but you believe it to be true anyway. Which makes me wonder whose really being driven by ideology after all (see what I mean about how the second claim leads to pointless speculation about motives? :))

NancyP

For all the feminist bashers out there, we're here, get used to it, quit longing for the days when women couldn't vote and couldn't hold property. The rights of women to vote, own property, etc are one of the biggest social changes of modern times, equalled only by industrialization and the impact of near-instant long-distance communication and commerce.

Look, all this canon-defending and canon-destroying doesn't mean squat if the students sleep through class. I agree with zuzu, the Socratic method has a lot going for it, not least of which is that students actually show up and tend to have read the work under discussion. My first univ. history class (seminar sized) was a history of Anglo-saxon law, appropriately taught in a Socratic manner.

Lawrence Krubner

I think the human mind needs to structure information if that information is to be remembered and where history is concerned that structuring is done through narrative. History becomes easier for everyone to remember if a single narrative is taught, but I don't believe different cultures or different nations will ever agree on a single narrative of history. In America, blacks will always have a different view of the historical origins of white power than whites will have. Teaching just one narrative will only appear to be objective and fair if a coalition of political factions gain a large marjority for a very long period of time, allowing their favored narrative to be taught without opposition. In America, though white people have clashed with each other over thousands of issues, and though white people have formed thousands of political factions which fought against one another, still on matters of race white people represented a coalition that held the majority for a very long time (and still does). This allowed, during the 1800s and 1900s, a Great Race narrative to be imposed on what history was taught in the schools.

I think there is a theme in what Hugo is saying, not quite explicit, that amounts to "It is much harder to learn several different narratives than to learn a single narrative." I agree, it is much harder. I think what is generally happening in the schools is that few professors are making clear that it is narratives that are being taught. Narratives themselves have become suspect. Personally, I don't think history can be taught without narrative, for about the reasons Hugo gave. Given an infinite number of facts that need to be conveyed, judgements need to be made about what very small set of facts which will be conveyed. Time is finite. I think when professors fail to make clear that what is being conveyed is really multiple, un-related, competing narratives, the information conveyed comes across as a random jumble of facts. And, to be sure, without narrative then history becomes a random jumble of facts, impossible to remember.

If I understand Hugo's point correctly, what he is saying amounts to "Instead of trying to teach all these multiple narratives, why don't we take the old, Western narrative and clean it up a bit, make it less racist and sexist and imperialist, and then go on teaching that as the narrative most relevant to our students?"

My gut level feeling is that it is more fair, and in some ways more accurate, to try to teach multiple narratives instead of just one, but I realize this is something a lot of professors have been trying for awhile and the message is barely getting through to the kids. With trepidation, I'm willing to agree with Hugo that some narratives are more relevant than others. However, some narratives are inherently global, and we have not done enough to gain enough of a global view of history to make these narratives consistent, and no nostaligia for good old Western Civ should keep us from delighting in new narratives of Western Civ that are 100% global. I'm thinking, in particular, of the French historians of the Annales school, and of Fernand Braudel in particular, who look at the rise of the West to world domination mostly through the lens of the international trade that sprang up during the 1500s and grew in scope thereafter. Braudel was sad that his generation of historians had been so brought up in the Western Civ tradition they were unable to appreciate how truly global the Western trade networks were by a very early date, or how much Western Civ absorbed from other cultures. Braudel thought that in the future things would surely be better, and students better prepared to understand how the roots of Western success were based in India and China. But 20 years after Braudel's death, I don't think things are much better than when he started writing in his youth, and even the "reformers" who want to teach multiple narratives in the schools are not, for the most part, interested in emphasizing the connections that existed between cultures at an early point. So even if we agree that some narratives are more relevant than others, I hope that agreement will not be used to justify teaching the old narratives, when we have so many new insights to explore regarding that narrative.

Alexander

Of course, the real issue is why has Western civilization come to be the dominant global civilization? Why is it that for allthe criticism of the West (and I use "West" very broadly), the non-Western world demands:

Western industrial production

Western technology

Western media/internet

Could it be that the critique of the West is simply the whining of the jealous?

Moncler Pas Cher

La doudoune Moncler sont gilets coupe-vent et résistant à l'eau consomment que l'essentiel n'ont pas l'intérieur de l'isolation

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