What Makes a Good Student Historian? August 25, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback
What makes a good historian? Beachcombing was wondering about this as part of his preparations for the new term, now just a couple of weeks away. There is, of course, a long shopping list. But when Beach stands in front of his students on the first day of class he is always looking for two qualities: one emotional, one intellectual. If a student has those two qualities then he or she will conceivably be able to go on to do a doctorate in history: if not brighter futures await them.
The necessary emotional response might be termed ‘the majesty of history’, a sense of the drama of the crashing percussion of generation upon generation of human aspirations and vanity. We are, in the present, just the sand blowing over the dune and below us there are thousands of layers of sediment stretching back to a now forgotten core. If that thought gives you ‘the shivers’ then you have a sense of the majesty of history, if you are just worried about getting some grains in your plimsolls then do your requirement and move rapidly on to better things.
Beach has a novel test for rooting out maiestas in his new students. He shows, on the first day of class, a cartoon map of Europe through five hundred years. Every time the borders change – the map flicks from year to year – countless numbers move and die, cultures rise like yeasty bread, steel defeats cartilage and then is defeated, in turn, by steel and cartilage. When Beach looks from the map to his class a couple of students will be ostentatiously bored at the abstractness of it all, ten will be politely watching and one or perhaps two will have an emotional reaction: shaking heads, teary eyes, mouths agape…
The intellectual test is simply the question of whether or not a student is source-wary. This should be the simplest thing in the world. It involves the very sensible principle that everyone carries prejudices around in the ink of their pen (or their dot-matrix printer) and that it is the historian’s job to map these. Anyone, for example, who reads a Civil War source, before they start worrying about this or that detail, must immediately ask: Republican or Democrat, Southern or Northern, Confederate or Unionist, slave or free, Protestant or Catholic, young or old, man or woman etc etc?
Administrators tell us that it should be the teacher’s job to explain to students how to be source-wary. But Beach’s experience is that while lots of things can be taught – archive work, manipulating Google’s search engines, convincing supra-national bodies to give you money…– being source-wary is innate. If it is not there you might as well go and get that job in the city, earn good money and tend your garden. Testing for its presence is much simpler than the map above. You simply put an unlikely, preferably a jarring source in front of a class and ask them what they see. The crucial point is whether students first analyse the text or first analyse the author. The short biography at the top is almost always skipped…
Beach has taught perhaps five hundred students ‘intimately’ (i.e. been on first name terms and scrutinised their development in small classes). Perhaps ten were outstanding ‘naturals’ with heaps of these two qualities. The sample is too small but, for what it is worth, women lead men, history majors were surprisingly in short supply and recent immigrant minorities were significantly over-represented. The female bias comes as no surprise. The last demographic point Beach found though surprising as, in his facile way, he would have thought that you needed roots in a country to enjoy its history or, indeed, the history of other countries. Perhaps ‘rootless’ immigrant families bring with them a heightened sense of the fragility of societies, a haymaker to Anglo-Saxon complacency and with it a reverence and interest in ‘the oligarchy of the dead’? Other ‘historian’ qualities drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com