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Dear Senator Johnson,

In a recent interview, you complained about what you called the “higher education cartel” and called for abandoning the diploma process in favor of a certification process. You cited your past experience volunteering in the Catholic educational system in Oshkosh (the high school system, I assume). And then you said

One of the examples I always used ― if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas. 

I’ve been teaching in the University of Wisconsin system for about two decades, so I guess I’m part of that ‘higher education cartel’, but I think I know a few things about teaching, so let me explain why simply showing documentaries is a poor substitute for having a fully-trained scholar teaching students about history.

Your teaching model relies on a faulty notion of what history is. You assume that history is the study of the facts of the past. In a model like that, the goal of education is to have students memorize those facts so they will ‘know history’. This assumes that the past is just a set of knowable facts, a record of ‘what happened’.

The problem with this model is that historians don’t really study ‘what happened’, because we can’t. Until someone invents a time machine that allows us to travel back in time and directly observe events as they happen, historians are dependent for our knowledge of the past on the written records left behind by those who were involved in the events.

To use your example from the American Civil War, one of the important moments in the Civil War was President Lincoln’s famous Second Inaugural Address. We possess the text of the speech, so we know what Lincoln said, more or less, but no one alive today was present and there are no recordings of it, so we can’t be 100% sure that he actually said these exact words; perhaps he added something to the speech, or changed some of his words as he delivered it. We can’t know how he said the words, where he paused for effect or which words he gave particular emphasis. The comments that others made about the speech, for example in news stories or private correspondence, might get us a little closer to Lincoln’s delivery, but ultimately, we can’t study the event itself; we can only study the text of the speech as it has come down to us.

That means that historians don’t study ‘what happened’. Instead, we study the written record of what happened, the various surviving documents that can tell us about the events. To be sure, we make use of knowledge from archaeology, numismatics, anthropology, and so on, but what history is as an academic field is specifically the study of the written documents of the past. Historians don’t study the facts of the past; we assemble them from the written record as best we can, and two historians working on the same issue might assemble the facts in very different ways. For example, an historian who is interested in presidential politics might assemble the facts of the Second Inaugural Address in a different way than an historian interested in the history of American slavery would. By asking different questions or putting it alongside different documents, two different scholars could find two very different meanings in the same speech.History isn’t the study of ‘what happened’, it’s the study of how we interpret the documents that tell us what happened.

The problem with written documents is that they have a lot of limitations. Some authors write about things they know little about, while other authors actively lie. Some authors are trying to cover up or justify their own actions. Some authors’ understanding of events is sharply limited by their access to the event, or by the way their culture influences how they think about the event. Some authors are writing years later and may have forgotten things. So historians need to learn to read very carefully, looking for the clues to help us evaluate how reliable the document is, what it might be omitting or getting wrong, and what it can tell us about the intentions of the author who wrote it.


An Example

These skills are far more complex than they might sound. Freshmen college students have a strong tendency to read uncritically, because very few students enter college with highly-developed reading and thinking skills, and it’s my job to help them acquire the basics of those skills. 

For example, I teach Early Western Civilization quite frequently, and when I get to the early Middle Ages, I have my students read the Life of St. Balthild, a 7th century Frankish saint. By this point in the course they’ve already read a little bit about early Christian saints, and had a discussion about the rising importance of virginity as a feminine virtue in Western society. Balthild had quite an eventful life; she started out as a noblewoman, but was taken as a slave and sold to a government official named Erchinoald. According to the author of her Life,

[Balthild] gained such a reputation that when the wife of Erchinoald died, he wished to marry Balthild, that faultless virgin. When she heard of this, she fled from his sight. When he called her into his chamber, she hid herself in a corner and covered herself with bundles of rags so no one might find her. Because she was humble, she attempted to flee from the honor that was to be hers. She had hoped not to get married but to have Jesus alone for her spouse.

Divine providence intervened, and Erchinoald found a different wife. Thus it happened that Balthild, with God’s approval, escaped marriage with this prince, but eventually came to be espoused to Clovis, son of the former king Dagobert. By virtue of her humility, she was thus raised to a higher rank. She was wed to the king by divine dispensation, and honored in this station. She brought forth royal children. These events are known to all, for now her royal progeny rule the realm.

So after being Erchinoald’s slave and would-be wife, Balthild somehow wound up marrying the son of the Frankish king and eventually became queen herself. After her husband died, she ruled the kingdom on behalf of her young son for a while, until she joined the monastic house at Chelles and became a nun. After her death, the other nuns began to claim that she was saint, and the Life was written as part of an effort to establish her in popular imagination as a saint.

But when you read those two paragraphs I quoted, did you notice how the text contradicts itself? If not, go back and re-read it and see if you can find the contradiction. Don’t feel too bad if you miss it; my students never spot it until I point it out.

