History And The Liberal Arts: No Easy Answers For Difficult Questions

Looking back on my 17-plus years of formal education, I’d have to say my instruction in history — U.S., international, and otherwise — has probably been woefully inadequate. Sure, I had a great social studies teacher in middle school who put a lot of emphasis on the subject, and my time at Butler certainly added to my “history” base, as well.

But I, like many others I’m sure, have had several patches of schooling where history was not appropriately prioritized, taught poorly, or just flat out kicked to the curb in favor of “more important” things (ISTEPs, anyone?). I’ve made it a point to continue and enhance my historical knowledge post-graduation, but I also can’t help but think how differently things would be if history, especially history of cultures outside our own, were a larger part of our national curriculum.

I recently caught up with Paul Hanson, PhD, professor of history within Butler University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I was fortunate to take one of Dr. Hanson’s history courses during my time at Butler, and now, more than five years since I took that course, I figured it was long overdue to catch up and see what has changed and how history is being emphasized.

Here, Dr. Hanson covers a wide array of topics within the context of liberal arts education rooted with basic history. And for those who have yet to realize it, those history courses that we take over our educational careers are a necessary foundation for critical thinking — and continuing education beyond the walls of higher education.

Q: Let’s start with a general overview, from your perspective, of the state of “history.” How is history taught today, is it taught well, and how should it be taught within the overarching educational framework?

Dr. Paul Hanson

Dr. Hanson: I think the first point to make is that history is not being taught today as much as it used to be. When students come to us at Butler, we often find that they have some background. If they are from Indiana, then they will have taken Indiana history at some point. They will have taken some U.S. history in high school. They will not necessarily have any significant exposure to European history, much less history of the rest of the world. Because one of the things that the Bush reforms did — No Child Left Behind — was to focus the attention of school district superintendents and principals on what we might call “the basics”: reading skills and math skills, which is not to say that those are not important, but that’s what counts on things like ISTEP and thus that’s what the emphasis becomes in the school curriculum. In the desire to cut costs, the things that get left behind, probably first and foremost, are the arts — which are taught less than they used to be — but also subjects like history. That’s sort of a beginning point.

But then there is the issue of how you teach history and the debate between politicians and educators about what should be included in the school curriculum. This is something that is not peculiar to the United States, but certainly we’ve seen some examples in recent years of school boards or educational commissions in Southern states not wanting to see a lot of emphasis placed on the history of slavery and the role slavery played in the Civil War. Rather, they want to teach a version of that concept that emphasizes state rights and gives a more positive picture to the position taken by people who lived in those states three or four generations ago. If you do that, you’re essentially teaching a history that aims at glorification. That’s an issue today in France, where there’s much concern on the question of immigration and how North Africans can get into the French nation. Are they French citizens? What do they need to do to become French citizens? And whose history are we going to teach as we try to move forward in time? The issue for France is, “How much do we talk about the Algerian War in our curriculum? Do we really want to drag that painful history out into public view, or do we kind of want to brush over it?”

So these are the questions that come up everywhere. They exist in China today as China goes through an enormous amount of change, but those questions certainly exist here in the United States and of course in Indiana where we are debating whether or not creationism should be taught in schools these days.

Q: You talked about No Child Left Behind. Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, explains how utterly damaging NCLB is. Like you said, it’s placing an emphasis on reading and math — which are important — but at the same time, it’s focusing on testing and holding teachers and principals “accountable” without actually prioritizing the education and teaching of students. Can you talk a little more about civics, the humanities, and the social sciences, like history, and how they are getting left behind because they aren’t on these standardized tests?

Dr. Hanson: In addition to raising questions about the testing that is embedded in No Child Left Behind, Diane Ravitch is also challenging the notion that charter schools are a big success and are the way to go. There is certainly is a lot of pressure here in Indianapolis and in Indiana generally these days to allow charter schools a greater share of the educational market, as it were. But there’s not a lot of examination so far as to the degree to which they are more successful than traditional public schools. Race is clearly an issue here. Poverty is an issue. That’s for urban schools, but that’s also for rural, poor schools as well. There are a lot of questions to be asked here about all this.

