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Why can't anyone write an interesting history textbook? (rant)

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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 01:59 PM
Original message
Why can't anyone write an interesting history textbook? (rant)
I love history. It's my favorite subject. I read large, heavy, volumes of history (think "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) for pleasure. Yet every history textbook, high school or college, has bored me to death.

It's all minutiae, trivia. Names, dates and events with absolutely no context or discussion of why they are relevant. Long, droning passages listing ruler after ruler, dynasty after dynasty. "In the 3rd century BCE, Hobgoblin II initiated reforms in sewage removal. He was followed by Jethro the Dull who liked cats." I'm sure this is all very fascinating but why is it important? And I'm willing to bet a lot of it IS relevant but no one ever points out WHY.

It's like the whole "Columbus discovered America in 1492" thing. Skipping over the question of how you "discover" something that is already populated by millions of people, that information is always thrown out there as if that's what is important. It's not. Why is 1492 relevant? It is, but no one ever explains why (because Europe was in a position to successfully exploit the resources they found there). Why is it important that it was some guy named Columbus? (It's not - it just distinguishes this trip from any other) What's important is the result of it all - no one ever goes into any of that.

I have 2 chapters of dull-as-dishwater history to read by Wednesday when I will have an exam, no doubt dealing with stuff that has no bearing on anything. I need the stupid class to transfer but it really irritates me that something I find so fascinating and so relevant and important is presented in a way designed to turn off all but the most determined of people.

:rant:





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Radical Activist Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 02:04 PM
Response to Original message
1. the teaching of history is warped.
There's no better proof than the fact that a majority of college students believed and supported Bush during the lead up to the Iraq War even more than other age groups did. They had never been taught about the lies leading up to various American wars that could have provided proper context and skepticism.
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ghostsofgiants Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 02:19 PM
Response to Original message
2. Two words: Howard Zinn.
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mzteris Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 02:21 PM
Response to Reply #2
3. you beat me to it! n/t
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 02:25 PM
Response to Reply #2
4. Oh, I've read Howard Zinn
Like I said, I read history for entertainment. Unfortunately too few professors assign Zinn (I did have one who did which was where I was introduced to him).

I also enjoyed the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me" which talks about the reasons why history is taught in such a dry, dusty, irrelevant way.




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cali Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 07:13 PM
Response to Reply #2
23. yep. and that's one text they used in my son's history class in HS
and we're talking a small public school in the boonies.
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 07:36 PM
Response to Reply #23
25. I love Vermont
:)





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MorningGlow Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 02:32 PM
Response to Original message
5. Completely justifiable rant
I've always been fascinated by history, but can never find any decent books to give me the perspective I crave.

I remember back in high school, freshman year social studies was all about African and Asian countries. And we spent all our time memorizing lists of imports and exports. :boring:

The next year was "European studies", and I LOVED it, because the teacher knew all the intricacies of the time period and told us all the details necessary to help us understand the subject as a whole. Plus she had great gossip about all the royals. :evilgrin:
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kentauros Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 03:15 PM
Response to Reply #5
11. That sounds a lot like my first art history teacher.
:D

She taught Ancient (Western) Art History, so we also got into the architecture of the Greeks. She really knew her stuff on it, too. Such that when the Chinese art exhibit came to Houston, we had an evening field trip and I was amazed at how much more she knew about all of it as well.

At the end of the semester, she took a job in industry and we never saw her again. Instead, we got the typical dry, uninteresting professor in her place to suffer several more semester through.
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buzzycrumbhunger Donating Member (793 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 02:33 PM
Response to Original message
6. It's unnecessary
We were so sick of public school that I homeschooled my daughter for a while. Let her choose her own texts and for history, we exclusively used autobiographies. She said she learned more in one year than the eight before. Both my kids were considered troublemakers for asking about all the revisionist crap in their texts. There is definitely an agenda being perpetrated and I suppose built-in boredom is supposed to discourage anyone from wanting to dig deeper into it all.

It's sad that college isn't much better.
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 02:46 PM
Response to Reply #6
7. The other professor I had was great
He really delved into the important stuff and made it both interesting and relevant. But I couldn't work the time schedule to get him this quarter and ended up with an online class that is strictly by the book - and a dull and boring book it is.

I failed US History twice in a row in high school even though I loved history then and continue to love it now. It's the way it's taught, not the subject, that's the problem.




