Grade-School Historical Determinism

Job Koelewijn‘s Mobius bookshelf
Job Koelewijn‘s Mobius bookshelf

My husband and I both work in a university, and we often talk about how one’s interests take shape — about how our “favorite subjects” in school come to be our favorites, about how we come to appreciate the relevance and resonance in and among particular fields, about how we ultimately decide upon our areas of specialization, etc. He told me recently about a class, then a pilot-project, that he took in high school: three history, literature, and art teachers got together and organized a two-year “history of Western thought” mega-class, which examined the interrelationships of various forms of cultural production and ways of thinking throughout several millennia. They observed how particular themes were made manifest in music and painting and literature in, say, the Renaissance; how particular historical milieux gave rise to various philosophical ideas, etc. What an amazing opportunity, especially for a high school student. We didn’t have classes like this at my school. We had football.

I particularly regret how my relationship with the study of history was shaped throughout my middle- and high-school years. I never recognized history’s relevance to literature or music or math or science, all the subjects I loved. That’s probably in large part because history was framed for me as a series of events on particular dates: this major event started on this date, and ended on this date. My “mastery” of historical material was evaluated via exams loaded with matching and fill-in-the-blank questions: match the event with its year, or fill in the blank with the name of the historical figure to whom we can presumably ascribe sole responsibility for this major historical turn of events.


For two years, including my senior year in AP History, I had a teacher who came to class with a yellow legal pad blackened and warped with penciled notes. I’ll call him/her Ms. X. Ms. X had four chalkboards in her classroom: three on the front wall, one on the right-side wall. When the bell rang, she, a rather corpulent lady, would position herself before the front-left blackboard and start copying her notes — a heavily formatted outline — while adding “light” commentary. We couldn’t actually see the board, since her wide body blocked our view, so we had to wait until she moved on to Board #2 to begin our transcription. And thus began our race for the next 75 minutes — scribbling notes until our hands ached; racing to keep up with her; always, necessarily, one chalkboard behind. At any moment, a quick glance around the classroom revealed a handful of students shaking cramps out of their hands or feverishly sharpening dulled pencil-points. They approached these all-too-brief respites as one would approach a pit-stop in the Tour de France.

Ms. X’s commentary never matched up with what we were writing — there was always a one-board time-lag — so we felt a jarring dissonance between what we were hearing and what our brains were telling our hands to scratch out on paper. The act of note-taking served thus not to inscribe those facts in our memories — let alone to make them come alive — but rather, as a purely physical, de-intellectualized exercise.

Consequently, history, for me, was a sequence of events with clear causes and effects, definitive starting- and end-dates, easily identifiable male leaders who “made things happen.” It was painful. It was boring. It had no apparent connection to those other subjects that seemed so relevant and vibrant and inspiring. My literature and music teachers occasionally integrated short historical lessons into their classes, so we could understand the historical and cultural contexts that gave rise to Shakespeare, Bach, Faulkner, and even Andrew Lloyd Webber. But it never occurred to me that those were mini-history lessons: how could they be? They were so…interesting!

I managed to disabuse myself of these notions in college — in large part because I came to realize (with the help of some fabulous teachers) that the study of literature is so greatly enriched by knowing where and when it comes from. I took quite a few history classes in graduate school. And as I immersed myself in my field amidst the rise of “new media” studies, and observed the prevalence of techno-utopian Internet theory, I started to become a bit of a curmudgeon: always doubting the newness of these developments, always wanting to find their precursors, to historicize.

And now as I begin writing my next book — after having researched the “media city” for nearly 15 years — I realize that even in its contemporaneity, it’s going to be deeply historical. And by “deep” I mean tracing connections back to the very first cities in the Middle East.

That makes me a bit nervous — primarily because I wasn’t trained as a historian. Working interdisciplinarily has already made me rather susceptible to the impostor syndrome; now adding a historical dimension just ups the “poseur” quotient. In the past several years I’ve read several book reviews, written by historians, of historically-oriented media, communication, and design books; in a few particularly traumatic occasions, the historians have mercilessly blasted the media scholars for the supposed shoddiness of their scholarship. One poor woman was raked over the coals for not citing a sufficient number of primary sources in her bibliography. I’ve also met a few historians who have chastised scholars in other fields for not examining their sources with a historian’s eye, for using the wrong archives, for choosing the wrong historical frame.

Have I been using the wrong archives? Have I been reading these archival materials “as a historian would”? Is that necessary? Do historians get to dictate what archives mean? Will I choose the right or wrong historical frameworks? Does doing history carry obligations that go above and beyond those of other forms of scholarly inquiry? How is sound historical scholarship different from good, old-fashioned sound scholarship? Am I at a serious disadvantage here because I’m, historically speaking, a late bloomer? Did those high school experiences historically determine my current state of self-doubt? I have to work through these issues — or get over them — before I can trust that I know the material I’ve been living with for the past decade-and-a-half, and that I’m ready to write this book. It’s all in there. I just have to convince this internal historical censor to open the gates.

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