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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Vanity of the Specialty

I recently completed a rather disastrous history course. I say disastrous because I took it expecting to learn history, and the instructor taught it expecting to teach critical thinking.

Do I even need to begin to say the ways this created conflict in this class?

However, this post is not about my perceived injustices, deceptions, or inconsistencies in the class. It is about they way the instructor reinforced the idea that people get very vain about fields of study that they spend a great deal of time in.

Take, for example, the following statement, which amuses me to no end: The study of history is not memorizing stale and dated paradigms, names, dates and places. The study of history is one of the richest endeavors in academia. No where else can information be gathered, verified, examined and considered with the benefit of hindsight.

Before I begin my critical analysis, let me remind you that this instructor seems to consider himself to be a great logical thinker, so great, in fact, that if anyone comes to a different conclusion than he does from looking at the same materials the other person is not thinking hard or clearly enough, and he was rabid regarding spelling and grammar.

No where,” perhaps he meant “nowhere” “else can information be gathered, verified, examined [,] and considered with the benefit of hindsight.” Is that so? Allow me to do an ever so brief examination of several fields of study and determine if this statement is true, or simply the vain hogwash of someone who elevates his own field of study while demeaning others.

1 - Biology: The study of biology, interestingly enough, includes a great deal of research and experimentation conducted in the past that is still built upon to this very day. Technically, a discovery made yesterday is in the past and is now available for study with some degree of hindsight. Also, unlike history, which can only prove what, where, and how while historians around the globe fight over the why, biology is able to verify past results with current experiments, and also to verify current results with the results of past experiments. While there is always some room for interpretation of the data, properly done biology is constantly self correcting. It’s a beautiful thing.

2 - Geology: The study of geology is embedded in the past. While it is not history in the classical sense, it is still a form of history; it’s the history of the Earth rather than the history of humanity. Almost all of the data gathered is studying the past and almost all of it is examined not only with the benefit of hindsight, but there are very clear relations and distinctions that are not possible to be muddled by some eyewitness in times past telling a lie that may or may not be verifiable as a lie.

3 – Paleontology: Studying fossils. That’s all hindsight.

4 – Astronomy: Interestingly enough, due to the speed of light and the vast distances between stars, the study of astronomy is actually a study of the history of the Universe, with all of the same benefits and restrictions as geology, especially in the field of astro-geology.

5 – Literature: Hindsight and modern relevance are essential to the modern understanding of the classics. Shakespeare, Byron, Poe, Shelly, Stoker, Dickens, and others wrapped moral and cultural messages into their writings as they entertained us and provides a peek into the minds of people in the past. Their relevance today is wrapped up in how people can still relate to their work. We are able to study them, not just as stories and poems, but to look at their literary devices, imagery, and speech patterns, allowing us to gain a historical perspective on literature and the legacy great authors and poets have carved out to this very day.

6 – Art: Almost identical to literature, just in pictures and sculpture rather than words.

7 - Mathematics: The current level of mathematical understanding is built upon thousands of years of constant calculations, formulae, and even mathematical debate. Not only does it have what may be the richest and most detailed history of any area of study, but all of mathematical history can be examined, verified, and tested as both a modern exercise and a look in the past from the modern perspective. It is also the only field of study where the conclusions that are drawn are so solid that they can be called fact in every instance. 2+2 always equals 4, but in history who plus how does always equal why, and if you believe this particular individual, none of the whys are completely trustworthy anyway.

I shall stop here. The point is that everything has a past or looks into the past whether it is the study of history or a more functional study. That past can always be examined with the benefit of hindsight as well. Human history does not hold the sole patent on this process.

In this instructor’s obsession with trying to criticize the why, he has lost sight of the who, how, where, and when without which, there would be no why to search for. “history is not what you write. Why because no one has the absolute end on what fact is true, false, twisted, used for agenda. A student, a reader any average person cannot simply read one text and say it is so all facts are known - biases permiate all works - including original source material.” (Note that this is unchanged from the original, grammatical errors and misspellings are all original. I remind you that this professor was obsessive about spelling and grammar. Would you trust his assessment of your grammar?) Again we see evidence of personal vanity getting in the way of facts. History is what happened, where it happened, and who was involved first and foremost because these are the only three of the four aspects of history that can be verified beyond reasonable dispute. Did the holocaust happen? Yes. Did George Washington have a habit of sodomizing elephants? No. The why is the debatable part that employs many historians today, and they are all arguing over whose idea of why is better, more reliable, or more eloquent. The reason is because the facts of history are known. We have dug so deeply into it that only Archaeology, another of the grand hard sciences, is digging up a significant number of new facts to be examined.

biases permiate all works - including original source material” has anyone stopped to consider that these biases in the original source material are valid historical facts that indicate the depth and complexity of why something happened? Might this not indicate that the constant arguing about why just might be pointless since every reason that can be found is, in fact, part of the why? Naturally, this is far too simple a concept for the sophisticated mind of the serious scholar. Biases are the same as lies and must be weeded out or modified into non-bias. Whatever.