To come back to the issue of how history and the humanities are taught, as you might remember from your time here at Butler, we talk a lot about critical thinking. We try to teach critical thinking, which is a very fuzzy, ambiguous thing. If there’s one thing critical thinking entails, it’s the understanding and acceptance that there is rarely a right answer to interesting and difficult questions. So how do you create a test that is easily gradable that will measure the degree to which students are becoming successful at thinking critically? It’s much easier to develop tests that are multiple-choice, that have “right” answers, and that produce a score that politicians and ordinary people can easily understand, even if it’s a somewhat misleading score or non-representative score.

George Santayana is often quoted for having said, “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s sort of leads one to the notion that history, itself, repeats itself. In some ways, it does. Certainly, if you live long enough, you will find scenarios that look very much like things that occurred in different places at different times in the past. But Brian Greene, the string theory physicist, says the same thing about the universe. He says it’s almost inconceivable that there not people identical to us out there somewhere in the universe. It’s a weird saying to contemplate, but the notion that history repeats itself is, I think, a little bit misleading because in the same way studying history doesn’t produce easy answers or [explain] why things didn’t happen in exactly the same way that they did before. Circumstances change; populations change; levels of education change; the world context changes.

For one example, the situation in Iran right now, which we’re so worried about, is interesting in part because the demographics of Iran are changing dramatically. A dramatically high percentage of the population is under 30 years of age, and that means that there’s going to be change in the years ahead. The older clerics and others who control Iranian politics right now are not going to be able to continue in this division unless they decrease the repression that is within their own society, which is a hard thing to do. How that change is going to play out is very hard to predict.

Q: I want to go back to another one of your points you made earlier, regarding how history is being taught and how different topics are being emphasized. That reminds me of Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States. For example, he writes about Christopher Columbus, who in traditional history classes is heralded as a leader. We even have a day memorializing him, but this was a guy who unabashedly slaughtered Native Americans. We have this glorified view of Columbus, who was nothing short of a mass murderer. Can you talk about this type of history that we aren’t taught and the different emphases that are being placed on the genre today?

Dr. Hanson: Two things come to mind. One is that you’re not going find Howard Zinn’s book being assigned anywhere in Texas. The Texas Board of Education wields an enormous influence across the country because of the population of Texas and the degree to which textbook publishers belie the decisions made in Texas about what to publish and what to market. So when the Texas Board of Education makes a decision about including or not including a book in its curriculum, it has an impact all across the country. They don’t tell what the people in New Jersey, for example, can assign, but they limit the options.

You’re not the first person to say to me how eye-opening they found Howard Zinn’s book to be. It is eye-opening because it presents you with material that you haven’t encountered before, and that is sometimes a little shocking and surprising. When I was a freshman many years ago, 42 years ago I guess, back at Stanford, I signed up in my first year in a sociology class. It was called the Socialization and Education in America, or something like that. A young professor was teaching it. It was not an area I expected to be majoring in, and you were able to take, I think, three classes pass/fail at Stanford as an undergraduate. So I talked to him the first week of class and said, “I’m thinking about taking this class pass/fail.” And he looked at me and said, “Why, do you want to fuck off in here for the whole quarter?” So I immediately said, “No, no, no, I’ll take it for a grade!” The most salient thing that I remember from that class was confronting the fact that public education was not just about education. It was also about socializing and sort of inducting young people into the world that the United States is — and that’s a world in which corporations wield an enormous amount of influence. And it’s a world in which people don’t always like their employees or their students or their children asking them difficult questions. For all that we talk about the value of critical thinking and being independent, there are also enormous forces at work in our society that want us to be like other people.

Every time I go before a group of high school kids and their parents on admissions days and talk about critical thinking, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “Some of you parents out there probably really don’t want us to teach your kids to be critical thinkers because it means they come home in two or three years asking questions about the world that you haven’t encouraged them to ask — and the answers to which you may not particularly like.”