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Nikia Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 02:54 PM
Response to Original message
8. The two history classes I took in college didn't use "textbooks"
I took 20th century European history and the history of slavery. Both used several different books, both primary sources and books written by historians. For both classes, we had to write papers on specific historic questions, had class discussions, and took essay exams. Both classes were considered intermediate level. I'm not sure if the intro classes used textbooks.
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Book Lover Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 03:05 PM
Response to Original message
9. The textbook is written to support, not replace, lecture and the extra original source readings
There are length restrictions on the textbooks that preclude the inclusion of all the relevant source documents (unless you want to have a three-volume set for your two-semester history survey course costing over $200?), so the textbook, usually written by several professors, has to be selective and cut into bite-sized chunks.
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 03:15 PM
Response to Reply #9
10. I understand what you're saying
But my argument is that they seem to try to include every possible name, date or detail that ever happened instead of focusing on the bigger picture. In other words, the book I'm bitching about contains far too much detail, not too little. But it's detail with no context. These are survey classes, overviews of history, not in-depth looks at one particular part of it (which would require a lot of detail).

In a class like this (basic World History covering a particular time period) the idea is to convey the major historical events and actors and what their place in the story is. By cramming in tons and tons of detail and data, the book simply turns it into a blur so that instead of supporting a lecture, it gives you about 6 semesters worth of data. You then have to pretty much guess what the professor is going to focus on in an exam because it is virtually impossible (and unnecessary) to retain it all.

This is a little easier in a lecture class but in this case, it is an online class with no lecture at all. The exam is on the first three chapters of the book and there is no clue as to what parts of those chapters will be covered.


I'm just crabby anyway - I'm sick and this is boring and I can't concentrate very well. :nuke:




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Book Lover Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 03:18 PM
Response to Reply #10
12. May I ask which book you are using?
Having worked for textbook companies for many years, I'd love to know. Maybe you've got one of mine!
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 03:32 PM
Response to Reply #12
15. Check your pm
:hi:




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WinkyDink Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 03:19 PM
Response to Original message
13. For England, nobody beats Churchill.
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kentauros Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 03:21 PM
Response to Original message
14. What we need is history taught like Connections.
:D

I'm not a history buff, but all of the shows James Burke ever did made it extremely interesting. The use of humor helped, too.

I'd take history classes if James Burke taught them :D
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Fire Walk With Me Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 07:44 PM
Response to Reply #14
27. Ya know, one day I'm going to start actually reading the entire thread prior to posting.
:hi:
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kiva Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 04:36 PM
Response to Original message
16. Eric Foner, "Give Me Liberty."
Best American history text I've seen. Because he has a cohesive theme--how have various groups of Americans have defined liberty, and how those definitions have changed over time--his writing isn't that nasty, disjointed laundry list of facts. That said, his text does lack the depth of his other books, he is brilliant in his writing about Reconstruction.

You might consider talking to your professor about the book--many instructors I know believe that all textbooks are boring, and will select their choices based on price, trying to save their students some money (not many, but a few do). There are some hideous books out there--I had to use one for the first four years I taught--so you have my sympathy.
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 04:46 PM
Response to Reply #16
19. Eric Foner is wonderful
I've read a couple of his books. I didn't realize he'd written a textbook.

I'll plow through this but it really is a pity that such a wonderful subject gets reduced to such crap.



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kiva Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 05:10 PM
Response to Reply #19
20. Agreed. NT
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kentauros Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 08:33 PM
Response to Reply #19
28. You can bet more people would be interested in history
if it wasn't taught the way it is. How does our way compare to how it's taught in other countries?

I would love to see etymology taught within history classes, but would guess it's probably best kept mostly to the study of languages. But a little bit would help, give us all an idea of how languages change over time, too, where the words come from and so on.

One thing I remember about history in grade school and college/university, is its primary focus on politics. Scientific discoveries were sometimes included, but none of the rest of the culture. There has to be a better way of blending it all together.
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Redstone Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 04:39 PM
Response to Original message
17. Good damn question. So, SO many fascinating history books, and the kids
would LOVE history if they were allowed to read them insgead of the boring textbooks.

Just like "Literature." Let the kids read GOOD books instead of those boring "classics," and they'd learn to love to read.

