An American historian in England: Blenheim

Blenheim Palace was where I learned to hate Capability Brown, and the aristocracy generally.

I never meant to have a bias against the aristocracy. I am a firm supporter of King Charles I, and have little tolerance for Roundheads. I have friends who are republicans, but I’ve never overcome my fascination with royalty. Those times when the royalty and aristocrats join forces with the lowest social groups are some of the most interesting in history. We’re seeing it again now in the U.S….but I digress.

A day out from Oxford to somewhere with gardens – that was my goal. And I’m a fan of Winston Churchill and his American mother, so I thought it would be nice to see his house. And of course everyone said it was so beautiful, you must go. So I got on a bus heading north and I went.

They were setting up for some huge event when I got there. The path from the bus stop was hugely long, and obviously intended for vehicles. I had to insert myself bodily in front of a car to purchase a ticket at the booth. Then more walking across crunchy gravel, but there was no entry on that side, so pedestrians had to walk around. The gardens were open first (I’d tried to get there first thing in the morning – I despise crowds), so I went for a walk.

It all seemed more than ridiculously grand. The palace from the courtyard looked like a classical temple, built to the Gods of Marlborough. It wasn’t just fancy or large or ostentatious or bold. It was religious. The columns, the pediments, the statuary – all seemed to portray worship rather than just grandeur and wealth. And they’d built it themselves, of course. The land and its ruined manor may have been a gift for services rendered by the 1st Duke, but the money Queen Anne gave him went to Sir John Vanbrugh to build this monstrosity, presumably approved by the Duke himself.

I stood in the short line to enter the gardens, then tried to enjoy the lovely boathouse by the lake, the gentle creaking of the boats. “George Charles and Lily Warren Duke and Duchess of Marlborough” was actually carved onto the building, as if they didn’t already own the whole lake and everything you could see. Did they think someone would stumble upon it and wonder who built it?

The long walk from the bus stop The Temple of the Marlboroughs

I continued through the grounds, which were huge. I came upon The Cascade, with an explanatory sign saying that Capability Brown had been commissioned to build it in 1764 by the 4th Duke. He had dammed the river to created the lake, and wanted an audible water feature to conceal the dam and give pleasure to the family, because they could hear it before they got there to see it. It was unsafe enough that in 2009 it had to be restored to meet the requirement of the Reservoirs Act.

The Duck of Marlborough The Cascade

Capability Brown is known throughout England for his landscapes, which were supposedly designed to look “natural”. Naturalism was a trend in which Brown was a bit ahead of his time – the Romantics would pick it up in the 19th century. I understand that an extraordinary amount of artificiality is necessary to make something look natural, but miles of rolling green landscape punctuated by a Cascade that would obviously not occur in the landscape by itself didn’t seem natural. Nor did the circular rose garden I walked even longer to find, placed to be discovered among the trees. The sheer amount of work to mow the lawns must be amazing. I was impressed by the amount of funding required to both do this and keep it like this, but I was unimpressed by the design. In its sheer immensity it was as classical and formal as many places with which the landscaper hoped to avoid comparison. Or perhaps I’ve been reading too much Ruskin…

I went into the house, but was not about to buy a ticket to see certain rooms, and many of the ground floor exhibit rooms were mobbed with people. The indoor statuary, the large collection of Chinese knick-knacks, the furnishings, seemed inelegant and overblown, but by then my attitude may have affected what I was seeing. I stopped by the gift shop on my way out and was surprised, oddly, that it was full of overpriced garden goods and pillows and things to make your home look like Blenheim.

The Foyer The Gift Shop

I have, romantically, always appreciated the faded grandeur of the aristocracy, and felt sorry for them, saddled with grand houses that can not make money in an age without landed wealth. Blenheim wasn’t like that, or was frantically trying to avoid it by hiring itself out for events (not only was the entire courtyard filled with chairs by the time I left, but there was a film crew interviewing someone on the terrace). But as I wandered the grounds I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if this were available to the people? For everyone (especially those who actually like Capability Brown) to enjoy as part of the community? Shouldn’t this much ostentation be critiqued rather than celebrated? Perhaps I’m turning into a republican after all.

