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History Is Not Always Exciting. Deal With It

The goal of “making history exciting” is a fool’s errand for professionals.

Can it happen? Sure. Is it possible? No doubt. Is it a sustainable, or reasonable, way to think about teaching and learning? Absolutely not.

The notion of anything being “exciting” is a subjective, time-and-place kind of thing. It depends on circumstances out of one’s control and the mood of the receiver. You can’t plan for excitement any more than you can plan for sex. Most often it’s counter-productive to aim for it. It’s more about luck or fortune than skill.

The best aim in the classroom, in a big picture sense, is to show how the study and reading of history is worth everyone’s time and energy. Inculcating some kind of lasting, sober appreciation for the complexities and nuance of history is the more sustainable endeavor. It’s an achievable goal—though it takes sustained exposure to, and guidance through, the works of history.

If history educators can show learners that there is a respectable payoff in studying various subfields and topics, then that instructor has done their job. Respect for the topic, the field, and its practitioners will do more in the long term for society and the profession.

Turning history into a field of entertainment, however, diminishes both the topic and the work of entertainers. A great many attempts at entertainment by actors fail or are mediocre at best. And a great many do not generate “excitement.” Why would any historian think they could better, given their lack of training in those arts?

My advocating for ignoring the notion of “excitement” in the teaching of history doesn’t mean I’m saying that history must necessarily be “boring.” Helping foster respect for complexity, nuance, context, change over time, causation, history’s characters, contingency, argument, narrative, and storytelling need not be an endeavor that lacks stimulation. One makes those concepts come alive in the study of history’s events. That’s where the sustainable intellectual money is. – TL


Why I Voted For Dole in 1996–And How I’ve Changed

As a 25-year-old raised (mostly) in rural western Missouri, I voted for Dole in 1996. The cultural affinities are clear when I think about my family, upbringing, leanings, and total educational background. Many of those are adequately covered in this NYT article about Dole’s hometown of Russell, Kansas. But I had also inherited what I now believe to be a flawed philosophy of voting.

At the time, for me, everything centered on a candidate’s known or perceived character. By this I mean ethics and morals, as well as manners of expression of them. I did believe in “small government” too, and I mostly supported Republicans, but character trumped both of those arenas. A Democrat with good character would get my vote too. All policies, I believed then, flowed from, and were determined by, a candidate’s character.

This philosophy meant that every election cycle involved a search for character clues. I needed large amounts biographical facts, as well as information about one’s decision-making process. If those felt comfortable to me, then that person ended up as my candidate. It is true that the character traits I desired largely fell within Republican values (as they advertised them), but character ruled my enthusiasm as well as my choices.

I believed that Dole, in 1996, had transcended his past flaws to become a person who then possessed that rare category of “presidential character.”

Character still matters to me, but policy matters more these days. I still have a philosophy of voting, but it centers on policy commitments and proposals. Character is down the list, but I’m concerned with it insofar as it bears on their commitment and follow-through on policies that matter. And my policy concerns now center on the common good, economic equality, the public square, human rights, peace, diplomacy, and raising up the oppressed.

Gone is my preoccupation with homespun character, individual rights, and protecting “small business” for the sake of it. Businesses, small and large, will betray the common good in a heartbeat, and care nothing for economic equality. – TL

An Administrative Maxim (in Education)

An Administrative Maxim, for all levels of education (K – ∞): Never, ever, ever punish students for administrative mistakes and miscommunications. Fix the problem for the student(s), and then figure out what went wrong and how to correct the administrative component.

This maxim is not about viewing students as consumers, but rather because punishing them reinforces stereotypes about bureaucratic incompetence and uncaring bureaucrats.

Education administration exists not solely for the sake of policies, processes, lawyers, or same vague ideas about institutional integrity for its own sake, disconnected from people. Institutions are by and for people, so administrators should, in education, work to make all of those people as content as possible in the scope of the education Institution’s mission of teaching and learning. People must be valued first: students and teachers and staff, Then worry about the processes, policies, legalities, etc. If you take care of people, with sensitivity and fairness, putting students first, as humans in need of respect and dignity, without coddling them, then legalities will take care of themselves.

