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On Connecting the Dots: The Case of the Missing Historian

On Connecting the Dots: The Case of the Missing Historian
Profile photo of Gary North

port-painting-300x2121Reprinted from Mises.org

History is an easy subject to teach if you are intellectually lazy. It is the most challenging subject to teach if you have a great memory, read a lot, and care about understanding causes and effects.

You keep having to rewrite your narrative to fill the same number of lessons every year. Time marches on.

If you pad your lectures, no big problem. If you write tight lectures, you must remove material you thought was crucial.

Your school district will supply you with a new edition every few years. Teach the text — the boring, establishment text.

Almost anyone with a good memory can earn a bachelor’s degree in history. He can then teach history to high school students. American high schools have used coaches to teach history to bored students for a century. Winning coaches are important to students, parents, and local voters. But they need to justify their presence on an academic payroll. High school history teachers are afterthoughts. Presto! A career opportunity for coaches.

There is a reason why high school students have hated history. Their teachers were hacks. The textbooks after World War II were dumbed down.

On Teaching History

History is a challenge to teach over a career. I have said why. Say that you are a bright, newly certified teacher at age 22 (high school) or up to 28 or 29 (university). You create your lesson plans (high school) or wing it (university). You are handed a textbook (high school and lower division university). You do not choose your own. A committee chooses a textbook that was screened by at least two committees: publishers and state boards. In the United States, this means committees in four states: New York, Illinois, California, and Texas. A veto by any of them will kill a new textbook.

If you are a hack, you teach the textbook. Your lectures barely change, year after year. But not quite. They have to change a little. That is because things keep happening. If you teach for 40 years, you have to squeeze in an extra 40 years of events.

Let’s say that you teach the introductory survey course in American history. The textbook includes something about the Indians, aka native Americans. (Note: never, ever American natives.) But since they left no written records, this section is mostly anthropological guesswork and spin. There may be a paragraph on a Viking settlement in Eastern Canada sometime around 1100. There will be something about Spain, Mexico, Florida, and the Spanish Southwest. But the story of the English colonization of America is the main story. It begins in Virginia and New England in the early 1600’s. This continues until the textbook closes at one President ago.

[Here is a strange fact that I did not notice until I taught my first survey course in American history in 2016 for the Ron Paul Curriculum. There is not even one history textbook in English on the history of North America: Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Here are two borders that can serve as markers for important sociological studies of different cultures — two different cultures, not three. Well, maybe 2.1 cultures. One border is barely patrolled along some stretches. It is hard to spot the border between British Columbia and Washington state, as thisamateur video shows. On the other side of both nations, this border runs across the middle of a library serving residents in two nations . There are no customs agents inside. The other border is a political hotbed. Trump got elected because he promised to build a wall along it. We know exactly when we have crossed this border. The cultures are very different. Why? Por qué? We need a history of North America. (Perhaps the Canadian history section could be written by the McKenzie brothers . I would read it.)]

The teacher begins teaching the memorize-and-regurgitate facts. I mean him, not the students. If he teaches the textbook, he regurgitates. He spends 40 years regurgitating if he is a hack. He has no impact on students’ lives. They do not recall his name, let alone the facts he lectured on, two decades later, or maybe sooner. He leaves no trace.

What if he is a scholar? What if he keeps reading after school? What if he incorporates this material into his lectures? What if he goes beyond the textbook? Then he faces a huge problem. In something like 180 class periods, he gives students the facts and interpretations. But to keep up with the events of his own lifetime, he must drop material. Some of the must-know facts in his first year of teaching must be dropped. New must-know facts must be incorporated into his course.

Which facts should be dropped? Which facts must be substituted? This is the crucial task for a serious historian.

It is worse at the collegiate level. If there are three 50-minute classes per week for 15 weeks, meaning 45 classes, that is a total of 90 classes for a one-year course. Subtract test hours. This is half the number of classes of a high school course. So, the teacher assigns more reading. The students are expected to do this reading. The phrase “are expected to” is in the passive voice. This is proper. Passive is exactly what first-year history students are. No instructor in his right mind expects most of his students to do the assigned reading. More than in most courses, students can coast and cram. They try to catch up on the day before a midterm exam or the final. Most of them get away with this. In contrast, no one short of a genius can do this successfully in math, physics, or chemistry. Philosophy is too rigorous. There is too much reading in English. Maybe a student can do this in sociology. It’s not that difficult to do in education.

