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. Continue Reading »