Ross Douthat, a very idiosyncratic type of conservative, traditionalist Catholic intellectual, a type more common in Britain than in the United States, posted a highly commented columnon, of all things, the French and Indian war.
A Hollywood favorite – thanks to The Last of the Mohicans – this conflict, a small part of the much more radical Seven Years’ War, played, as Douthat suggests, a key role in European geopolitics, the evolution of European empires and the formation of a distinctive American identity .
Douthat’s column is particularly interested in how conflict might be taught in K-12 schools. He emphatically argues that war provides a unique opportunity for teachers to bring history to life. On the one hand, conflict provides the ideal opportunity for students to grapple with the idea of contingency. After all, the war started partly by accident. An incident at the start of the conflict could have ended George Washington’s career, if not his life. And the result was an extremely close call.
The fight also raises a compelling counterfactual question: what if the French and their Indian allies won?
Two other issues raised by the column sparked a cascade of reader comments: The Indigenous Peoples Agency and the Influence of Religion on Interethnic Relations. The conflict undermines the idea that displacement of indigenous peoples was inevitable and raises key questions involving alliances (with Europeans and between Indian nations) and the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of various forms of resistance. And it also raises the question of whether indigenous-colonizer relations were really different under Catholicism.
I know firsthand that many K-12 history and social studies teachers scrupulously try to avoid controversy by emphasizing research and analysis of primary sources. But as Douthat’s Chronicle suggests, even a traditional pillar, taught in the light of a recent scholarship, can result in a more inclusive story and provide students with the opportunity to grapple with big questions.
It is not patriotic history or its reverse. This is what we mean when we say that history is the teaching of philosophy by example (quote generally attributed to Thucydides).
What is the story? “Bunk” is what Henry Ford thought. A “pack of lies, the game of the living over the dead”, believed Voltaire. A register of “crimes, follies and misfortunes” of humanity, in the words of Gibbons. Or, as Arnold J. Toynbee puts it so coldly, “one cursed thing after another”.
In my opinion, history is both a subject – the totality of everything that has happened before us – and a distinct way of thinking.
Just like psychology, sociology and statistics represent distinct ways of understanding the world, so does history. Just as psychologists scientifically study consciousness, emotions, memory, learning, reasoning, and mental health, so do sociologists analyze social roles, social interactions, social structures and mechanisms of social control, and statisticians transform data into information, historians have their own analytical approach, one that relies on the recognition that everything – every object, practice, institution and cultural belief – has a history.
History lays bare certain essential truths: that nothing is static, but must be understood in a diachronic, longitudinal and dynamic way. It also recognizes that past events and decisions have lasting consequences, restrict future options and shape current identities, and that long-term developments and processes, to which people are often blind, have a powerful impact on our lives.
At the college level, I have seven specific learning objectives in my survey courses:
1. A student must demonstrate mastery of essential facts, chronology and periodization.
2. A student should demonstrate familiarity with significant historical controversies and conflicting interpretations.
3. A student should be able to explain how historians piece together important facts from the past.
4. A student should be able to formulate meaningful and researchable historical questions and to construct concise, sophisticated and convincing theses and arguments.
5. A student should demonstrate the methodological skills characteristic of history as a discipline.
6. A student should be able to demonstrate historical thinking.
7. A student should be able to analyze the connections between the past and the present in a nuanced and balanced way.
But, of course, I also hope that my students acquire something more: a real passion for the past. We live in a society that for the most part doesn’t care about history, sees the past as boring and unimportant.
I not only want my students to understand that today’s most pressing issues and deep inequalities are rooted in the past, I want them to see history as a source of wisdom: about human nature, the leadership, the dynamics of social, cultural and political change, and the ambiguities of progress.
The great historian of Communism and the Soviet Union, Ronald G. Suny, has identified seven Cs that underlie the story that I hope my students will come to appreciate.
That a nuanced understanding of people in the past requires us to understand the circumstances of their time and place. Contextualization forces us to do something that many find repugnant: sympathize with those we despise and try to see the world through their eyes.
This story consists to a large extent of struggles for values and interests. The belief that history will come to an end – that societies will somehow come to a consensus on liberal democracy, liberal capitalism, and liberal internationalism – is a dangerous delusion, because people will always be in. disagreement about what to believe, value and aspire.
A recognition that at every point in history the future is indeterminate and depends on unforeseen events and circumstances and decisions and choices that cannot be predicted with certainty.
The ways in which events, circumstances and ongoing processes combine to produce a crisis or pivot point.
A term that can be used in a liberal sense to denote inconsistencies in goals and realities (such as in the prevalence of slavery and racial inequality in a society nominally attached to freedom) or in a Marxist sense, to denote opposing forces with contradictory objectives (such as, for example, the conflicting objectives and interests of the working class and the middle class).
An appreciation of the complex, multifaceted and overdetermined causes or consequences of an event or decision, and the recognition that simplistic or reductionist explanations are grossly flawed.
An understanding that historical events take place and that choices are invariably made in a fog of uncertainty and unpredictability and are subject to the influence of emotions and other non-rational considerations.
The uses of history are multiple. History is often a source of popular entertainment, an instrument of propaganda and a tool for instilling nationalism. This often fuels a sense of grievance and victimization, but also self-righteousness and complacency.
In recent years, interest in the past has often taken on a very personal form, evident in the growing interest in genealogy and family history and in collecting antiques or objects associated with childhood or life. adolescence. Often the allure of the story lies in nostalgia, hero worship, and the longing for a fantasy world that never existed.
In our time, American history has become a weapon in cultural wars, a highly polarized partisan battlefield, and an arena for contemporary conflicts over race, violence, and public policy.
But I hope that we will also use history for another purpose: to understand, as Marx and Weber did, and like their successors in historical sociologists like Orlando Patterson, Theda Skocpol and Charles Tilly (as well as historians like Sven Beckert , David Brion Davis, George Fredrickson and Peter Kolchin), have done, the emergence, development and consequences of modern capitalism, as well as the origins and evolution of the modern world system and the modern nation-state .
Vast comparative histories encourage us to move beyond blind provinciality and understand how national expansion, state-building, colonialism, global integration, and decolonization have played out in various contexts. Such studies also remind us that topics such as industrialization, the incorporation of border regions into expanding nation-states, and the shift from slavery to a race-relations caste system and various forms of non-labor. free have taken place across national borders.
I would be the last to dismiss a concern with the past for itself as antiquarianism. As keepers of the past, historians have a professional responsibility to recover the peculiarities of the past to the best of our ability. Furthermore, such acts of historical recovery are essential to any broader understanding of our collective history.
But history can and should be something more: Whether we are studying the history of higher education, educational technology, or teaching practices, history can exhibit the complex interplay of structure, ideology, individual action and the essential historical processes that created the world today. . It can also prompt us to ask ourselves the big philosophical questions about determinism, the role of individuals in history, and whether history evolves, even in a roundabout way, in a particular direction.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.