Joshua Kim writes at the Technology and Learning blog at Inside Higher Ed that he’s reading and really enjoying Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Then, unfortunately, Kim makes a whole lot of questionable assumptions about the ways in which history is currently taught or should be taught in university classrooms.
The last time I learned about the Columbian Exchange was in high school. Learning dates and the sequence of events, and getting familiar with maps and geography, was central to my high school history experience. As a history major in college the emphasis on maps, dates, and events diminished, as the work in primary sources came to the forefront.
I can’t imagine 1493will be much required in college history courses, as this type of historical narrative for a popular audience (written by a journalist and not a historian) probably does not conform to how postsecondary history is taught. This is perhaps too bad, as I just did not know most of the history of Columbian Exchange described in 1493.
Learning how to “do history”, to work like historians, is probably not a bad thing. But most history undergraduate students will not go on to graduate school. A book like 1493, a book with strong opinions and lots of dates, geography, people and events, might be an example of the kind of works we should make room for in our history courses.
Kim is probably right that a synthetic work aimed at a popular audience probably won’t be on a whole lot of college and university syllabi. But why should books aimed at a general audience be taught by professional historians, when students might instead read a more challenging book with a professor on hand to guide them through it? Students are perfectly free at any point of their college or post-collegiate lives to pick up a book like 1493 and read and enjoy it, just as Kim did.
Quite frankly, I don’t think I need to show my students how to read a book like 1493 or celebratory biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” by David McCullough. (I think I personally might die of boredom–and my number-one criteria for selecting books for my syllabi is whether or not *I* think they’re exciting or interesting and can stand to read them again.) Student can find and read the popular books on their own, and perhaps my former students will get a little more out of them because they’ve had to read other books about the eighteenth century by (for example) James Sidbury, Clare Lyons, Sharon Block, Kirsten Fischer, Jon Sensbach, and Annette Gordon-Reed.
Finally, I disagree with Kim’s construction of popular history versus academic history–a history “with strong opinions and lots of dates, geography, people and events” on the one hand, as opposed to the dull, primary-source based history that professional historians write and teach on the other. (Wait a minute–I thought one of the problems with academic history is that it’s all just facts and dates and geography. Clearly, history is too important to be left to the historians, but we’ll go with Kim’s complaint that there aren’t enough strong opinions, facts, or dates in academic histories.) As I suggested above, strong opinions are central to my interest in books and in assigning them to students. How much stronger an opinion can you find than (for example) Ramon Gutierrez’s forceful argument that berdaches are not early modern heroes of gay liberation but rather were more likely conquered enemies and victims of rape? How about Annette Gordon-Reed’s awesome smackdown of the Thomas Jefferson biography industry of the past two centuries? I don’t know what Kim read as a History major in college, but maybe he should have looked for more interesting or more challenging courses.
Kim should perhaps hie himself over to a history classroom at Dartmouth, where he is not a History professor but rather “the director of learning and technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science Program at Dartmouth College” and “has a Ph.D. in sociology from Brown University.” I’m pretty sure that the History faculty over there would be surprised to hear Kim describe their work in these terms. They probably think that showing students how to “do” history with primary sources is important for developing their students’ critical and literary faculties as well as central mastering the discipline even as an undergraduate major.
Why do we never hear calls for science faculty to ditch their lab sections? Does anyone seriously think that books by Atul Gawande and Robert Krulwich should supplant the lab- and research-based curriculum in science department, in spite of the fact that few science majors will go on to earn Ph.D.s in their fields? I mean no disrespect to these authors, whose work I enjoy. But I don’t for a minute think that they are working scientists. And if I were a student or a parent of a college student, I’d sure as heck want to be trained (or have my child trained) by a professional, not by a collection of popular books on the subject.
32 Responses to “How we teach history? Thoughts on the work of professional historians.”