Thursday, September 20, 2007

I took the ISI History Quiz

I took the ISI History Test that so many college seniors at elite universities failed. Results:
You answered 57 out of 60 correctly — 95.00 %
Average score for this quiz during September: 75.3%
Average score since September 18, 2007: 75.3%
What did I get wrong?
Answers to Your Missed Questions:
Question #19 - C. philosopher kings.
Question #54 - D. can be reversed by government spending more than it taxes.
Question #58 - B. An increase in the volume of commercial bank loans.

Here are the questions and all possible answers (including my wrong ones) for the ones I missed:
19) In The Republic, Plato points to the desirability of:

That was a classic brain f**t on my part.

54) Keynesian economists conclude that the recession phase of a business cycle:
Eh. Economics ain't my strong suit...I suspect most historians can relate.

What is a major effect of a purchase of bonds by the Federal Reserve?
....And again....

All in all, I was surprised I did so well, frankly. While some are arguing the test is unfair because it doesn't adequately deal with big concepts, a knowledge of basic historical facts is necessary to support the "big picture" takeaway that colleges aim to teach. Besides, many of the questions do deal with concepts. For instance:
31) Which author’s view of society is presented correctly?

39) The question of why democracy leads to well-ordered government in America when disorder prevails in Europe is central to:

There is a lot of reading that goes into answering these questions, no?

Or how about:
35) The Monroe Doctrine:

13) The struggle between President Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans was mainly over:

44) The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) was significant because it:
Doesn't understanding the "Monroe Doctrine" or why Johnson and the Radical Republicans were fighting display more than just knowing facts and figures. Aren't these the sort of historical concepts that many say should be tested?

And then there's question about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Heck, they even give the date to help you make an educated guess!

I can only surmise that the historians who take a negative view multiple choice tests--thinking "only" facts and dates can be tested--have probably not read the actual test. Maybe they should.

Monday, September 17, 2007

"Cultural history is written by dissenters"

Rod Dreher calls attention to Alan Ehrenhalt's 1995 book "The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America," (PDF version here):
While it is often said that history is written by the winners, the truth is that the cultural images that come down to us as history are written, in large part, by the dissenters -- by those whose strong feelings against life in a particular generation motivate them to become the novelists, playwrights, and social critics of the next, drawing inspiration from the injustices and hypocrisies of the time in which they grew up....The social critics of the past two decades have forced on our attention the inconsistencies and absurdities of life a generation ago: the pious skirt-chasing husbands, the martini-sneaking ministers, the sadistic gym teachers.

I am not arguing with the accuracy of any of those individual memories. But our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don't tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they cold have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.

Rhode Island Historical Society Goes Online

Good idea:

The Rhode Island Historical Society is about to jump into the digital age.

No longer will local history buffs have to drive to Providence to thumb through the society’s 600,000-item card catalogue to do research.

The group plans to abandon its 185-year-old card catalogue system later this month, launching an electronic database that will allow anyone with Web access to search for items stored in the society’s museum and library.

“Now we’ll have a catalog on the Web that people from all over the world can search,” said Karen Eberhart, special collections curator for the historical society. “It’s like going from the 18th century right into the 21st all in one fell swoop.”

Digital reproductions of the historical items will not be available online, Eberhart said. But for the first time, computer users will be able to comb through the historical society’s extensive collection and determine the location of an item from the convenience of home.


When the database goes online on Sept. 27, about one quarter of the total collection — about 150,000 items — will be searchable through the historical society’s Web site. Among the items initially listed will be John Brown’s papers, paintings by the renowned American portrait painter Robert Feke, Rhode Island maps dating back to the 1700s and an extensive collection of textiles — bonnets, dresses, and a cashmere shawl imported in the 18th century.

The historical society also boasts a unique collection of news footage from WJAR-TV Channel 10 collected between the 1950s and 1980s, according to Eberhart.

The historical society plans to continue cataloguing the rest of its holdings with help from grants and individual donations. The next batch of artifacts to be catalogued includes genealogical objects, such as diaries and 19th-century books...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Goodbye AHA

Its object shall be the promotion of historical studies through the encouragement of research, teaching, and publication; the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts; the dissemination of historical records and information; the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public; and the pursuit of kindred activities in the interest of history. -- Article II, Constitution of the American Historical Association

Resolved, That the American Historical Association urges its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

1. To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and

2. To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.

Resolution on United States Government Practices Inimical to the Values of the Historical Profession, March 12, 2007.
When the second quoted item--the AHA's Iraq War resolution--was passed, I wrote,
I don't think the average person gives a crap about what the AHA has to say about Iraq. And I guess I don't either. My only decision is whether or not such an organization deserves my dues.
Since then, I've neither seen nor heard anything from the AHA regarding standing-up for the profession other than when it is against the Bush Administration and an Imperial Presidency. Nothing about the Clinton's stonewalling the release of records or of their former crony Web Hubbell absconding with historical documents from NARA. No hue and cry about the history lost. Oh, they reported it in one of their "Inside Washington"-type columns, but didn't see fit to decide or "resolve" over it. I guess actually stealing and destroying documents isn't as bad as putting a hold on them while we are at war. I'm sure the AHA was all over FDR for the same things.