Redstone
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Taverner Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 04:44 PM
Response to Original message
18. Howard Zinn did - only problem is it tells the truth
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tbyg52 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 05:51 PM
Response to Original message
21. That is exactly why I hated history (hangs head in shame) in school.
Now I"m a history buff. A shame something so important is made so unappealing.
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Fire Walk With Me Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 07:11 PM
Response to Original message
22. Get the DVD set of "Connections".
And if you enjoy recent history, "Chaos: A New Science" is extremely good.
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kentauros Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 08:51 PM
Response to Reply #22
29. That's one set I should get, too
:D

Does it include both the one-hour PBS series as well as the half-hour series that came much later?

I should look for his books, too...

And don't worry about posting without reading the whole thread. I just saw that Rabrrrrrr made a post better than mine (and earlier than mine) where I talk about the same things, the inclusion of the pertinent information instead of just the political kind.

:hi:
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Rabrrrrrr Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 07:25 PM
Response to Original message
24. I always hated history classes until, in grad school, I finally got a prof. who taught holistically
And then I only hated every history class I ever had, minus his.

You are totally right - it's like history textbooks are written not so much by people who know anything about history, but by people who have a timeline sitting in front of them, for whatever country they're talking about.

I always hated, hated, hated that in any history class all I we got was a linear shot through time, focused SOLELY and EXCLUSIVELY on whatever 'country' we were looking at.

Nothing was tied together, like "in 1492 Columbus was blah blah blah because Spain was in a good position to spend money to look for gold and other treasures (hopefully a cheaper path to south pacific spices), but over in Turkey, things were getting pretty worked up about blah blah blah because the printing press allowed books to be passed around, spreading the word of blah blah and allowing information to flow so much faster, and England was just beginning a renaissance of education and learning and scientific inquiry while the Spaniards were killing Jews left and right...." and so on.

Even as a small child I knew THAT was how history should be taught - give me the whole goddamn picture you insipid, uninspired dolts!!

AND all the history we learned was through the lens of royalty (or other leaders) and the military.

Which is totally insane, because ECONOMICS (which includes FOOD and SALT) is the prime driver of history, as well as TECHNOLOGY.

Sure, the royalty and whatnot made the decisions - BUT WHY DID WE NEVER LEARN ***WHY*** THEY MADE THOSE DECISIONS?!?!

None of the great explorers went exploring just for shits and giggles and the pure fact-gathering knowledge building of it - it was ALWAYS done, partly for the former, but also for MONEY! They weren't exploring for the benefit of their curiosity. Purses were a much bigger part of it. Same with wars, diplomacy, and pretty much everything else. MONEY.

ARGH!!!

I was so happy when I finally had a professor who taught history the proper way - and it was a subject I was totally uninterested in (African American religious history), but it fit my schedule so I took it, and it ended up being WONDERFUL!

History is taught like shit in this country.
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 07:41 PM
Response to Reply #24
26. Yes, the business of talking only about leaders is pure bullshit
My other professor who I couldn't get was great and taught history as an integrated system. He also talked about the "whys" - why this event occurred, why this group invaded that area, why decisions were made.

US History is the worst - as stated above I failed it twice in high school - because it's taught as if the US was the only country on the planet. Oh, and they use "we" a lot, which is a laugh because by "we" they mean "we of white European descent."





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Bucky Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 09:01 PM
Response to Original message
30. History texts aren't supposed to be narratives like some of the books reccommended inthis thread
Edited on Sat Jan-24-09 09:02 PM by Bucky
They're tertiary sources and reference books--like an encyclopedia written in semi-chronological order. If you want a good read with discussions about relevance, you need to look for secondary books written by only one or two authors. Tertiary sources are inevitably written by committees and thus are supposed to strive for a minutiae, fact driven approach. They're not meant to be read like a novel or biography.

In a good history class the teacher is supposed to provide the context and connections you're seeking. Grab Tuchman or the Durants for the light "fun" reading. Textbooks are for scanning & skimming.
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 09:14 PM
Response to Reply #30
33. "Supposed to be"
Why?

Seriously. A history book absolutely should NOT be like an encyclopedia. History is not a study of minutiae. It is a process by which we try to ascertain what happened at a given time and why. To teach history, we should be teaching students how to apply history, how to examine the information we have and glean what is important about it. To do that, we need to present fewer lists of leaders and dates and instead focus on a series of specifics that give an overall picture. I absolutely agree that the instructor's role is to expand on what the book contains but in that case, they should only be assigning that portion of the book that they plan on expanding upon.

