Finding Your Roots

This is a link and lesson based on the popular series Finding Your Roots hosted by Henry Louis Gates. This provides a really interesting look at the methods of history and a great opportunity to discuss its relevance on a personal level. Thanks to my colleague for sharing her work with me on this.

I focused on Questlove’s story rather than play the whole episode through.

We watched the intro, 11:15-16:30, and 40:45 until the end of Questlove’s portion

Finding Your Roots Worksheet

The Use and Abuse of History

The Divergence of Science and History

The quest for knowledge must begin with humility: that is, with a keen awareness of our limitations. None of us possess a God’s-eye view of the world. None of us can be “objective” in any meaningful sense of the word. Everything we know is known from a particular point of view. That’s true even of the most successful method for aggregating knowledge—modern science. After all, a scientific hypothesis is a point of view.

So we are immediately confronted with a problem of selection. There are an infinite number of facts present in the world, and they can be described from an infinite number of perspectives. Which facts are important enough to merit our attention, and under which aspect?


Why Confederate Lies Live On: For some Americans, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it’s the story they want to believe.

For so many of them, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth. This is especially true at Blandford, where the ancestors aren’t just hovering in the background—they are literally buried underfoot.

History as weather: A fractal theory of history for Ian Morris, Jared Diamond and CGP Grey

Longer read but delves into the nature, value, and pitfalls of history as an area of knowledge. Great connections to concepts of the idea of models in history and connections to natural sciences.

Critics of the social sciences argue that unlike the meteorologists who can build their larger weather models on solid physics, chemistry and geography, historians don’t actually have solid enough psychological models underlying their bigger sociological models. But that is to make the same error. Meteorological models can just about predict the weather tomorrow and the day after while sometimes making huge errors. Historical models are just as good. Equally, historical models can predict larger trends about as accurately as climatology. But we often treat them as if we thought it was possible to predict the weather a year from now.

Genocide denial gains ground 25 years after Srebrenica massacre

What is the relevance of historical knowledge? How does the present affect our views on the past?

Related: “Villain or hero? Sarajevo is split on archduke’s assassin Gavrilo Princip”

With survivors and perpetrators living side by side, and given the country’s divided politics, it is hard to imagine closure and reconciliation coming soon…

Schooling, like so much in Bosnia, is still divided along ethnic lines. Pupils are split into separate classes for “national subjects” such as history, and while the Bosniak textbooks cover the genocide, the Serb textbooks gloss it over. There is little hope of a unified curriculum in the country in the foreseeable future. “The main nationalist parties that continue to benefit from social division have no interest in changing a divisive status quo,” said Valery Perry, of the Democratization Policy Council in Sarajevo.


Why it Matters Podcast: Living with History

Whether you think we are making history or repeating it, it’s safe to say we are living in a historic time. In this episode, Why It Matters asks three historians to weigh in on how to use the past to examine the present and make better choices for the future.

Annette GORDON-REED: Things that may seem perplexing to you, have their roots in things that happened in the past. It would be as if you were trying to tell your story to someone, but you didn’t know where you were born. You didn’t know who your parents were. You didn’t have any memories of things that had happened when you were a child. History consists of, of things in the past that have had a bearing on the present that you might wanna know. That help you explain why you’re in the situation you’re in, why we are in a situation in a given society.

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As Statues Fall, What’s the Best Way to Evaluate History’s Heroes?

Seriously, this is the last time I’m posting anything about statues. The first is a thoughtful piece that compares how we think about morality in history to the progress of science. The second is a podcast that delves into the questions around why we care about monuments and statues. For previous posts about this topic, click here.

Are these long-overdue corrections in the name of social justice, or simply ideologically driven acts of anti-historical vandalism? The answer depends on how we judge the moral actions of figures from the past, a question that in turn requires us to consider the nature of morality itself…

Knowledge is a relay race. It is a fundamental misunderstanding about how it works to criticize a swift runner who effectively passed the baton because he did not complete the race on his own….

All of which to say, there is a vital difference between being wrong and being blameworthy….

When it comes to praise and blame, intention and context matter, not just a snapshot of the final result.

