James Burke’s musing

In one of my last posts I discussed Dan Carlin‘s wonderful podcasts: Common Sense and Hardcore History.  That actually got me thinking that I hadn’t listened to all the available podcasts so I went to iTunes and downloaded the episodes 18-20 which had arrived before I became a regular listener.  It happens that Dan’s guest on episode 18 is one of my favourite historians: James Burke, creator of the Connections series and the Day the Universe Changed.

I find Burke’s take on history endlessly fascinating, I would describe it as a history that looks at some of the little things that escape our normal historical attention (a lot like Carlin’s take if you look at my post about him).  Burke made one interesting claim that got me thinking as a social studies/history teacher, that much of what passes for history today was drafted by teachers who wanted to have a right and wrong answer.  An approach to history that he labels as ‘Churchillian’, a sort of history that focuses on great people and great events.  I am forced to agree in a lot of ways, that history turns on big and small events, and that while people can influence history, in my opinion it is more likely that the forces of history (and society) influence people.  I know that in my quest to sometimes make things easy to digest for my students I have overly simplified events, and in many cases I, and the people who write standardized multiple choice exams, have done it because it is easier to tell if the student was listening (we call it learning to make ourselves feel better), than to see if they really understood the deeper flows of history.  Of course when there is as much put into the curriculum as there is I have to wonder if it’s at all possible to do anything but treat it that way.

So is it true?  Are we doing ourselves a disservice by the way that we teach history?  Maybe the answer is that sometimes we do, but good teachers, and I’m sure that there are many, make sure that they show that it is more complicated than it first appears, at least I hope so.  It’s tough to do with ‘standardized’ testing.

While on the topic of James Burke, one of the things that I discovered is that Burke is onto a new project.  It’s called the Knowledge Web, and it, according to the web site is

“…an activity rather than a web site—an expedition in time, space, and technology to map the interior landscape of human thought and experience. Thanks to the work of a team of dedicated volunteers, it will soon be an interactive space on the web where students, teachers, and other knowledge seekers can explore information in a highly interconnected, holistic way that allows for an almost infinite number of paths of exploration among people, places, things, and events.”

As a teaser on the front page the question posed is:  ‘How was Napoleon connected to the development of the computer?’  You’ll have to go to the website for the answer, but I can tell you it’s an interesting series of connections.  So for those of us who are fans of the ‘Connections‘ series, this appears to be a way that we will be able to go beyond just showing the videos, which it has to be said, are getting somewhat dated.

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