Tag Archives: history

Best History Book Ever: Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Everyone should read this book. Its full title is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and it is exactly that, but it also somehow manages to be both a work of philosophy and a very entertaining read.

Harari writes with a clarity and wit rarely seen in academic writing, or any kind of non-fiction. Reading it is a delight, but that is not the main reason why you should do so.

Even if it were a struggle to wade through, it would be worth it for the content. In this book, millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human history are analyzed, organized, and woven into a fully comprehensible tapestry, enhanced by an original perspective.

Multiple times, during the course of reading Sapiens, I found myself thinking, or even saying to someone nearby, “I guess I knew that, but I never looked at it quite that way.”

If you, like me, are a devoted fan of history, this book won’t provide you with much new information, but it will give you a new perspective on what you know. If you think history is boring and history books are unbearably dry, this one will very likely change your mind.

In any case, every human should have some idea of what the history of humanity has been, and this is by far the best overview I have ever seen. If you read every new history book, or if you have never read even one, read this one!

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How Genealogy Debunks Myths About History, #2: Nuclear Families

Many people seem to think that single parent families and blended families were a rarity until the increased prevalence of divorce in recent decades. Genealogy tells a different story. In researching my ancestors and those of other people, I have indeed found very few that were divorced, but I have also found very few children who grew up with both parents, and many who grew up in blended families.

People tended to die much younger in previous eras, and the surviving spouse often remarried. Many women died in childbirth or as a result of complications from it. The combination of fewer safety protections and lesser medical knowledge meant people were much more likely to die from accidents and common diseases, even well into the twentieth century. People do tend to be aware of these facts, but they often don’t extrapolate from that knowledge what it meant for family structure.

When I am researching a family, the first thing I do is try to find it on as many censuses as possible. Because misspellings and inaccurate birth data are rampant on census pages, matching a family on, for example, the 1900 census with the same family on the 1910 census can be a challenge, but it can usually be done. It is easier with larger families, because even if a few members are not on both lists, you can still be fairly certain it’s the same family.

It is not at all unusual to find a family headed by a widow or widower, even in the last publicly available US census, from 1940. It is also common to find families in which one or both parents have married at least twice, often having children with each spouse. This means many children grew up with stepsiblings and half-siblings. Many had periods in their lives when they had just one parent, and many grew up with stepparents, some with a succession of them.

I have also frequently found families not living together. A couple may be listed as married but living in separate houses. Sometimes all the children are with one parent, and sometimes some are with each. Sometimes some or all of the children in a family are living with grandparents or aunts and uncles. Poorer families are often split up in multiple houses, with even young children working as domestic servants or farm hands.

From what I have seen in genealogical records, there have always been many single parent and blended families. I have not come across any era in which the vast majority of families consisted of a couple who had only ever been married to each other and just that couple’s children. It might have been the ideal, but it does not seem to have been the reality.

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College and Career Readiness is the Wrong Goal

There’s a question I’ve been mulling lately. If the people who say that AI and related technologies are going to put most people out of work, and that a successful human future requires the decoupling of employment from income, are right, what kind of education system best serves the people of that future?

I think what would be best for them would also be best for us, now. It would be one in which “college and career readiness”, if it even exists as a concept, is a byproduct of a good education, not the purpose of it. It would be one in which students learn how to learn, how to evaluate information, and how to coexist with other people. They would learn that human beings created civilization in its many forms, and that they, as human beings, share in the ability and the responsibility to maintain or to change it.

It would also be one in which the STEM subjects, the arts, athletics, and the humanities are all considered equally important, and not necessarily separate from each other. All of them expand our capabilities. All of them build neural connections. All of them can benefit society in different ways.

I would like to stand up particularly for the humanities. With the exception of what has come to be called Language Arts, they seem to be considered expendable. I understand why STEM has become so glorified, and I fervently believe every child should learn to create art and music and should participate in some kind of sport, but understanding ourselves as humans is of at least equal importance.

Many people who choose to study math or science say they did so because of the clarity, or objectivity, or the definitive right answers. Of course, when you advance in those subjects you realize those things are illusions, but they seem real to a beginner, and they are beautiful, in their way. Those were the exact reasons I chose not to focus on those subjects. They seemed sterile, too perfect, lifeless.

I did not struggle with math in school. In fact, I was very good at it. It is a testament to the cultural perception of the humanities as lesser that I feel compelled to say that. The easiest thing I ever did in my life was high school geometry. I was the bane of my teacher’s existence because I rarely paid attention in class (I was definitely not “engaged”), and yet I had something like a 105% average. I more or less enjoyed learning calculus in high school. I thought it was kind of cool, but also kind of boring.

I chose the humanities because they are messy, and imperfect, and subjective. I love the fact that there is never a definitive answer. I find it fascinating that people can have such different perceptions of the world, and that they can find it so difficult to understand each other. I love languages, cultures, religions and philosophies because they are expressions of human beings in all our diversity. I love literature because stories are so quintessentially human, and history because it is a collection of stories. I love the humanities because I love humans, individually and as a species, and I will never completely understand them. They (I suppose I should say we) provide a challenge that will never end.

Recently, I came across this article about a study showing that learning philosophy improved the math and reading skills of elementary school students. By philosophy I don’t mean learning about philosophers, but considering existential and ethical questions about truth, justice, loyalty, etc. I am not surprised at these results. This kind of questioning is the basis of critical thinking, which is fundamental to deep learning.

