Is History Hard?

Yes and no. The trick is to take hard history and make it look effortless, so readers or students think, “Well of course that’s how it was. Why didn’t I see that earlier? It’s so simple.”

The class I teach is a foundations of history class. The students are building the foundation and scaffolding for understanding the past, setting up a framework to hang other things on. This is difficult. Names, dates, and places don’t flow when you are hearing them for the first time. It doesn’t help that there is also a lot of social history and special-interest history crammed in with the major names-places-dates, and the students don’t know how to pick out what is most important, yet. They will, some of them. Some people never grok history, which I think is a tragic shame, but then I’m math challenged, and the calculus teacher looks at me as a poor benighted ‘eathen who could do it if she just tried harder. Ditto the college-level chemistry teacher. Good history, told, displayed, or written, flows. It may not be easy to read or painless to follow, but it should flow and have a story within all the data. When computers first became available for historians and sociologists and others in the 1960s, people went a little overboard with the new toys and “Cliometrics” emerged, using numbers to elucidate the past. Sometimes it works very well indeed, and can reveal serious surprises and explanations that we had missed before, like mapping the locations and incomes of the people of Salem and New Salem, MA revealed factions and connections that made the sequence and targets of the witch trials a lot more understandable. Alas, it also meant that for a while everyone was trying to wring numbers and patterns out of things that are not quite so cooperative. Then we got the inevitable rebound and the “numbers are nothing! Lived experience is all! The Feeeeelzzzz!” reaction. This came in part because some historians got so wrapped up in the numbers that they lost the gift of communicating that information and putting it into the story.

But to understand the story, you need a framework. If I tell you about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt Joe-Friday style (just the facts), you would probably think that the Spanish were a bunch of evil sadists and genocidal to boot, who richly deserved what they got, as did the Indians who had allied with them. If I go back and give you the story of the Reconquista, and how the Spanish had been conditioned over the centuries to look at the Ottoman Turks and North African Berbers, and point out that it was very easy to take those observations and patterns and apply them to the Indians, you might say, “Ah, so it was not the Spanish are move evil than anyone else ever. It was frustration, religious motivation, 800 years of warfare against the Muslims and their allies, and rather typical brutality on both sides. And a few nasty SoBs.” You won’t like the Spanish, perhaps, but you will have a better idea of why.

You don’t necessarily want to spend a year on your own reading through the handwritten Latin and Spanish (of a sort) reports in the Archive of the Indes in Madrid and Mexico City, or going through Native American accounts, or walking the terrain, or studying the history of the Iberian Peninsula. That’s my job. And I’m working on the idea that you are familiar with the facts that Spain had to be reconquered from the Moors, and then colonized the New World, and that you understand that people then thought a little differently about certain things than we do today, but had very good reasons (for them) for thinking and doing that. My students don’t.

For them, history is hard. I can try to make it a little easier, add colorful bits, connect it to modern things, but they are still lifting girders, fastening I-beams, framing in the history house, heaving materials up to the 20th floor and hoping the walls at the bottom are solid. In some cases they are not, either because the student came from a different place and missed X portion of the history curriculum, or because they don’t remember it because history is not their thing.

I understand. it frustrates me as a teacher, because I’d love for all of them to fall in love with history and to clamour for more and to get perfect scores on the tests. It’s not going to happen. Some do, they love it or learn to love it, and soak in as much as they can hold. Others loath it with a hot passion and live for the day they never have to open another history book again. Or they don’t care about European history and want me to spend the entire year on China. Alas, this is not History 385: China from 1000 BCE to Present. I can’t focus just on military history (which would be fun), or social history (they need the politics and economics) or economic history, or environmental history, or religious history, or . . . I’m introducing them to everything. That’s hard. And I’m hoping they will remember enough, that the framework is solid enough, that they can then start decorating the house or sky scraper, filling in the spaces with cool stories and neat details and all the things that make history so much fun.

For me, it is easy. I am still learning. Only ten years ago did I manage to lock the chronology of western Europe into place enough that I can hang other things onto it. The US came earlier (as it should have!), but Asia? I have to think in terms of Europe. Ditto Africa. Latin America gets tied to the US. I just don’t know enough yet to be able to do more than add to the structure. Forget hanging sheetrock or painting.

History is hard. My job is to make it look easy and inviting. Do I succeed? I may never know.

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5 thoughts on “Is History Hard?

  1. I am by no means a historian, or a student of history, but I have learned that history is propaganda. ((With the caveat here that I use a variation of RAH’s definition of propaganda, it is not necessarily evil or bad, just intended to persuade the listener/reader.)) I have even seen it with my own eyes: Mary of Argyle. If one reads British History, she is a traitor who was trying to usurp her cousin’s throne. If you read Scottish History, she is a young woman who was used as pawn in a game between England / Spain / Scotland and was wrongfully imprisoned and executed.

    The victor wants to paint themselves as Righteous. The loser wants to be seen as the Victim (as a side note, we do tend to romanticize the conquered – hence the myth of the noble savage of America or Genteel South or Righteous Jacobite ) Personally, I think the truth lies somewhere between.

    Just the thoughts of an untrained research nut; I claim no specific knowledge.

  2. One thing about the Conquistadores is that they were proficient enough that before there was much of a European presence to note how bad the Aztecs and Incas really were, the Conquistadores had taken care of them. No doubt those being the two major “civilizations” they first encountered in the New World, reinforced the impression that they were no better than the Turks.

    • Yeah. You spend the march from Mexico City up to the Rio Grande listening to that guy talk about what the Aztecs did to his great uncle, and the you come to a walled city that is supposed to be the northern outpost of the Aztecs, and they also act like Moors in a way, and . . . it gets nasty, quick.

  3. You’d like my grandson. He’s studying western civ history at 7yrs and already knows it better than I. At least the dates. I’m sending this along to his dad (primary teacher)

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