The Inquiry Podcast: Why do we care about statues?

The killing of African American George Floyd ignited anti-racist protests around the world – many centred on statues associated with colonialism and slavery. Why do these figures of bronze and stone generate such strong feelings? And what do they tell us about how countries deal with their past?

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Roosevelt Statue to Be Removed From Museum of Natural History (and other related links)

Below are a few resources surrounding the recent removal/destruction of statues.

“The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice,” said Theodore Roosevelt IV, age 77, a great-grandson of the 26th president and a museum trustee.

From the artist, John Russell Pope, in 1928:

“In the center of the terrace…will arise a polished granite pedestal bearing an equestrian statue of Roosevelt with two accompanying figures on foot, one representing the American Indian and the other the primitive African. This heroic group…will symbolize the fearless leadership, the explorer, benefactor and educator….”—From a description of the architect’s design approved by the Memorial Commission, 1928

Commenting on the recent controversy: “Pope refers to the figures as a ‘heroic group.’ That’s important. In some criticisms, the standing figures were taken to be lesser than Roosevelt. That was never the intention. They are allegorical figures representing Africa and America, emphasized by the animals on the parapet reliefs.”—Harriet F. Senie, Director, M.A. Art History, Art Museum Studies, The City College of New York

What’s the point of statues?

To the minds of people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, public art had a very clear purpose, which seems to have been forgotten in the minds of many people today. Rather than teaching history, or even celebrating the memory of a particular person, so much of the art that still dots our public places was explicitly about inculcating virtue – good morals, and good habits.

It’s a notion that sits uneasily with us now. It’s hard to think of any artist today who would be so bold as to tell us all how we should think and act.

Some Statues Are Like Barbed Wire

Activists fighting to remove statues of slavers and colonizers understand better than most how public memorials can be a form of violence.

Thinking about how and why statues go up might help us to think about if they should come down. Once a statue is in place, it is easy to think of it as an eternal and inevitable presence—a view that informs the notion that removing statues is tantamount to “erasing history.” However, statues don’t happen by accident; it takes the concerted will and money of an individual or group to have a monument take form in stone or metal in a public place. Thinking through the intentions of how, where, and when a given statue came to exist in a given space at a given time offers a way past scaremongering about slippery slopes and the erasing of history to consider the story a statue tells, and if that is a story that belongs in a public place in 2020.

Foreign Affairs Magazine January/February 2018 The Undead Past

An excellent collection of articles discussing the role of history and memory and how different nations including the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, Rwanda, and South Africa have dealt with their pasts.

From the introduction to the issue:

How do nations handle the sins of the fathers and mothers? Take genocide, or slavery, or political mass murder. After such knowledge, what forgiveness—and what way forward? The Germans have a word for it, of course: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past.” But the concept is applicable far beyond the Nazis be behind a paywall)

Here are a bunch more posts about historical monuments and history.



Are there laws of history?

Historians believe that the past is irreducibly complex and the future wildly unpredictable. Scientists disagree. Who’s right?

‘Historical facts’ are not discrete items, awaiting scholars to hunt them down. They need to be created…

The danger here, of course, is that these approaches tend to assume that the natural sciences are capable of producing objective knowledge, and that mirroring their methodologies will produce ‘better’ knowledge for the rest of the academy. Half a century of research in the history of science has shown that this perspective is deeply flawed. The sciences have their own history – as indeed does the notion of objectivity – and that history is deeply entwined with power, politics and, importantly, the naturalisation of social inequality by reference to biological inferiority. No programme for understanding human behaviour through the mathematical modelling of evolutionary theory can afford to ignore this point.

Nothing was the same: Historical parallels for the coronavirus should be avoided like the plague

ICLAGU5OR5FQBLEAJZGVVGI4FAPutting the current pandemic into a historical context has undoubtedly served a purpose. Linkages to the past can serve as warnings, and they might even offer solace…Drawing linkages always requires simplification, and oversimplification can lead to anachronism….When we hunt for similarities, we overlook everything that’s different – and that is dangerous. Sure, finding proof of our arguments is satisfying, but often, what’s most important is what we’ve had to ignore to find it.