Isn't General History Political History?
And just what is Political History?
The average politician goes through a sentence like a man exploring a disused mine shaft—blind, groping, timorous, and in imminent danger of cracking his shins on a subordinate clause or a nasty bit of subjunctive.
—William Robertson Davies
I have to thank my Muse—who shall remain anonymous—for the quote above. As an introduction to a discussion of “political/general history” it feels apt. As subtypes, both “general” and “political” history may be linked, but are not necessarily the same.
Just because all poodles are dogs, not all dogs are poodles.
The study and teaching of history based on the historical record has a distinct disadvantage, in that there’s never enough time to cram all the content (in primary grades and survey courses) or to study the nuances of the record and think of the past as a tool. For example, in high school, we never got to the end of any textbook. As I recall, one American History class in the ‘60s barely got as far as WWI before the school year ended.
It isn’t any better now.
The sheer volume has reduced most survey courses—regardless of where or specialized titles—to covering the leaders, the notable, and the politics behind them. Maybe they don’t cover the subject of the movies in the theater, but they provide enough—hopefully—to provide a useful basis for either further study, or for the best uses. Showing the consequences of ideas is, I think, the very best use of any historical learning. In survey courses that recite elections and coronations, the students just don’t see enough. It’s not only dull, it’s undirected. The student asks “what’s the point?” and the teacher, in response, inserts what they think is the point.
If the student comes out of a class knowing what the teacher believes, the teacher has done the student an injustice.
Teachers are human; they are not perfect. I know several of them; some of you are teachers. It is not their job to get their students to agree with them. I make this apparent diversion of my subject to show the difference between general and political history.
General history covers people and events
Political history covers leaders and events.
As with poodles and dogs, not all people are leaders—I won’t go back the other way, sorry. But history pedagogy evolves, if slowly. My old history texts—the first I saw was in 3rd Grade in the ‘60s—went as far as the Korean conflict, but we didn’t get halfway through the book. Today’s 3rd Grade texts, CRT aside, wouldn’t cover Korea, but they might cover the invention of the automatic electric windshield wiper. The audience has changed, as have the parents/teachers of that audience. Today’s schools have policies against guns—real, imaginary, 2-dimensional or finger. That severely restricts teaching the consequences of tyranny, let alone the tyranny itself. Inserting personal asides to create a sense of direction becomes an excuse for shilling a point of view.
This is how general history becomes political history, and vice versa: little time, little direction, substituted viewpoint.
It’s been going on for some time now… so long that it looks like it’s been that way forever. It likely started somewhere in the ‘50s, where the bulge in students meant little class time spent explaining complicated issues like the difference between communism and socialism. The result has been generations of people thinking that history comprises inaugurations and coronations and little else. Blame the record, not the teachers.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive Reconsidered
If Reality Mattered, Does This Newsletter?
On 17 September:
1858: Dred Scott, the 59-year-old slave whose master was trying to set free and who became the center of the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, died in St. Louis, Missouri. The Supreme Court shocked the nation when it ruled that manumission and citizenship for enslaved persons were impossible since a slave was always a slave, that no state or territory could prohibit chattel slavery within its borders, and that the Missori Compromise was unconstitutional.
1862: The battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, was fought in Maryland. The clash between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia was the bloodiest single day in American history, with over 3,600 Americans killed and another 20,000 wounded, missing or captured.
And today is not NATIONAL IRONY DAY, but it is CONSTITUTION AND CITIZENSHIP DAY. Savor the irony of the death of Dred Scott—arguably the match that lit the fuse of civil war—and the bloodletting at Antietam while contemplating why the Taney court determined that a state of servitude was genetic.