Three myths about history

Students of history come to class with many preconceptions, as evidenced by the popularity of books revealing the lies they were told in K-12 classrooms. Here are three of the most popular, and why they are myths.

1. You can’t change the past

But changing the past is exactly what historians (and journalists and celebrities and movies and politicians) do. The past is not a monolithic, unchangeable set of facts. Everyone has their own past, even when they share experiences. Putting these facts together to support interpretations isn’t just an activity of historians – we all do it in our own lives as part of sense-making. Every reinterpretation of the past changes it.

2. People in the past were less knowledgeable than we are and things were less convenient/hygenic/beautiful than now.pessarysheath

This is called presentism – assuming that what’s in the present represents the best of all possible worlds, the result of millennia of progress. I have an ad from the turn of the 20th century for a “pessary sheath”. Made of rubber, this contraceptive device was 2-in-one. Rolled down it was a condom, and rolled up it was a cervical cap. Washing with soap made it hygenic, cost effective, and reusable. Today I’d need to buy a pack of expensive condoms and get fitted by a doctor for a cap not covered my insurance. Food tasted better before synthetic chemical fertilizer. Medical knowledge from long ago is continually being revived – consider herbal medicines, midwifery, and electricity therapy. Not convinced? Watch the sales of Oscillococcinum when the next flu epidemic hits.

3. History is the story of progress.

Even apart from the idea that not everyone believes in the Judeo-Christian idea of progress, if you study long-term historical trends, you start to notice a pattern of steps forward followed by steps back, then steps forward again. This is true whether you are of a liberal, radical or conservative bent – sometimes things get “better”, but then worse again. Women’s role in society is a great example. More actively public in the 1910s and 1920s, less in the 1930s, more in the 1940s, less in the 1950s, etc. Similarly, with every “advance” there is something lost. To stay on the birth control topic, the advent of the pill made contraception easier, but as hormonal contraception because cheaper and more popular women lost the knowledge of their anatomy, which had been necessary with other methods.

I not only share these perspectives with students, but use them myself. Perhaps that’s what makes me skeptical of new technologies, and attached to some old ones (not out of nostalgia, but because they are more useful).

Textbook balancing act

No, I’m not talking about improving your posture by putting it on your head. Rather, I am once again examining the possibility of using textbooks (both open and closed) as I contemplate writing another online class (this one Early American).

I have been looking at open textbooks.  Last semester, for my modern US History class, I used OpenStax. When I printed it out, though, it filled a large binder, logging in at 579 pages (yes, of course I printed double-sided). Then I discovered something much more succinct – the textbook at the US Department of State’s website  (don’t panic – it doesn’t get overtly political until the last three chapters, so I can use that for teaching).

I decided to use the State Department text for my Honors section, but as I worked with it, I decided it was good for my regular sections too. So I spent some weeks writing test questions, and am using it this semester.

But when I looked at it for Early American, it seemed sparse – only 7 chapters for 16 weeks. I realize that the historian who most recently revised it fully (Alonzo L. Hamby) is an expert in modern American history, so I understand why. So I went back to look at OpenStax, and others. But they’re so huge! The one I really liked, a good textbook written by profs at the U of North Georgia came out at 852 pages!

Then I realized the issue wasn’t the textbook, but my lectures. I have no online lectures for Early American history. But I have good, long, multimedia lectures for Modern American. So it makes sense for the modern class to have a small textbook (State Department) and the new course to have a more complete text (OpenStax, perhaps).

The lesson I recalled: when you adopt a textbook, really adopt a textbook, you have to acknowledge the reality of student reading. Many students today have trouble reading, both in terms of practical literacy and concentration. They have challenges of structure, vocabulary and content. We can’t do what was done when I was in college – assign a standard text, expect that they’ve read it, give a quiz or two, and ignore it in lecture. They won’t read it, or even buy it.