In sociology and education, a teacher can substitute any new material he wants, or none, year after year. It will not make any difference academically. No one will notice. Not so in history courses that cover recent events. Things keep happening. What to include? What to drop?

Serious Historians

Most historians are classroom teachers. You cannot make a living as a historian if you are not a classroom teacher unless you are someone like Paul Johnson, who did not have a Ph.D., and who earned a living from book royalties, or Bruce Catton, who also had no Ph.D., and who was a best-selling author. He was not even a college graduate. Both men were journalists first. They were much like Henry Hazlitt in economics. There are few men who do this. I speak from experience. Don’t try to imitate me. There are easier ways to make a living.

I have a Ph.D. in history, but I regard myself as a part-time historian. I have not concentrated on systematic historical study. I have written only two serious history monographs: a 1,000-page history of the Presbyterian Church USA, 1720-1936 (1996), and a history of the Constitutional Convention (1989/2013). I taught my first introductory course in American history for the Ron Paul Curriculum. That was in 2016. I was 74 years old when I started teaching it.

A serious historian devotes himself to a mastery of primary sources as well as secondary sources, meaning monographs. There is a give and take between reading the dots and connecting them, to use a well-worn analogy, which are usually better than untried fresh analogies.

Because of the Web, the supply of primary sources is becoming near exponential. It is no longer necessary to have access to a major research library. Interlibrary loans bring anyone monographs free of charge. The service is rarely used, which is why it remains available. A serious researcher no longer needs travel money. He no longer needs to live near a university library with three million or more volumes. I did this, 1977-79. I drove to Duke. It was wonderful, although sporadic. It is no longer necessary. An historian is short on time, long on data. He has vastly more dots to connect.

There are two aspects of this: identifying the dots worth connecting and creating a plausible narrative without the exponentially increasing number of dots available.

The historian cannot ignore the prevailing narrative. It is his point of contact with readers, from first-time students to scholars. He cannot ignore political markers. It is not possible to write a history of the United States without marking it by Presidential elections. This is why it is so difficult to write pre-Revolutionary colonial history. There are far fewer national markers. This is why Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty is such a remarkable book. Genius that he was, he did not do it alone. The dots were collected by a remarkable historian who wrote almost nothing: Leonard Liggio.

One of the problems that men with near photographic memories have is that they are unable to cull out the vast quantities of facts they know too well. I took a course on medieval history from such a man: Ernst Ekman. Medieval history was not his specialty. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He wrote almost nothing over a 25-year career. He died at age 54. If he had lived to 94, he would not have written any more than he did.

I do not want to embarrass anyone who is still living, but I can think of two masters of historical data who have limited their output to articles. They resist putting what they know into narrative form. They would make great academic editors at low salaries. There is little demand for such editing services. University presses are struggling. Universities are not buying as many books. There is not enough shelf space. Budgets are being cut. The heyday of regional university research libraries, 1920 to 2000, is coming to an end. (I am not talking about Cambridge or Oxford, the models.)

The Web is making it possible for dedicated skilled amateurs to present their narratives. Revisionist history is growing by leaps and bounds. Public skepticism regarding all recent narratives of major events works in favor of revisionism. History courses are no longer required in many high schools and most universities. The official narrative is less and less known to readers. The history of Western civilization is a closed book — an overpriced textbook. This is why I recruited Tom Woods to teach two years of Western civilization for the Ron Paul Curriculum. The graduates will know the story far better than their peers.

Almost no one remembers David Saville Muzzey. He was the best-selling American historian of all time. His high school textbook on American history was dominant from 1911 until 1965. Yet few people, even historians, knew who he was at the time. He was a theologically liberal Presbyterian with a Ph.D. in history from Columbia and a degree from nearby Union Theological Seminary. He was a nationalist. There was never any historian with anything like his readership — a vast captive audience for half a century. He died in 1970. He looms large in Francis FitzGerald’s monograph surveying the history of American public school history textbooks, America Revised (1979). Her book is long forgotten.

There is a growing homeschool market for competing textbooks in American history. I probably should have written one. But I had other projects, other callings.

Conclusion

The narrative is more important than the dots. But it must be revised at the margin continuously to make effective use of newly discovered dots. Because every narrative must be revised continuously as events fill up the time allotted for the narrative, this is a lifetime calling.

If the narrator of text can also narrate verbally effectively, so much the better. If he can also write revolutionary monographs, better yet.

We have waited a long time for this narrator.

Articles
Profile photo of Gary North

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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