It seems that history has lost itself, or, at least, the historians have. “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it” is absolutely true. Even the most casual observer can see that when racial hatred became institutionalized in Germany it resulted in the holocaust. If you do not know this then you risk repeating that cycle in your own home. Why the racial hatred was institutionalized is a fascinating study that has not been fully settled, and never will be in all likelihood. Thank God we don’t need to figure out the why in order to understand the what and the how so we can avoid committing the same atrocities ourselves. And if the why is so full of lies and inaccuracies that it can never be settled then perhaps we should let the historians argue it out while the rest of us learn the reliable part of history. Nah, the why can be found, the real problem is that there are vain historians who are going around trying to divine great secrets under the assumptions that history is a giant pack of lies that needs to be untangled.

11 Comments:

  • I hate it when people think they know everything, especillialy those in a small position of power. Good analysis. I've met people like that.

    By Blogger Robert M., at 10:34 AM  

  • I disagree, not with the statement about your professors personal problem, but with your description of history. I have long had a love for history and a deep respect for it's method of study and research. You go into detail about how the other subjects incorporate hindsight to prove that the subject of history is not the only one that does. History simply stated is the study of past human activity, this statement alone encompasses a vast subject area in which history partakes. It is not just the lone study of dates and people but what they accomplished and how. Every subject you referenced is apart of history without the study of history there wouldn't be any of these areas because they use history in order to have hindsight into there own particular past. History is the study of everything that has a recordable past.
    here is a good definition:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:27 PM  

  • While I wholeheartedly agree that aspects of history are in everything due to the fact that everything has a history, the point I am making in this point is that the study of history as unique as this individual believes it to be. Also, the way the past factors into study matters very much for this argument as well. The instructor of this course has chosen to focus on bias and motivation as the true study of history and believes that people, places, and events are of seconsary importance to atttempting to read the minds of long dead people. I am on the exact opposite side. I believe that trying to read the minds of people in history is useless and foolish and that we should only on what we can verify for purposes of instruction. Motivations behind events are a secondary study to be reserved for trained experts in the field who examine th eevidience with same care an archaeologist examines an ancient artifact. At this time we have hundreds of "experts" running around calling each other liars, calling everyone in history a liar, and generally creating chaos in this poorly orchestrated, unstandardized historical hodgepodge in a constant attempt to garner personal fame and fortune. In my opinion this robs history of much of its significance. If someone wants to rob history so badly I think they should just become treasure hunters and stay out of scholarship so the serious people can do their work in peace.

    By Blogger Daniel Levesque, at 7:16 PM  

  • The way I see it history should be taught the way history was. The facts simply show that professors who call America bad, liars, imperialists, etc. are simply wrong by the historical record. That's not education at that point, it's brainwashing.

    By Blogger Robert M., at 9:49 AM  

  • History was one of the subjects that saved me, in High School. Maybe I was lucky, but my teachers were a-political. Actually my teachers were really borring, I just liked the history book I was asigned, a good read. hehe

    Hi. This is Anonymous.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:00 AM  

  • So this "prof" taught you nothing?

    By Blogger Ragss, at 5:09 PM  

  • The "professor" taught me nothing about history, critical thought, in-depth analysis, writing, logic, or any other subject one might encounter in colloege. He DID teach me about how some professors are screwing with the minds and education of their stdents. I knew about this already, but have never encountered it in any of the core subjects other than philosophy before.

    To be fair, the main textbook, which was arbiarily chosen by the university, not the professor, was both excellent and informative. It just appears to me that the professor did his best to undermine every one of the 5 assigned texts.

    By Blogger Daniel Levesque, at 10:59 AM  

  • So, is it that the teacher sucked this bad, or that the books were that good?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:59 PM  

  • The teacher was atrocious, and 2 1\2 of the 5 books were good. One was the primary text, which the instructor claimed was a biased lie.

    By Blogger Daniel Levesque, at 4:46 PM  

  • Was it? Devil's advocate type question.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:00 AM  

  • In my opinion, it was mostly unbiased. It presented events accurately and refrained from most speculation about motives. When there was speculation it based on verified historical documents. Overall, the main text was extremely useful and informative.

    By Blogger Daniel Levesque, at 3:39 PM  

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