Current publishers have understood this, and now provide guided reading tools as part of course packages. Pearson’s REVEL is the most interesting, because it literally guides students through each page of the text, reading it aloud to them and highlighting pertinent passages. I call this Ethel the Aarvark pedagogy (from the Monty Python skit where the bookshop owner has to read the book to the customer).

So even if I don’t want to use the pablum packages (and I did consider this for my failed Jekyll and Hyde experiment), I must face reality about student reading abilities. If I adopt a textbook, I have to get into it, help them through it, work with it. It has to become central to the class, and all other aspects must be built around it. That will only work in a class format where I do not have my own lectures, but rather comment on the unit and the textbook. Otherwise, if I want to keep the lab aspects of my class, there’d be too much for community college students to manage.

Nevertheless, I confess that the pre-digested history in a textbook is not very palatable…

Context for Dissatisfaction with History

Yes, I am a historian. And yet, for the past two decades, I have been very unhappy with the direction of my discipline. Many historical articles (both popular and academic) now emphasize how people felt in the past, rather than what they did and why. There is little rational analysis, just a retelling of stories to emphasize their possible (and sometimes improbable) emotional context.

I find this emphasis on feelings not only disconcerting, but difficult to see as factually based. The evidence is not only sketchy, but its interpretation is often subject to presentism (the tendency to put the expectations of the present onto the past). But, I thought, it must only be me – everyone else in the profession seems pretty darned happy, getting published in the increasingly large numbers of historical journals and participating in professional conferences at the American Historical Association.

So today I was listening to an old CD I have, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the US, a speech he gave in 1995 at Reed College. And he mentioned postmodernist history, and in particular Gertrude Himmelfarb. I found her enlightening essay Tradition and Creativity in the Writing of History (1992) and finally understood.

What I’m seeing really has been happening, inside the profession, since I got my degree. I’ve certainly noticed it everywhere, not only in history books (few of which I can stomach anymore) but in popular culture. There, especially in novels and films, history is merely a setting, not a context. Interestingly, it was 1998 (only a few years after Himmelfarb’s article and Zinn’s speech) when I first noticed it, in the film Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett.  Queen Elizabeth’s power or the events of the time played no role in the film – it was all about the emotions felt by the queen and her cast of characters. I learned nothing and came out thinking nothing. And, of course, over the last two decades we’ve seen a rise in what I call X-culture: Extreme Everything, from bloodshed in films to reality TV to news reporting. If it isn’t extreme sports, or extreme comedy, or extreme horror, we no longer care.

So it turns out there really has been a trend in the discipline of history too, which Himmelfarb put in the context of postmodernism, and its emphasis on creativity and imagination over hard historical work and, well, facts. And I don’t think her points about multiculturalism are far off the mark either. In addition to the melting pot and salad bowl examinations of cultural difference and assimilation, we now add a framework that imaginatively puts certain groups of people on top, in a superior place to which they may well have aspired but never in fact possessed. While such a technique may provide insight into what people may have felt, or may have wanted, it is ahistorical and belongs in the literary realm.

Thus when people suggest I should go back and get my Ph.D., or publish more in my field (instead of on the subject of online teaching), I recoil. I’d rather hold up the old-guard modernist history, based on modern methodology and the collection, examination and interpretation of facts. I know those facts also include people of many cultures, backgrounds, genders, etc., and that they can be used to successfully celebrate all people without resorting to make-believe. And that’s not my imagination.

Revolution vs the Glory of Subversion

Back before there were internet memes and video going viral, we had bumper stickers. Some were “bumper stickers for life”, with sayings that stuck. My favorite was “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm”.


