"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Why History Matters–A New Way To Teach It

I hated history when I was in high school, and thanks to a very liberal curriculum committee at Yale, I was able to avoid it entirely in college.  The courses I was required to take at the secondary level were the obligatory American History, a dry and thuddingly boring account of Presidents, Whigs, taxes, European wars, decrees, and proclamations.  It was lifeless, perfunctory, and and to me totally irrelevant.

My college roommate took courses in European History; and when I had a look at his textbooks, discussing a thousand years of the most complicated maze of kings, emperors, popes, and endless battles and skirmishes among them, I shuddered.

I took a number of courses in Art History which was quite different.  I took an automatic cut of 10 percent in my grades because I decided not to bother with dates and to focus entirely on aesthetics, meaning, and context.

Only many years later did I start to study history. I lived in India shortly after college, and needed some anchor to begin to understand this new, complex, and kaleidoscopic culture.  I bought A History of India  by Romila Thaper (Part I) and Percival Spear (Part II), and although I struggled to keep the dynasties in order and to remember who was fighting whom and why, I persisted.

The Qutub Minar complex – tower, mosque, and gardens - was not just a pleasant place to have a picnic, but an important Muslim site.  The tower, Qutub Minar, was built in 1192 to celebrate the the victory of Mohammed Ghori over the Rajputs leading to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate.

Mathura, a city not far from Delhi is cited in the Ramayana as the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and has a long ancient history.  It was ruled by the Mauryan and Sunga dynasties and later the Indo-Greeks and Indo-Scythians from the 4th Century BCE to the Christian era.

In one place, there was a confluence of Indian myth, Hindu empire, and Greek conquests; and a reading of the history of Mathura helps to understand the role of mythology, religion, conquest, and empire in forming the modern Indian state.

The point is only that history only meant something to me when I needed it to decipher what I was seeing.  I took American history for granted perhaps because all of us Americans have some iconic recognition of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence.  We may not be aware of just how we gained our independence, or how the political haggling among representatives of the colonies and new states produced agreement and consensus which resulted in the construction of the pillars of our Republic; but we have at least some sense of where we come from and how we got here.

Not so in India, where all was a mystery.  One could easily be immersed in the incredible side-show of the country – fakirs, markets, a thousand gods, temples and sculptures, and heat and dust – but the question of how it got to be this way was unavoidable and essential for me.

My later travels through Africa, Latin America, and post-Communist Eastern Europe were no different.  What was life like under Ceausescu, I wondered when I saw his exorbitant palaces and state buildings, the wreck of the cities, the total disorientation and sense of loss of the newly ‘free’ Romanians? Why were military dictatorships so common in Latin America?  Was Bolivar really responsible? And if so, why did populations so rely on martial authority and institutions? Why was Africa so desperately poor and dysfunctional after 50 years of independence? What was the real difference between Hutus and Tutsis and why did genocide occur?  What elements of African history have a bearing on the American South?

If it took such a cultural thwack on the head to get me to pay attention to history, it is no wonder that today’s American students muddle through dates and dynasties, work for grades, and forget most of what they have learned the summer after they graduate.  It is no surprise that the number of history majors is at a low ebb.  Few colleges and universities require history courses, the humanities as a whole are in decline, and fewer and fewer students have anything other than an intimation of what makes the world tick.

What can be done, if anything, to reverse this trend – or at least to make history courses attractive and relevant without dumbing them down?

I recently taught an adult course on Travel at a small university in the South.  Most of the people taking my course had not been out of the state let alone out of the country, and my tales of India, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe attracted a full house every week.  I recounted the experiences of my 45 years of travel with personal anecdotes presented within the context of history. My stories of the grand hotels of Asia – the Raffles, Oriental, and Grand – were accounts of European colonial history, local economy, and geography.  My miseries in dysfunctional countries like Angola were glimpses of colonialism, territory and turf, venality, and collusion.  There was a reason for the crime, the corruption, the continually hobbled economy, and the presence of the Chinese.  My experiences in Romania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia in the 90s were looks into a Western Europe of the 50s.

My visits to Mali, Mauritania, and Burkina were similar, for most of the Western-style hotels and restaurants were run by French ex-colonists – small businesspeople who simply stayed on in Africa because they had nothing in common with the mother country. The food was classic bourgeois and from ‘La France Profonde’ – deeply traditional and conservative with old-world, old-fashioned traditions.

I was, therefore, able to convey all the romance, excitement, and adventure of foreign travel to exotic places and provide at least some social, economic, political, and cultural context to my stories.

For the past ten years I have been travelling through and staying in the Deep South for at least two months a year.  Every time I crossed Florida Avenue in Washington, DC and stepped over a racial divide as distinct as that of apartheid South Africa, I asked myself the same question – how is it possible that in 2013 there can still be huge swaths of the city totally black, poor, and marginalized?  Much is made of racism, but we in Washington, Detroit, and Atlanta are living the legacy of slavery.  This is not to imply that white racism is the only factor responsible for the persistent ghettoization of so many urban areas.  Far from it.  Only by exploring and understanding the antebellum, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow South could one begin to interpret today’s racial dynamics.

My stories of the Deep South are about magnificent plantation homes, cotton fields, the Mississippi River, Southern writers, lambent afternoons with Mint Juleps; but also about slavery.  Many of the restored plantation homes had historical records of previous owners who kept accounts of their slave-based enterprise. Historical archives in Jackson, Montgomery, and Baton Rouge traced the roots of African migration, settlement, and slavery.  Perhaps most importantly, older Southerners remembered and were willing to talk about life ‘the way it was’, stories they heard from their grandmothers who had lived before the Civil War.

If one were to start history from the front end – that is from today – and work backwards not in chronological order but in order of influential importance, one might find more interested students. If courses were organized around historical themes, such as ‘Slavery and the American South’ or ‘The Legacy of Slavery – The Ghetto, the South, and Africa’  they might have more resonance and relevance. In the past most universities and colleges have offered these specialized courses only to History majors or to those who had at least completed History 101.  However, if designed properly within the new paradigm I am suggesting, no prior history course would be mandatory.

The same case can be made for Economics.  Most students who take Economics 101 are somewhat serious or at least curious about the subject; but most undergraduates shy away from what are usually dry, theory-laden, mathematics-based courses in Microeconomics; and as a result are baffled by the Fed, interest rates, balance of trade, exchange rates, and the Euro, let alone Libor, Quantitative Easing, and credit swaps. How can these students ever vote intelligently?

I would make an argument for new economics courses.  A course on Finance, for example, could be designed not with Accounting majors in mind, but for citizens.  One on economics could focus on business, entrepreneurship, risk, profit, and reward.  As Engine Charlie Wilson famously said, “The business of America is business” – a ringing endorsement of courses to explain how it all works.

As Eliza Filby writes in The Telegraph (6.25.13) in an article advocating the kind of changes to history teaching I have suggested:

In the end, what is required is not indoctrination, but imagination. If the past is another country, then a visit needs to broaden the mind as much as any jaunt to a distant land. History should be in our minds whenever we step into a museum, watch a period drama, or talk to our grandparents. Indeed, whatever the nature of the curriculum, what matters most is that what we learn in school should be a starting point, rather than an end.

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