Two things: History

More on the Two Things meme: Glenn Whitman at Cal State/Northridge offers two sets of “two things” for history:

The Two Things about History:
1. Everything has earlier antecedents.
Corollary: all culture, including religion, is syncretic; there is nothing purely original.
Second Corollary: there’s no question that a historian can’t complicate by talking about what led up to it.
2. Sources lie, but they’re all we have.
Jonathan Dresner

The Two Things about Teaching History:
1. A good story is all they’ll remember, not the half hour of analysis on either side of it.
2. They think it’s about answers, but it’s really about questions.
Jonathan Dresner
[I have no idea who Jonathan Dresner is, but you have attribution and his e-mail.]

Off the top of my head I can’t improve much on those, though I do think the point about the good story applies both in studying history and in teaching it. We need the story to tell us what not to do — fairy tales serve a purpose in establishing myth, and history should do much the same thing if it is to help us avoid the dangers Santayana warns us about (see the Santayana quote at the top right ear of this blog, for example).

It’s all about the story. If the story is remembered, the errors may be avoided. If the story is not remembered, the chances of avoiding the errors are greatly reduced.

6 Responses to Two things: History

  1. […] as I’ve said before, “there’s no question that a historian can’t complicate by talking about what led up to […]


  2. […] as I’ve said before, “there’s no question that a historian can’t complicate by talking about what led up to […]


  3. […] as I’ve said before, “there’s no question that a historian can’t complicate by talking about what led up to […]


  4. I’ve got nothing against stories, especially good ones. But what makes a story historically good and pedagogically useful is that it illuminates (or complicates) some thing about our understanding of the history. Entertainment is fine, but it’s not why I step into a classroom.


  5. bernarda says:

    There are good stories that are never told.

    171 black americans were given the French Legion of Honor in WWI.

    In 1997, Clinton gave 7 black american soldiers from WWII. Far too late, but if Clinton hadn’t done it, no one would have.


  6. DavidD says:

    I suppose the first principle here is true, but it’s stated so extremely (“purely original”, not just “original”) that I can’t see that it has much value. It seems to me to be the equivalent of saying that every biological organism alive today has antecedents. Well, yes, but that’s far from saying that there’s nothing new under the sun, either biologically or culturally.

    It’s easier to believe the latter if one is a materialist, so that there are no unaccounted for forces like spirituality that might bring creative solutions to our ongoing cultural adaptation to first the agricultural revolution and now the scientific, technological or information revolution, whichever name one prefers. People of all sorts are forever underestimating possibilities. I suspect the way human beings eventually will overcome our nature in some stable way is not all here today for some future historian to say, “See, nothing new was needed to put the challenges of the 21st century behind us. This group here had the right answer all along.” On the contrary, the crucial parts of that story will be the innovative parts, new technology, new values, new social adaptations that will explain how humanity finally grew up culturally.

    Lying sources are not all there is. There is an ongoing cultural evolution continuing around us, and there are some things in this that are new, even if they connect to human nature, which connects to a story of life billions of years old. Unfortunately part of what is new is just meaningless dead ends, but some that is new is what the future will see as meaningful history.

    It is true that a good story appeals more to human nature than a messy, partially unknown reality. So it is that some find it a good story that questions matter more than answers. That’s not my experience. I ask lots of questions, but it’s answers that let me move on instead of being stuck on the same old questions forever. A good story and a good lie are more closely related than a good story and a reality that is always more complex than someone once thought. Can’t one teach a good story about that?


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