Friday, March 03, 2006

Teaching American Revolution

The reply of Prof. Laurel Ulrich to the New York Times op-ed by John Tierney was not good enough for the New York Times but the Crimson has published it because it is definitely sufficiently interesting for the Harvard community.
You could expect an answer along these lines but reality may often exceed your expectations. Tierney has obviously done some research and he argued that the anti-Summers professors typically teach their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the world as written in their latest controversial (but otherwise not terribly influential) books instead of insights that could be generally acceptable (or that are even accepted) and that are objectively important. Ulrich not only confirms Tierney's statement but she confirms it including some naturalistic details.



For example, Tierney argued that instead of the history of the American Revolution, students at Harvard learn about the diaries of ordinary (and we could perhaps call them historically irrelevant) citizens, about "an" 18th century midwife, and about the Haitian revolution being on par with the American revolution. Prof. Ulrich writes that this observation is true and it is indeed what history is all about. It is hard to say whether she is joking or whether she is serious.

In the case you don't know, the "Haitian revolution" was a historically inconsequential uprising of black slaves on Haiti against the French that took place in between 1791 and 1804. Eventually they declared a "black republic". This rebellion was not really based on any deep ideas or principles and honestly speaking, it did not lead to anything that had a lasting value. Saying that this rebellion was as important as the American revolution is not only exceedingly provocative, but it also contradicts known facts about the history.

Similar comments apply to the midwives and the diaries of ordinary citizens.

Ulrich argues that the whole teaching of history should be based on episodes of comparable importance as the midwife, the diary of an ordinary citizen, and the Haitian revolution. However, she also wants to disprove Tierney's general statement that they teach virtually nothing about the "hard facts" and "hard mechanisms" of history. In order to disprove this statement, she offers the name of a "large introductory course" that she teaches on a regular basis. Do you know how is the course named? "Pursuits of happiness." The content is actually not as vague as the title suggests (something about the British colonies, I guess) but still, you got the idea.

Well, this is how history at Harvard looks like, despite 5 years of Summers' presidency, and it will probably get even worse in the future unless sufficiently relevant people will have enough energy to point out that Prof. Ulrich's opinions about the importance of various things in history are intellectually and scientifically weak.

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