I have been a self-taught student of history for some 30 years. I am not looking for "light" or "fun". And I don't read either novels or biography so kindly don't patronize me.

There is a difference between relevant and dry and dull.






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Bucky Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 09:27 PM
Response to Reply #33
34. A history text isn't intended to give you global understanding. That's the teacher's job
I wasn't and (amn't now) patronizing you. I'm simply trying to thoughtfully delineate between the two genres that I think you're conflating. I apologize if you got a snobby tone of voice from me from the way I wrote it. I can assure you I didn't intend it that way.

But I'm a high school history teacher and I live and work with the limitations of what textbooks can't and can do on a daily basis. I love reading history books, too.

A history textbook is not intended to take the place of a teacher. A good history book can play exactly that role. A history textbook is not a narrative format. You're expecting it to do things it's not going to do just by the restraints of the genre.

I understand your complaint is that textbooks are often just a dry recitation of facts. Good textbooks do a little bit more than that, but their job is to be comprehensive in some field or another. Shelby Steele or Stephen Ambrose or Howard Zinn don't share that constraint. Historical narratives are supposed to give that analytical thread--proposing theories to explain the facts of history they focus on. A textbook is gonna be less interesting in part because it has to offer short explanations of established, mainstream theories of history, not offer new & fresh ideas. It's simply a different bird that what narratives or history teachers are.
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 10:06 PM
Response to Reply #34
35. Sorry - I've got a rotten cold and I guess it makes me short-tempered
For what it's worth, I think high school teachers are some of the most under-appreciated people out there. Tough job and important. So thanks for doing it. :patriot:




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buzzycrumbhunger Donating Member (793 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 10:37 PM
Response to Reply #34
36. Huh?
History texts--any textbooks--are NOT "supposed" to be anything but a vehicle to teach. By definition, a "reference" book is just that--something you refer to in order to find specific information. If your contention was true, they'd just plunk us down for eight hours a day with the Funk & Wagnall's and tell us to memorize the damned thing.

Trouble is, an encyclopedia does nothing to make the subject matter come alive, and we shouldn't have to hope that our kids end up with the incredibly rare teacher who can rise above what they're given to work with. The fact that a kid who loves history, who goes out of his way to read it on his own time, and is still bored out of his skull and learning nothing useful should at least give you pause, shouldn't it?

(LOL--don't get me started on this "no child left behind crap" and the sorry state of the FL educational system in particular. Hoping the new administration undoes the damage, but grateful we're no longer directly affected by it.)
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RFKHumphreyObama Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 09:03 PM
Response to Original message
31. I don't know
I enjoy learning about the various individual rulers of various dynasties and their achievements and accomplishments -perhaps because I am very much into personalities in history as well as events. But if your point is that they should explain the historical significance of the said events and why it is important, I essentially agree. Even if it is only important in the context of the specified time frame, they should make clear why. The importance of learning history depends much on understanding what its relevance is

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mike_c Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 09:10 PM
Response to Original message
32. try this one if you can find it....
Kevin Reilly, 1980. The West and the World: A Topical History of Civilization. Harper and Row, Publishers. New York.

It's one of my favorites.
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leftyclimber Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 10:39 PM
Response to Original message
37. I feel your pain.
I started Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August about three summers ago.

My choices were quit reading it or commit suicide.

Seeing as I'm posting right now, you can guess which option I chose.
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skygazer Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 10:54 PM
Response to Reply #37
38. See, I enjoy Tuchman
I own roughly 300 historical works ranging from the fairly light to the incredibly detailed. Reading dense and detailed stuff is not an issue as long as it's presented in a way that has some flow and provides some relevance. History without relevance is nothing more than trivia. Handy if you're playing along with Jeopardy, not really useful for much else.

The only historical trivia I've ever found useful has been the question, "What was Ulysses S. Grant's middle name?" and the only reason for that is because I've won money more than once with it. :P



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leftyclimber Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-24-09 11:10 PM
Response to Reply #38
39. Everything else I've read of hers brings me joy.
For some reason Guns of August sends me around the bend.

So much history is so painfully dry, though, and it's nuts. These were people. Alive people. And they had to make horrible difficult decisions about things, and they lived human lives, and on and on and on.

I agree with your original assertion. So much history is written as if it were clinical and achingly boring, instead of being living, breathing people living difficult lives and doing amazing things.

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