Two things: History

September 24, 2006

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.


Two things: Economics

September 24, 2006

You can look up “meme” if you need to or want to. I won’t clutter your life with an explanation here.

I recently learned of the Two Things meme, again courtesy of WordPress’s tags tools. It appears to have been most developed by Glenn Whitman, at California State University – Northridge (also here).

Two Things about economics:

  • One: Incentives matter.
  • Two: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Arnold Kling at Liberty Fund’s Econ Library is uncomfortable with the claims. Tim Worstall at Tech Central less so.

Neither of the two things in economics will do a whit for a student on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). For TAKS, basic economics isn’t as important as the political end of the scale. For TAKS, Texas kids need to know what the Texas Education Agency thinks important about economics, which is:

1. Economic systems are classified as:

  • Traditional or subsistence agriculture;
  • Command or Demand (usually totalitarian government)
  • Free market or free enterprise (usually a democracy)
  • Mixed system

2. Countries with free enterprise economic systems have the highest per capita income, GNP, educational levels, and lowest infant mortality rates.

No kidding. The second point is very interesting to me, considering that Cuba has the highest literacy rate and lowest infant mortality rate in the Americas. Clearly these are not hard and fast rules — the exceptions should be very interesting.


Behind “kill all the lawyers”

September 24, 2006

In an otherwise informative post about a controversy over alternative certification for school administrators, at EdWize, I choked on this:

The Department leaders, Klein, Seidman and Alonso, lawyers all (perhaps Shakespeare was correct), are rigid ideologues who have alienated their work force as well as the parents of their constituents

Did you catch that? Especially the link to the Shakespeare line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers?”

This is not exactly history we’re fisking here — it’s drama, I suppose. Still, it falls neatly into the category of debunkings, not too unlike the debunking of the story of Millard Fillmore’s bathtub.

The line from Shakespeare is accurate. It’s from Henry VI, Part II. But it’s not so much a diatribe against lawyers as it is a part of a satirical indictment of those who would overthrow government, and oppress the masses for personal gain.

It is Dick the Butcher who says the line. Jack Cade has just expressed his warped view that he should be king, after having attempted a coup d’etat and taken power, at least temporarily. Cade starts in with his big plans to reform the economy — that is, to let his friends eat cheap or free.

Dick chimes in to suggest that in the new regime, the lawyers ought to be the first to go — they protect rights of people and property rights, and such rights won’t exist in Cade’s imagined reign. Cade agrees. The purpose of killing the lawyers, then, is to perpetuate their rather lawless regime.

At that moment others in Cade’s conspiracy enter, having captured the town Clerk of Chatham. The man is put on trial for his life, accused of being able to read and keep accounts. Worse, he’s been caught instructing young boys to read. Read the rest of this entry »


Cold War hero Günter Schabowski

September 24, 2006

Do you remember Günter Schabowski? I didn’t.

This snapshot of his role in the unwinding of the Berlin Wall story is the sort of thing we need to preserve, as historians, I think. It shows how large organizations tend to foul things up. And it shows how one person can influence history, even with error. It demonstrates how history does not consist of foregone conclusions, but is instead a long string of serendipitous events.

It’s just the sort of story I like, over at Earthling Concerned.


World changing presentations

September 24, 2006

Before the proliferation of video projectors and computers, and the proliferation of Microsoft PowerPoint and similar programs, lectures with visual aids usually meant a few phrases on a chalk board, or a few select phrases on flip charts. Sometimes visual aids meant overhead projector slides, which offer the advantage of the lecturer’s being able to write on the slide as the lecture progresses.

When I did a lot more lecturing for corporations and professional groups, I carried 35-millimeter photo slides, professionally produced. Some of them showed just the cover of a book. I favored black or very dark backgrounds with one word on a slide. With just one word, I could edit the presentation more easily, shuffling the order of the key words I wanted to use literally up to the last moment. Laying out a three-hour presentation using just single-word slides, with a few photos or other illustrations, served to focus me on the outline of the speech, on the pacing and timing of the presentation, and focus especially on just what the message was to be — what I wanted the audience to leave the auditorium humming.

PowerPoint changed all of that, and not necessarily for the better. Oh, I use PowerPoint myself, though I tend to favor single, high-impact historical photographs, rather than the thousand-word essays some people put up on the single slides. I still edit to get pictures that are spare in presentation, but rich in thought, and rich in potential for edifying talk. I have seen a few PowerPoint masters — perhaps you have, too — who can dispense an enormous amount of information and inspiration with a minimum of words and slides. Read the rest of this entry »


Maybe homeschoolers have ulterior motives (sometimes)

September 24, 2006

Scripps News carried an op-ed type of feature from a Texas English professor named John Crisp, that questions whether public education is as bad as some crack it up to be, and whether homeschooling is the noble answer to the over-stated problem that homeschooling is cracked up to be. The entire piece is worth reading, but his closing paragraphs deserve emphasis:

Abandonment rather than improvement of our public schools would be an unfortunate choice. I’m attracted to the ideas of the late Neil Postman, who argues in his book “The End of Education” that to the extent that our nation enjoys a common shared culture, that culture has been developed and is passed on from generation to generation at least partly by means of the shared knowledge and ideas that we acquire during our common experience in the public schools.

In other words, because our public schools are a place where we develop a set of common stories, myths and experiences _ George Washington crossing the Delaware, Betsy Ross sewing the first flag, even the fear of being sent to the principal _ they encourage a sense of a shared heritage that helps pull our country together.

Homeschooling and vouchers for private schools _ places that allow the teaching of the things that Roger Moran believes _ tend to pull us apart. All in all, our public-school system has served us well; it would be better to repair its faults than to abandon it.


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