Monday, July 15, 2013

An Oxford education in history

Interesting excerpt from an article by Daniel Johnson, which bemoans our declining civilization's failure to study history. I don't think that I will ever recover from the shock I experienced as a new professor, when a history professor from another college told me that he does not expect his students to "memorize dates, or anything else they can just look up on Google." I think that many people are operating under the misapprehension that human memory has some kind of maximum capacity, and that the more you memorize, the less previously learned material you will be able to access. To the contrary, the more you learn, the better you will be able to recall what you have learned.

"Going up to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1975, I was fortunate enough to read history at a time when the subject had not yet been hollowed out by the elimination of facts and dates, when a grasp of the broad sweep of British and European history was taken for granted among the educated, and certainly among those who aspired to lead the country. I belonged to the last generation before the abolition of grammar schools, which still placed a premium on wide reading and the acquisition of historical knowledge for its own sake. Within a decade, that kind of education had come to be seen as a privilege of the well-to-do. David Cameron would still have enjoyed such an education at Eton; yet as prime minister he was stumped by a question about what "Magna Carta" might mean. Today, I wonder how much history even those with degrees in the subject are actually expected to have read. The reaction to Michael Gove's new history curriculum suggests that many teachers don't relish the thought of inculcating knowledge rather than "skills".

Undergraduates who went up to Oxford to read modern history in the mid-1970s found themselves examined in their first term on four historical classics: Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Macaulay's History of England, Alexis de Tocqueville's L'Ancien RĂ©gime et la Revolution and the Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen ("Reflections on World History") by Nietzsche's Swiss friend and mentor, Jacob Burckhardt. These texts suited the taste of the Regius Professor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, himself a great historian both of the 17th and 20th centuries whose works had literary as well as academic merit."
That seems like a great approach to me: "Here, kid, read these four works and be prepared to discuss them. See you in three months." Notice that in England that they read history (or any subject, for that matter), they don't major in history. They read psychology, too. If you want to learn anything worth knowing, you are going to have put in some serious reading. (Which is why MOOCs without required reading seem like a huge waste of time to me.)

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