hindsight isn’t 20/20
we are often told that history is a collection of names, dates and facts, that there is a right and wrong answer and anything else is fake. unfortunately, history is rarely that simple. with a desire to understand the motivations and causal chains of past events, however, we can walk away from memorization and use history as a teaching tool for our culture and lives today. while a specific battle or war is rarely significant in the broader perspective, reasons, cultural shifts and widely-divergent viewpoints are usually both intriguing and instructive. so if you’re ready to approach history as a series of interconnected fictions nobody really agrees on, let’s jump in.
i have been asked (more frequently than i imagined possible, in fact) to prepare a series of sample examination or assignment questions for undergraduate history. you asked so here it is. i will continue to update it with more questions but i hope this is useful to the vast group of students requesting it!
turning points and new ideas
history is not simply a collection of names, dates and battles. actually, if we leave out the dates and battles, history is in many ways the story of people changing the ways they thought leaving ripples in the lives of those who followed. as a way to enter history, review or focus your thoughts, here are some turning points in history and the names of those who have left indelible marks on the fabric of human existence through recorded time. if you have studied history in the past, many of these will likely already be familiar to you. others will be new paths to discovery. enjoy.
courses by topic
- ancient history
- modern history
- critical theory
- future history
- social anthropology
- independent study
imagine you are going on vacation with your family – you, your siblings and your parents. you get in the car and your mother takes out a map as you put your phone on its cradle so you can see the gps navigation. your little sister goes to sleep in the backseat as your father begins criticizing your choice in music.
fast-forward ten years and you’re sitting around at home, all visiting together for the first time in ages, reminiscing about that trip. so many things happened. you got a flat tire. you narrowly avoided hitting a deer while your sister and mother were both asleep and suddenly woke up as you emergency-stopped. your dad had to rush to hospital after seriously cutting his leg while attempting to split firewood outside the cabin you’d rented.
“the ax was defective! the head slipped and i lost my grip.”
“dad, it was a decorative ax. they didn’t expect you to use it.”
“hey, if it wasn’t for that, i wouldn’t have met that nurse who became my wife. you sacrificed some blood and got grandchildren in return. not a bad deal, right, dad?”
history is all about perspectives. if you’ve ever taken a course where they told you the second world war began in the late 1930s and ended in 1945/6, you’ve experienced first-hand the problem with how history is taught in our time. it’s often looked at as a collection of correct or incorrect statements but that’s almost never true. sure, an emperor was born or died on a specific date. a battle occurred at a time and in a place. but the real issue is the story. why did it happen? not why did people say it happened but why did it really happen? who cares what happened? what did people believe happened at the time and what did that mean to society at the time?
taking a more nuanced approach to history is absolutely vital if you want to do more than treat it as a memorization exercise. to understand the past, we must look at it from the lens of interpretation and culture. it’s not enough to have a perspective. we have to look at many perspectives and build a coherent image of the time. what happened is rarely important. why it happened and what was the lasting result are usually key.
who is history for?
many people study history because they are fascinated with the past and that’s perfectly fine. some people cut down trees because they like the feel of the saw in their hand or play the guitar in their bedroom because they find it intensely relaxing. if knowing the date of the gettysburg address (november 19, 1863), the name and birthdate of madame mao (jiang qing, born march 19, 1914, also the date giuseppe mercalli died, if you’re interested) and the name of the pilot who dropped the first atomic bomb (colonel paul tibbets) is how you connect with the past, that’s a perfectly valid approach. it’s not, however, useful for anything other than personal entertainment.
studying history beyond memorization is for those who wish to understand the past, present and future from a more nuanced perspective. you don’t have to be a history scholar to have a good grasp on the past. you do, however, have to divest yourself of the ludicrous notion that there is a single right answer or that any historical event can be explained in a short paragraph.
unless you have a good theory of why something happened, what happened, its effects on the culture of the time and on our present, you haven’t even scratched the surface. serious historical study is for those who want to take the lessons of the past and apply them to the present. but that is not simply an exercise in knowledge.
history more than anything is a way of turning your imagination loose. seeing the world through the eyes of historical figures – not just those in the traditional history books, kings, knights and soldiers but the royal dressmaker, city barber or anonymous resistance fighter in an occupied nation. it’s about unraveling tangled webs of lies, both intentional and accidental. almost everything written about the past is a mixture of what’s true, what’s false and what’s assumed – usually vastly more of the last. the author usually believes it’s all fact.
what are we getting at here? historical fact is rare and mostly unhelpful.
where do we go from here? let’s take a look together at the “historical maybe”. what might have happened and what does that mean for us today?