Although the phrase resonated with me at an early age, I actually was not so good at subversion. My tactic tended to be in-your-face revolution. As editor of the high school paper, I campaigned against the policy of locking up truant students all day. During the war in 1991, I marched and sang and chanted with anti-war protestors. When things were unethical, I made a huge, public fuss.

And yet, they kept locking up students. And we didn’t leave Kuwait (in fact, we went back for much more bloodshed). And things didn’t change much. My head became flat from banging it against the wall.

taniaguevaraAs I worked more in education, I used the same tactics. I pushed administration for team-taught courses. I pushed for a faculty forum to count for committee credit. I tried to stop the hiring of administrators we didn’t need, and push for the hiring of those we did. When online teaching started, I pushed for hybrid classes. I tried to change people’s minds through the force of my will, my argumentation skills, and the fact that I was, well, right.

And again the achievements were small. Team teaching went down in disputes about pay, faculty forum was not “governance” so it didn’t count, we hired more administrators, and a dean dismissed my hybrids with “I just don’t see what audience we’re serving”. I created a file folder entitled “Ineffectual Activism” where I stored the papers related to my failures.

Then I got older and craftier. My new motto became “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission”. I believed in academic freedom, and the independence I had as a college instructor. I made it my mission to deeply understand the rules, then see how I could get around them without actually breaking anything.

This worked much better. But as I explored “edupunk”, and open education, and online educational experiments, and open resources, and MOOCs, I noted a revolutionary spirit. Being of that nature myself, I tried to join in. Modern education is irrelevant and stultifying! We are a post-industrial world with an industrial education system! Do-it-yourself college! Student engagement through student interests! Down with curriculum! Down with lectures!

guillotineBut the problem with revolution is always the same. It throws out many babies with lots of bathwater. Educational revolution meant that the really good ideas of the past, many of which were enshrined in the “canon” of Western Civilization, were cast away. Academic rigor was dismissed as a concept of the privileged. Coherent reading and writing became secondary to creative multimedia, which was seen as more intellectually complex just because it was multimedia.

Students responded accordingly. Lectures of merit and enthusiasm were greeted with bored students surfing the web instead of taking notes. They said they couldn’t learn properly because the teacher wasn’t engaging them in their preferred learning style. They shopped for the classes that made the fewest demands on them intellectually.

There is much subversion to be done. Gardner Campbell, in a recent presentation, holds “compliance” to be at the bottom of the learning pyramid, the factor that keeps learning imprisoned. And yet there are so many ways to twist compliance into good learning environments, to use its elements to enforce rigor while allowing for creativity in every corner, in every crack in the sidewalk.


Irretrievable Losses

No, I’m not talking about toxic assets, but rather historical assets. (And it may well be time to merge my history blog with this blog, because lately it’s not always clear where my writing should go.)

There is an article in EDUCAUSE Review last month about audio archives, in particular the difficulty of making the Supreme Court data collection useful. It discusses how the Oyez project has been building an RDF schema to create a useful database. Doing so is part of a larger problem:

The accelerating growth in spoken-word documents will generate demand for efficient archiving and retrieval strategies. But these resources will prove stillborn if we do not identify ways to reveal their contents.

As a historian, I was immediately reminded of a very similar problem we have with medieval manuscripts, and indeed most written information going back thousands of years. In the case of the Middle Ages, James Burke put it best in his series The Day the Universe Changed (1985 c. BBC):

Previously, which historical documents survived was often controlled by chance, physical conditions of storage, and class or wealth. Contribution to a library or museum collection, or passing something down through the family, were pretty good methods of conservation. So was publication, for those who could afford it. We have these same determinants today, but now we also have choice, as groups rather than families created collections and thus a need to catalog them on a scale never seen before.

The stockpiles of raw data do indeed remind me of the piles of moldering books in monastic libraries and the homes of wealthy nobles. As Burke says, not only were things literally lost, but they were lost because they could not be found. And technology, then as now, is being utilized to reduce this problem and make the content deemed important accessible to future generations.