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historical thinking

Yesterday I asked how I could integrate the consumption history I’m learning into my teaching, and I pointed to a couple examples where it’s already there. But I missed a glaringly obvious one: the Great War.

Consumption is a vital part of the story in Gerald Feldman’s classic Army, Industry, and Labor in Germany, 1914—1918 (1966), insofar as the purchasing power of labor was inextricably linked to Germany’s social and political stability and, therefore, the country’s ability to produce sufficient armaments to continue fighting. The point is more accessible in Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914—1918 (1998 and 2004), which I have used in a course on the Great War and will use again next fall in one on modern Germany. There is also Belinda Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (2000), which I will be using in a graduate course on war and society this summer.

I also usually bring up a much earlier aspect of consumption history when I address the Enlightenment and the public sphere: coffee houses. To make this point, there is a delightful reading from before the Enlightenment on the Internet Modern History Sourcebook: “The First English Coffee-Houses, c. 1670—1675.”

Of course, none of this is informed by a specific historiography of consumption history, but it does point out how this topic is already in my teaching. But there’s a difference between including a topic and addressing it systematically. To think about war and society in Europe, I can at least draw on the periodizing nomenclature of cabinet war, people’s war, and total war to help describe the level of societal involvement in interstate conflicts over the past few centuries (Stig Förster et al.). If such language and periodization exists for understanding consumption history, I have not yet learned it.

Perhaps the main point is to recognize modern consumer societies as having a history in the first place, instead of taking them as a direct reflection of human nature and, hence, rendering them ahistorical, as too often happens in simplistic political rhetoric that opposes capitalism and communism—rhetoric that invariably finds its way into student spoken and written comments. I sometimes try to do this with economic thought in the early modern period, but historicizing capitalism should be a central historiographical problem for the modern era, too.

There is an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about how Texas is changing the content of its American high school history textbooks. Instead of taking potshots at its clear abuses of history, however, the author locates it in a broader context of history curricula and identity politics over the past few decades. See Sam Tanehaus, “In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right.”

Kevin Levin of the blog Civil War Memory thinks that the focus on textbooks in this newest episode of America’s culture wars misses the point, however. He points out that much history teaching is no longer focused on textbooks. He has a point. Even those of us who still sometimes use textbooks and do not rely as heavily on the internet see history education in terms very different than those of the Texas Board. See “Texas, Textbooks, and the Battle For Our Children’s Souls” and “If I Should Teach American Exceptionalism . . .

Spring is almost here, which means its time to order books for the summer term. Summer in DC gets hot, and the summer terms are short, so I usually try to assign things that are both reasonably entertaining and not too long for the general audience I get in my introductory survey courses that are mandatory requirements for all majors. Besides covering a variety of themes and genres, I often try to pick one book that will jump-start historical thinking. I want a book that will make students more aware of how much “the past is like a foreign country” that we will not understand, if we do not try to fathom the conditions and assumptions of the time without letting our contemporary worldview get in our way.

Last year I tried Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, which I had first experienced as a TA for Sandra Horvath-Peterson at Georgetown University back in the 1990s. Of course, Brecht adapts Galileo’s story to his own purposes, but it provides a useful point of departure for a discussion about the Scientific Revolution. It also forces students to come to terms with the limits of historical fiction.

It usually goes pretty well, though the first section I did it in was a little rocky, partly because not enough students had done the reading, but also because I was surprised that so few people had any general knowledge of fascism. The paperback edition we used, translated by Eric Bently, contains some excellent material on Brecht’s prejudices, but it spends too much time on material more of interest to specialists in drama. Some students read the first part of it, but most gave up and went straight to the play. So I integrated a mini talk of Brecht’s time into the discussions and got them to reason out how the problems of the nineteen thirties and forties had manifested themselves in a play Brecht had set in the seventeenth century. I also assigned sources from 1615 and 1633, so that they could get a sense of the issues from Galileo’s own time.

One point I tried to make clear was that science was only then beginning to manifest itself as an independent discourse, that it was perfectly natural for the Church to be interested in science at the time and even claim authority on the matter. Of course, I’m no specialist on the matter, but it seems to me that this basic point is worth making. Most students seemed to get it too. Indeed, I felt like cheering when one woman near the end of a class wondered aloud what people would think about our own world in another few hundred years. Sound trivial? Maybe to historians and those for whom historical thinking comes naturally. In our presentist society and with this presentist generation, I think the question was excellent. This student and her classmates were thinking historically.

The success of this discussion was also due in part to another issue. I have begun to “legitimate confusion” for my students, that is, I have begun to cultivate an awareness in them of just how hard historical interpretation can be and how important learning how to ask questions can be. With this attitude, students can explore sources and ideas honestly and thoughtfully without fear of getting it wrong and looking bad. With such an awareness, students were willing to attempt the leaps of imagination necessary to navigate among three different time periods, the early twenty-first century, the nineteen thirties and forties, and the first few decades of the seventeenth century.

I might try this book again, though I could also do with a change. Perhaps some of you have some ideas?

Images: Galileo and Brecht

When I went to the student coffee shop on Friday, the student at the cash register guessed my order before I could tell him what I wanted. I remarked that I had had similar experiences with regulars when I worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts over twenty years ago. His response: “They had Dunkin’ Donuts back then?”

For me there has always been a Dunkin’ Donuts. Indeed, according to Wikipedia and the corporate website of Dunkin’ Donuts, the first store opened in 1950, which is close enough to “always” for someone born in the early 1960s. So why did the student think Dunkin’ Donuts was new? His own answer was eminently practical: “I haven’t even been alive for twenty years.” Still, his underlying assumption that so much of the world around him was new took me aback.

Maybe I should not have been surprised by his presentism. After all, the current generation of students has grown up hearing that they live in a completely different world than the one into which I was born. They have heard from their parents and teachers about a bygone world in the midst of a Cold War without personal computing, the internet, cell phones, iPods, and global warming. And then there are the many students who have grown up in new subdivisions, schools and strip malls.

What do these thoughts have to do with me and Clio? One of my main goals in my undergraduate survey courses is to teach historical thinking, which in part entails helping students appreciate not only that the world has a past, but that the people in that past saw that world through different eyes. But it is not enough for me to ask them to see how the world looks when it is filtered through the experiences of earlier generations. In order to do my job, I find it helps if I meet them halfway and try to understand how the world looks when filtered through their experiences. Of course, I usually end up looking uncool in the process, but as the father of a teenager I am used to that.

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