Anyway, enough is enough. I'm letting my membership lapse and am discontinuing my affiliation with the AHA. I'm fed up with their inability to resist immersing themselves in ideological politics while under a veneer of doing so to safeguard the "values necessary to the practice of our profession." Sure, there are other, practical ($) reasons why I'm checking out of the professional side of the, er, profession. Basically, the services the AHA offers an "Independent Historian" like me (basically, access to book reviews and a few articles in AHR) are easily found (for free!) here on the web. Frankly, because I wasn't going to be going for a PhD or teach any time soon, it was never a perfect match to begin with. Face it, the AHA is of, for and by the PhD's, all of their wailing and gnashing of teach about the "role of the MA" or "public historians" aside. And that's fine, but ain't for me. No harm, no foul....and no more money from me.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Barone's Theory of History: Conformity Lost, or Conformity Redefined?

Michael Barone takes a look at Morton Keller's America's Three Regimes: A New Political History and wonders aloud about his own "theory of history":
The natural state of America, in my theory, is decentralized toleration: We stand together because we can live apart. We are, most of the time, the nation described by Alexis de Tocqueville, made up of various ethnic, religious, and racial strands who believe fervently that we can live and triumph together if we allow one another to observe our local mores. We can embody David Hackett Fischer's "four British folkways" and at the same time be a united people. There's a tension in that, which threatens to come apart. In the midcentury America of the 1850s, the threat was that we would come apart: We had an explosive political conflagration over the issue of slavery in the territories and an explosive ethnic conflagration in the decade that had the largest immigrant influx, in percentage of pre-existing population, of any decade in our history. Citations: Kenneth Stampp's America in 1857; the opening chapters in James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. And in fact, we produced a civil war.

We had the opposite situation in the midcentury America of the 1950s. After the shared experiences of the Depression and World War II, with universal institutions like the comprehensive high school, the military draft, and the big factory workforces represented by giant industrial unions, we were a culturally more uniform country than we have been before or since. We were a nation of conformism, of the regular guy, of the average guy who gets along with his peers. Citations: David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd; William H. Whyte's The Organization Man. It was a society, to take one example, far more hostile to homosexuality: The midcentury society of the 1850s could evidently tolerate Ishmael and Queequeeg sleeping together in Moby Dick and the poems of Walt Whitman, while the midcentury society of the 1950s cast its eyes away from the obvious gayness of the early Gore Vidal and Truman Capote and Roy Cohn.

The Civil War, the imposition of New England Yankee mores in the way described by Morton Keller, and the creation of national business and professional organizations described by Robert Wiebe in The Search for Order 1877-1910 reversed the extreme decentralization of the 1850s. The cultural rebellions, to the left and the right, described recently in neat form by Brink Lindsey's The Age of Abundance reversed the extreme centralization of the 1950s.

For those of us who grew up in the backwash of the 1950s, this decentralization seemed like an abandonment of American tradition. In the long line of history, I think it is more like a reversion to norm. The seeming inconsistency of currently prevailing attitudes on marriage and divorce, gambling and drinking, cigarette smoking and marijuana smoking, is part of the continuing turmoil of a decentralized society. The results don't cohere, but perhaps that is to be expected in a society like ours.

I'm not sure about this. If nothing else, we have become more centralized governmentally and culturally, haven't we? Perhaps we are more polarized politically, yes, and perhaps we all live in our own fortresses, Bowling Alone, so to speak. I think Barone is correct insofar as he links the America seen by Tocqueville with that of today vs. the 1950's. But I think that what has happened is that a new definition of conformism has evolved. Conformism now implies "to each his own" and an underlying "don't be judgmental." Additionally, so many traditional cultural boundaries have been pushed or broken, that nothing much surprises us anymore. Further, to be critical or judgmental about the wrong people is frowned upon. It may be going too far to say the new conformity is essentially what we today call political correctness, but there is some sort of alignment there, I think.