Q: You started talking about Iran a little bit ago. You said history repeating itself could be misleading. Can you talk about that within the framework of Iran? Do you see similarities between this situation and when the U.S. invaded Iraq?

Dr. Hanson: I don’t know enough about the region to be able to do more than ask questions or point to issues that are difficult or complicated to sort through. But first, to go back to Iraq, if you stop and think about the lead up to both wars in Iraq, the first one under George Bush Sr. and the more recent one following 9/11 — who did Saddam Hussein get compared to? It was Hitler. Saddam Hussein was kind of painted as a Middle Eastern Hitler, and the reason for that was very clear. Everybody thinks Hitler was chiefly responsible for World War II, and the story of World War II is, in part, the story of Britain and France trying to “appease” Hitler and avoid seeing Europe go to war again. We didn’t want to do that. Saddam Hussein is like Hitler. It was bad to appease Hitler. Thus, it’s going to be bad to appease Saddam Hussein. I wouldn’t want to argue that you couldn’t make a reasonable argument like that. But that one was too easy, and it avoided looking at a whole host of other issues, which now we’re having to confront and think about.

There aren’t many people today, I don’t think, who would argue that the Iraq War was a success, that we really accomplished anything positive there. There’s still a lot of seething resentment in the country about the damage that we left in our wake and about the dysfunction of the country, and certainly among women, there is concern about the fact that they have less space and freedom in Iraqi society today than they did when Saddam Hussein was still in power.

In regard to the Iranian situation, one thing that is different in today’s world than it has been for the past 75, 80 years is that you don’t have the Soviet Union as a strong, countervailing force on Iran’s northern flank. Russia is regaining some strength today, but it is still not in the position that the Soviet Union was in even 15, 20 years ago. Although we tend to think of the Soviet Union as an opponent, the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union also operated as a constraint for countries like Iran exercising their military might in an aggressive way. Where it could go with this situation in Iran is very hard to predict.

I heard an analysis on NPR a couple of weeks in which the speaker asserted that it seems pretty clear that Israeli intelligence and military are pushing for some kind of intervention. It also seems very clear what the fallout of that will be. There will be some kind of retaliation against Israel. Even if they go in and successfully damage the Iranian nuclear capability, there will be a price to pay at home for that. The most they can gain is to push [Iran's nuclear program] back by three years, maybe five years at the most. It’s not going to deal a permanent blow to the Iranian ability to develop nuclear weapons. It’s only going to postpone it.

Now, is it going to postpone the inevitable? That’s impossible to say, and one of the things that the people in Israel have to think about is that there is a regime in Iran that probably realizes that its days in power are numbered. People in that situation can be expected to take rasher actions than people who think their future is stable and predicable. It’s those kinds of unknowns on all sides that make it hard to say where things are likely to lead here.

An essay by Jonathan Spence, who taught Chinese history at Yale, in the New York Review of Books covers a book that Henry Kissinger published about China a year or two ago, sort of Kissinger’s memoirs. In his book, Kissinger makes references to a famous memorandum that was written on the eve of World War I in Great Britain. This memorandum [by Eyre Crowe] was about the looming confrontation between Great Britain and Germany, which was growing both industrially and in terms of their military power in the latter part of the 19th century. Spence goes through what Crowe has to say about the situation, and clearly the conclusion that Kissinger draws is that Crowe was right in analyzing that inevitable confrontation and predicting that there’s going be conflict coming. What he doesn’t talk about so much is that there were responses to Crowe’s memorandum. Indeed, the original memorandum itself has comments written in the margins. They reach an almost diametrically opposed conclusion. So who do you believe? Whose analysis do you accept? Do you accept Crowe as being right because that’s the way things turned out, or do you admit the fact that it is possible things could’ve played out differently if certain events had not transpired in the way that they did?