In the first paragraph, the author claims that Balthild wanted to be a virgin her whole life. In that, she fits into a standard model of female sanctity in that period, which champions virginity as superior to all other possible sexual and social statuses; according to this model, being a virgin is morally superior to being a wife or a widow. And, according to the author, God supports Balthild’s desire to be a permanent virgin by intervening and causing Erchinoald to get interested in some other woman. So Balthild is such a devout Christian that God gives her a small miracle to protect her virginity.

But not two sentences later, God arranges for Balthild to get married to Prince Clovis. Suddenly the text forgets Balthild’s desire for permanent virginity and never mentions it again. God and Balthild apparently change their minds when a prince comes along. So the author of the text makes one claim about Balthild as a way to demonstrate her sanctity, and then drops that claim when the known facts of her life prove inconsistent with that claim. It’s a clever piece of authorial sleight-of-hand; like I said my students never spot it until I point it out. And this isn’t the only time the text does this. The author repeatedly makes claims for Balthild’s intentions and then has to explain away behavior that contradicts those claims. Supposedly as queen, Balthild had a deep desire to become a nun, but then the author has to explain why she stayed on as queen after her husband died; supposedly her subjects loved her so much they refused to let her step down. Then the author has to explain why her subjects suddenly changed their mind and let her become a nun.

Once I get them to see the contradictions, I’m able to have a conversation with the students about what’s going on. That leads us to looking at what the author’s purpose in writing the Life is, namely that the author (possibly one of Balthild’s fellow nuns at Chelles) wants to persuade people to consider Balthild a saint, so she employs a series of standard motifs about female saints (the desire for permanent virginity, the threat to the saint’s virginity, the miracle that protects it, and so on). And she does this despite the fact that Balthild’s life stands in direct contradiction to those motifs; Balthild’s son became king, so she obviously wasn’t a virgin. And that leads into questions of why the nuns decided to promote Balthild as a saint if she wasn’t a good fit for traditional ideas about female saints, which brings up the fact that Chelles stands to benefit in a variety of ways from having a saint buried there. And all of this is just one of the many documents I use in this class.

I use the Life of St. Balthild precisely because it’s a perfect example of why critical reading skills are important to develop. But it’s not an easy lesson. The students are so accustomed to trusting what they read that they struggle to make the simple leap to the idea that the author isn’t being completely honest. Exploring this one document takes at least 20 minutes of class time, often a good deal longer. The better students carry that lesson into the rest of the documents they read, but many of the students seem to forget it the next time we look at a document, so I have to bring the issue up again to help them become more skeptical readers.

It takes a long time for students to acquire critical reading skills and the closely related critical thinking and critical writing skills. When my freshmen leave my Early Western Civilization class, most of them have started to develop those skills, but they are nowhere near finished. The ones who continue on by taking further history classes (and other classes in the Humanities) will graduate college with those skills highly developed. But it doesn’t happen in the course of a single class. It can’t. These are complex skills and they take years to develop, just like cooking, playing basketball, or engineering. They require constant practice, practice that history classes are designed to require.

And they’re not skills students can acquire through watching a documentary, any more than you could become a great basketball player by watching a documentary on the sport. Ken Burn’s documentary on the Civil War is a wonderful piece of work, and certainly has a place in the classroom. It’s engaging, does a good job of holding the viewer’s attention, and helps convey the idea that history happens to real human beings. But it cannot teach students how to read documents, even though it quotes many documents. It cannot ask them why the author of a letter expressed his or her sentiments in a particular way and then lead a discussion that explores students’ answers to that question. It cannot help students explore what the document doesn’t say and why it might be omitting certain facts or ideas. It cannot get students thinking about how the author’s race or gender or wealth might have shaped what the document says. These are things that are necessary for students to develop those critical skills, and they are things that can only be taught in a classroom with a highly-trained scholar leading the way.

No documentary could teach the Life of St. Balthild the way I teach it, because part of my teaching process is putting a puzzle in front of the students (why does the Life contradict itself?) and then letting them fumble with the possibilities until they start to figure it out. A crucial part of the educational process is letting them wrestle with that puzzle for a while, because it forces them to identify possible answers and then work through them to see whether they make sense or not. They learn more by having to work it out for themselves than if I simply tell them the answer, because simply giving them the answer doesn’t help them develop their critical reading and thinking skills very much.

Why does any of this matter? Why do we need people with highly developed critical reading and writing and thinking skills? I’ve already discussed in a different post the wide range of things that a history student can do with a history degree, but let me talk for a moment about where those skills come in handy. You’re a businessman; I’m sure at some point you must have received a business proposal that looked too good to be true. It’s the critical reading and thinking skills that helped you figure where the proposal wasn’t being honest. I’m sure in your time in politics you’ve learned that politicians often distort or fragment the truth when they give speeches; it’s those same critical thinking and reading skills that help you find the flaws in the arguments you’re being presented with. Or perhaps those aren’t skills you’re good at. Maybe you need to take a few history classes to brush up on them. I mean the kind of history class taught by a professional historian, not the kind taught by someone who just plays a documentary for students and calls it teaching.