I occasionally worry that I “wasted” my undergraduate degree because I didn’t read the right/enough books, do enough research, write long enough papers, remember my Greek verb conjugations. If you stopped me on the street and asked me what year the Battle of Actium took place I would start quaking in my boots because aren’t I, who majored in Classics, supposed to know this? Fr. James Schall began the very first day of our Elements of Political History course cold-calling students to tell him when Socrates died (499 BC! I still got it [edit: no, I’m off by a century, but I remembered…something?]), so clearly it must be important to know facts, right?
Regina Munch’s review of Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), struck a nerve with me:
[A] lot of people fancy themselves history buffs. They obsess over names, dates, battles, and numbers, and they love spouting them off at top speed. (And after consuming one too many History Channel specials, anyone would think the American Civil War was the most important event in human history.) I can’t blame my interlocutor too much. This way of “learning” history—absorbing and being tested on discrete, disconnected facts from a textbook—is what we’re taught in school. If you memorize enough facts, you’re an expert.
This is what Sam Wineburg calls “history as Trivial Pursuit”—accumulated minutiae passed off as true knowledge. Wineburg’s new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), explores the way we teach history to students and the dismal consequences for political and social life in the internet era. Wineburg argues that without learning in school how to evaluate evidence, consider implications, and craft a narrative based on research and debate, we are susceptible to falsehoods, especially now that “fake news” thrives online. And if we can’t sort fact from fiction, we fall prey to whatever narrative is the most popular or the most comfortable—and lose our critical faculties as democratic citizens.
My Classics degree was primarily philological. Most of my time in undergrad was spent learning how dead languages worked, so that I could then spend time thick in the weeds of primary sources, translating and interpreting. Historical context was a necessary part of the job—who’s paying Horace to write this ode, when did he write it, why is it important that he uses the language he does for the circumstances he’s writing in and about—but for the types of courses I was taking, any historical trends, patterns, and narratives we discussed along the way were typically put in service of the text. For our purposes, the general was important insofar as it helped us to understand the specific, since so much of the “general” context within which our extant classical texts were written is unknowable by us. In place of long research papers, we were more frequently asked to write page-long local analyses on sometimes as little as a single word from a text.
My school required undergraduates to take two history courses—one “early” and one “late”—as part of our core curriculum. Classics students infamously lobbied the registrar year after year to count the historical survey courses offered in our department toward our early history requirement. The history department would never relent. What was a source of great exasperation to me then now makes a bit more sense as I can better appreciate how and why the work of the two departments differs.
For my final exam in the late history survey course I ended up taking (topic: European history since the French Revolution), my professor provided the class with four potential questions from which she would select two as essays prompts during our exam period. This was my last exam of the semester before Christmas vacation, and it was scheduled, of course, on the last possible day for exams. A friend and I spent several hours in our dorm common room rereading our notes together and outlining arguments in preparation for the essays. By the time I got to Potential Exam Question #4 (“This semester we have studied a lot of ‘-isms’, movements and ideologies responsible for great social and cultural change. Make the case for which ‘-ism’ you believe to be the most significant force in European history in the period we studied this semester,” or something to that effect), I was spent. The obvious answers were nationalism and liberalism—we spent so much time in class discussing them—so clearly that’s what she wanted us to write about, right?
I didn’t have the inspiration or energy to muster an argument for either one of them. Why choose between two such bland and broad concepts and write an entire essay on them? How could I possibly motivate myself to prepare such an argument? Why not argue that feminism was the most important -ism at work in late modern Europe instead?
I said that last bit aloud and then we were off to the races. What started as a facetious response to my own tiredness turned into a challenge to come up with a compelling argument. There wasn’t time enough to do any additional research to bolster my argument (nor, per the dictates of the exam, were we allowed to); all I had were my class notes and the texts we had read for the course. Which, come to think of it, included A Room of One’s Own, and A Vindication of the Rights of Women. I got to work crafting an argument and, by the time I turned in my exam the following day, my self-satisfaction at my cleverness (“my professor is going to be so giddy to read this essay after grading 85 identical essays about liberalism and nationalism”) turned into something else. I hadn’t convinced myself that feminism was the most important ideology at work in late modern Europe (nor would whatever I ended up writing in 20 minutes in a composition notebook before bolting out the door to Christmasy freedom), but I had learned something I’m pretty sure my professor had intended for me to: historical facts are important qua facts because there are always more of them than any one frame of historical inquiry can possibly uncover.