Historians like to use the word “contingency,” and not all historians emphasize it as much as others. Some would prefer to emphasize large forces in the world that push things in particular directions, but, for example, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was a contingent event. All sorts of things about that day could’ve gone differently than they did, and if he hadn’t been assassinated, would the path to World War I have been a different one? Would the alliances have played out in a slightly different way? These are all things that we can’t know with certainty. Spence can reach conclusions in his review. He simply put that out in front of people to say, well, maybe we are headed toward some kind of confrontation with China as it grows in power in the years ahead — but maybe not.

Q: I read your thoughts for the Butler’s Class of 2015. You just mentioned China, so let’s continue to stay in your wheelhouse of sorts with French history. What are some of the similarities you can make between the period of French history that you are so familiar with and the general events you’ve seen in the world today?

Dr. Hanson: The most striking similarity is that one of the things that was happening at the end of the 18th century was literacy was increasing in Europe. Publishing was increasing in Europe. There was a world of ideas that was becoming much more available to a broader part of the population than had ever been the case before. We talk a lot about the Internet today and the knowledge and information that the Internet makes available to people. Clearly, in Egypt last year, there was an effort on the part of the government to control the access that ordinary people had to the Internet. Same thing happens in China today. The Chinese government tries to control the access to Google and to other international websites that provide access to things that are published in the West. In both cases, that effort to control, I think, will prove to be futile. The French government couldn’t control it.

The most important publication of the Enlightenment was the encyclopedia. It sort of seems counterintuitive today that an encyclopedia was a revolutionary publication. But what that encyclopedia did was to make available to people information that had previously been private and inaccessible, some of it very ordinary and typical kinds of information, but it also presented people with a publication that at least had the pretense of presenting all known knowledge in a coherent and organized way. Well, today we’ve got Wikipedia. I just read an essay by the current president of the American Historical Association, who acknowledges that he looks at Wikipedia almost every day, and he says in many ways it is a more useful reference source than the Encyclopedia Britannica because of its flexibility and because it has the space to publish lengthy articles about things that for editorial reasons, Encyclopedia Britannica chooses to devote only a small article. Yes, you have to be skeptical about what you find in Wikipedia. You need to follow up and verify information. He said, like every other history professor in the country, “I do not encourage my students to cite Wikipedia,” but it is a good place to start in exploring questions about which you don’t know very much. And it’s democratic, both in its accessibility, but also in the fact that anybody who wants to can edit Wikipedia articles. So it’s an interesting sort of phenomenon.

So what’s going on today in the expansion of knowledge and information that’s available to people is very similar to what was happening at the end of the 18th century. It’s not surprising in that way that we’ve got these popular movements, which may prove to be revolutionary in North Africa and the Middle East and maybe potentially in China someday. But we also know, and this is a lesson that the 20th century taught us clearly, governments have a capacity to repress their citizens and deny access to information that is technologically far more sophisticated than back in the 18th century. People have more power in some sense, but governments also have greater military force to wield and censorship forces to wield than was the case hundreds of years ago.

Q: How would you summarize how people — young students, college students, working people — how should we try and approach history right now, and should the liberal arts be treated as an ongoing exercise?

Dr. Hanson: First, it’s more important than it’s ever been for students, whether they be in high school or in college, to learn about other parts of the world and to get some exposure to other people’s history. Yes, we need to know our own history better than we do, and reading people like Howard Zinn is a good way to do that. But as a people, Americans are woefully ignorant about the rest of the world. We have a lot of difficulty in going back to the Middle East and a lot of difficulty in understanding how important the colonial experience of the past 100 years is for people in Iran and Iraq and Egypt and across North Africa. We think of this as a confrontation among the world of Islam and the world of Christianity and the world of Western secularism. Those are important forces, too, but there is that inescapable colonial legacy that is sort of foreign to us. I think it’s important to study those histories, and I think it’s also important to travel and see the world.

It’s a big world out there, and we need to know about it. In the aftermath of the Cold War, it’s tempting to think it’s “our” world, but it’s not. It’s radically and rapidly changing. This is important — for us to continue to push and increase our understating of other parts of the world and the history of the rest of the world as well.

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