but we need to increase awareness!
trigger warning – racism, starvation
there’s a lot to be said for having a society that is culturally, historically and scientifically aware. it makes people far less likely to make bad decisions and hold reactionary, conservative positions. however, it doesn’t really have much impact on whether minority problems are solved. you have likely been told the greatest problem with our world is that people don’t know what it’s like to experience life as someone oppressed or targeted. i would say that’s definitely a problem but not the greatest one by far. so what’s the larger issue? that people don’t care.
i can tell you don’t believe me so i’ll give you an example. there is a silly and overused statement made by people in the west – “there are starving children in africa”. yes. there are, indeed, starving children in the vastly heterogeneous continent of africa, as there are starving children on every continent and in every country on the planet. my issue with this is twofold. one is that, while people are aware of the fact that children are, in fact, innocent young people literally dying from lack of food while most of the western world binges on luxury items and all-you-can-eat buffets, this hasn’t actually led to people doing anything about it. if you think people are powerless to fix these problems because an individual can do little to feed a starving country full of children, you haven’t thought it through. look at the results of popular outrage. people get angry about something and demand change. the politicians respond to it and have no choice but to act. we have known for many, many years that children are dying simply because they lack basic nutrition, something easily provided if even a single large developed government (i’m looking at you, america, china and france!) seriously committed to it. it’s not fixed because we don’t demand action. it’s not lack of awareness. it’s lack of interest.
the other part of this that bothers me is not simply lack of concern but lack of understanding of the issue. people are aware children are starving but don’t go beyond that to figure out why – corrupt governments? lack of infrastructure? genocide leading to masses of orphans with nobody to take care of them? systemic rape and the unavailability of birth control leading to vast overpopulation of children? while some people believe these causes are irrelevant and we should just fix the problem (which is, i admit, a valid perspective and we should, after all, fix the problem without delaying to look at its cause until after), this understanding would lead us to the obvious conclusion that some of these causes exist in developed nations, too, which leads to starving, underprivileged children not thousands of kilometers away on the other side of the world but a few minutes’ walk in our own cities. do we not know because we’re blissfully unaware? no. we don’t know because euphoria and ecstasy are the result of intentionally ignoring the problem.
let’s study together
history is not like learning a language or studying a piece of literature. it’s not simply a lecture and a discussion. it requires subtle examination of your own culture and perspective and the willingness to put yourselves in the place of figures in the past. it is more nuanced than most other disciplines and, as such, requires significant effort. that’s not to say other subjects don’t reward effort. history, though, decisively punishes a lack of depth in understanding with a truly and disastrously incorrect view of both the historical and modern worlds.
what you will find here is a collection of materials on various ways to look at the historical past. you may not always agree (or ever, for that matter) but the point isn’t to argue. it’s to take a particular viewpoint on the past and use it as a framework and starting place to construct your own.
sometimes it’s better to pick a specific part of history to look at. that’s where this collection begins. you can select the time period you want to study and go from there. other times, it’s more interesting to take an accepted piece of “knowledge” about the past and challenge it. if you scroll down, i will give you several examples of this and how it may be useful to develop your understanding of how history should be explored.
with all that preamble out of the way, let’s travel into the past and try to learn some of its lessons.
it may be useful to note that much of the content here is intended to follow the outline of the ap world history course as it is provided for my students. there is a textbook that accompanies this material but it is gradually being shifted online.
historical thought examples
i have had many questions about my teaching process of “what if” in history. this is not the only component of my classes but i often ask students to consider historical events from the perspective of what would have been impacted if things had gone differently. this is a way to study and understand the causal and non-causal nature of different components of history. here are some examples. they combine the idea of causality with that of approaching history from a critical perspective, not accepting the “common wisdom” or “traditional view” but asking questions like “was there really a second world war or was it just a continuation of the first?” or “did western people truly want to stop the holocaust or was it a convenient excuse to eliminate a race most people didn’t like anyway?”, perhaps even “if white people had been doing the dying in camps, would america have waited so long to try to liberate them?”.
- example 1 – there was only one world war in the twentieth century
- example 2 – the holocaust could have been ended quickly if people had cared
a note on these examples
these are short explorations of the past. they are not scholarly essays of great length and depth. they are intended to get students thinking about different ways to approach history, rather than memorizing what has been written in books for centuries, to develop a more nuanced understanding of the events that have shaped our modern world. it’s not expected that you agree, only that you think. there are many other possible examples and you’ll discover them as exploratory exercises in material here and elsewhere but i have selected two from the recent past because that’s the time period most people are most familiar with.