2021 Reset

This past year ruined my old writing habits. How? Allow me to enumerate the ways:

  1. (of 5) Anxious Scrolling: I spent a great deal of time in a state of hyper-attentiveness for news about the pandemic and the presidential election. I watched for updates, and scanned or read most every pandemic-related story. Concern for a nation’s leadership began, in 2020, by awaiting news of the impeachment hearings. I knew the Senate would not uphold the House verdict, but I could not ignore that historic event.
  2. Racism: As was the case with many, I’m sure, this began with George Floyd and the protests that ensued. But for me, it continued through the late spring, summer, and early fall courtesy of a giant (and welcome) anti-racism effort at work. That effort manifest in a large steering committee but also subcommittee work. I happily was invited, and joined, those endeavors—working with students, faculty and staff on a number of public and private tasks. Because my office deals with mistreatment concerns, this impacted my daily and weekly routine in numerous ways.
  3. Inability to Escape from Distractions: With the pandemic I switched to remote work in mid-March. I felt privileged to be in a position to accomplish that switch. It enabled both gainful employment and relative safety from the kinds of interactions that could increase viral load to the point of infection. But there was a cost. I could not focus in the same ways that one can in an office. I love my children, but a home office seemed to imply a privilege, for them, of interruption. It used to be the case that I would escape their understandable need for attention by writing in coffee shops. That habit was, of course, destroyed. It has taken me months to compensate for the loss of that environment. I only came on a solution in the past two weeks.
  4. Teaching Adjustments: I was teaching two courses part-time in the spring term. Both (a 3-hour and 1-hour) had to be switched to remote learning. The one-hour course was an easy transition, because it was easy in the first place. But the three-hour involved a larger switch from paper assignments and hard-copy submission, to an all-virtual submission and assessment format.
  5. Using Social Media as Therapy: I realized, only a few weeks ago, that I was using social media not just to scan for news and headlines (I subscribe to many news outlets via Facebook and Twitter), but also for therapeutic conversation. I spent a great deal of writing energy and keyboard time in the comments of various posts. I didn’t realize how much time until I put myself on a social media “diet” last week. I have limited myself to 30-45 minutes of social media time per day, and only after 9 pm—when my main energies are spent. Since putting myself on this diet I now realize I was frittering away hours per day on social media. I also just feel better, mentally and emotionally, after cutting down. My fingers are crossed that this diet restores some, or all, of my old writing habits and abilities in 2021.

That’s it for me. What made 2020 especially awful for you? What are planning, or doing already, to make 2021 better? – TL

The Zombie Cold War

Thesis: The Cold War is not over, and we now live in a zombie, or ricochet, Cold War period. We are experiencing the long tail of that historical narrative. Read more…


Word for the day: Supererogation.

Merriam-Webster defines it as “the act of performing more than is required by duty, obligation, or need.” The Latin roots are ‘super’ (over and above) and ‘erogare’ (to expend public funds after asking the consent of the people).

The political relevance for today seems clear: duty to the common good, doing better than merely what’s required, and ethical representation. But the roots are in church matters. I encountered the term in Aquinas’ *Summa Theologica*, in relation to the expectations of bishops.

I don’t need my president, senator, governors, mayor, or alderperson to act like a medieval bishop, but I’m not surprised to find ideas about the ethics of public offices rooted in questions about Church bureaucracy and administration.

The COVID-19 Fallacy

The COVID-19 Fallacy: Falsely attributing errors, wrongs, dispositions, failings, and bad ideologies to the COVID-19 pandemic when they, in fact, existed *long* before.

It’s a new problem that’s actually an old problem.

For those of you at home tracking the taxonomy of fallacies in the philosophy of history, this is a special form of presentism. David Hackett Fischer (of course!) also identified it as the legal *nunc pro tunc* fallacy (“now for then,” or the next). You can find a Merriam-Webster definition at this link.

Citation: D.H. Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper, 1970) pp. 135-140]. See also: the “Whig interpretation of history” and/or many of the works of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Our Evening of Fear: On COVID-19, American Ideals, and the Common Good

Building on Pope Francis’s reflections, I would argue we are lost and afraid because we are only now, courtesy of an effective quarantine, realizing just how much we need a robust *society*. We have lost track of the broad human basis of our nation. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the hollowness of our current set of market-dependent ideals. Isolation has forced a reckoning with our weak and thin democracy. There is nothing worse than being imprisoned with one’s bad ideas. Read more…

On The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve now screened *Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker* twice. I have opinions and questions (10 total)—some lighter and others deeper (some spoilers ahead): Read more…

On Underestimating Teachers

For my entire life mainstream Liberals, the Right, and even some Leftists have bagged on schools and colleges of education.

Smart liberals and conservatives have talked about what a waste they are—how only poor students gravitate to the field of education.<This trashing was a regular feature in my home state of Missouri, and persisted well past my undergraduate education. I heard it in graduate school in Illinois. I might have been foolish enough, at certain points, to believe the rhetoric. It was normal in the 1980s and 1990s, and even into the early years of this century.

What the bipartisan smart set didn't see was that the desire to be an educator was about a different value set, not any capitalist perception of social or individual worth. Those "poor" education students were looking for an area to work, to labor, and to give service that valued others, even while the objects of an educator's profession were difficult to evaluate against social norms. They were resisting those perceived norms. Read more…