I am not attempting to discount the importance of STEM. By all means our kids should learn to code. I am learning a little myself. I am just suggesting that in a world in which technology is advancing at such a rapid rate, and changes on the scale of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions are happening on fast forward, consideration of who we are and what kind of society we want to have matters as much as what roles we will have in the new economy.

If we didn’t need our education system to sort our children into jobs, what would we want it to do? What would an educated person look like? Might she be able to distinguish truth from fiction? Might he be able to consider points of view other than his own? Would she know what’s actually in the Constitution and what isn’t? Would he know how the three branches of our government are supposed to interact, and understand why?

We wouldn’t all agree on the answers to these questions. The process of creating and maintaining a public education system is necessarily messy and political (calls to keep politics out of education are foolhardy; what is more politically charged than decisions about what and how to teach our children?) and difficult. It will never stop being so, but isn’t that all the more reason to take the challenge seriously?

There is a lot of talk these days about moonshots, and references to JFK’s speech in which he said we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” a sentiment I certainly appreciate. Have you ever read or listened to the whole speech?

He said that America needed to be the leader in the space race, but not just for military or economic superiority. He said, “there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man,” but that part seems to have been forgotten, or at least confined to a quiet corner.

Keeping up with technology and making sure our kids will have sources of income are obviously matters of survival, so of course they should be at the top of our priority list, but so should making sure our world and our society are worth surviving in. The purpose of learning about what people have done and thought before is not to glorify them, or to dwell on the past, but to understand how we got here, and to learn from their good and bad decisions. One of the clearer lessons of history is that as the percentage of people with power and luxury shrinks, and the percentage of people in frustration and misery grows, violence and chaos and danger for everyone become more and more inevitable. Making our society functional and fair is, in the long run, necessary for our survival. The sooner we come to understand that, the safer we will be.

Another thing JFK said in that speech is, “I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job.” Trying to find ways to make our education system work on less and less money is a false economy. There are ways money is grievously wasted in our current system, and that needs to be changed, but a good education always has and probably always will require investment. I know, I know. People don’t want their taxes to go to educating other people’s children, especially if they don’t agree with the way they are being educated. It’s a problem. It’s hard.

So what should the purpose of our education system be? I think it should be to help us create the best, most sustainably prosperous human civilization we can. That means working hard to make sure no one’s talents go to waste, and that all children are prepared, not just for colleges or jobs that may or may not exist, but for life as adult human beings. Creating such a system will be very, very difficult, and the process will never be complete, and that is exactly why we should pull ourselves together and do it.

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How Genealogy Debunks Myths About History, #1: Marriage

My explorations in genealogy have led me to question a lot of conventional wisdom about the lives of people in earlier eras. One of the assumptions I had was that until fairly recently, most people married before age 30. There might have been the occasional confirmed bachelor or spinster aunt, but they were unusual. In the course of my research, however, I have come across many, many people who did not fit that mold.

Among the siblings of my great grandparents, for example, there are very few who fit the stereotype. Eliminating all who died as children or became priests or nuns, and all those for whom I am not certain whether or not they ever married, there are 22, 14 women and 8 men. All were born between 1865 and 1900, most in the 1870s or 1880s. Of those 22, only 5, 3 women and 2 men, married before the age of 30. 3 women and 3 men married for the first time in their thirties. One woman and one man did so in their forties, and one woman at the age of 51. 6 women and 2 men never married. Just 23% of my admittedly small and not particularly scientific sample married before age 30, 21% of the women and 25% of the men. 41% married later (36% of the women and 50% of the men) and 36% never married (43% of the women and 25% of the men).

Even if my ancestors’ siblings skewed my sample by being particularly slow to marry, those are some pretty surprising numbers, and in my experience these proportions are not particularly odd. In researching many families, not just my own, it seems nearly every set of siblings has at least one who never married, and it is not all that rare to come across someone who married for the first time in their 30s or 40s, women as well as men.

Genealogical research also contests the stereotype of the sad spinster, wasting away wishing for a husband. For example, one of the never married women in my sample, my great grandfather’s sister Augusta, played a major role in their father’s publishing business. She also lived well into her eighties, outliving all her siblings, and worked in the business at least into her sixties. Augusta’s first cousin Louise also never married, and, like many never married women I have come across in the course of my research, she traveled a great deal. She crossed the Atlantic so many times that I stopped documenting her trips.

I would be interested to know if other genealogy buffs have noticed similar patterns, or if they even started with the same assumptions. When we see statistics about marriage, they usually focus on averages. We tend to forget, or at least it seems I do, that average does not necessarily mean typical, and that most people are not average. One of the things I love about genealogy is that it forces you to look at individual lives instead of aggregates. It turns out the past had much more variety and nuance than statistics and stereotypes may lead us to believe.

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Genealogy Personalizes History

I love history. I have even made my living as a history teacher, but until I finished high school I thought I hated the whole subject. That was because my history teachers made it incredibly boring. It wasn’t entirely their fault. They taught it the same boring way they were taught, which is also the way it is usually presented in textbooks, and the way standardized tests tend to incentivize it to be taught. I’m sure most of us can remember an interminable series of names and dates, kings and battles we were supposed to memorize.

It was only later, when I started reading books about history by choice, that I realized that I actually find it fascinating. History is not about lists of events. It is about human beings and their lives. It contains the word “story” because it consists of stories, and who doesn’t love a good story?

That is why, when I teach history, I always try to approach it through something the student already finds interesting, whether that be weapons or fashion or music or politics or anything else. History contains all of it.

I am also fascinated by genealogy, for the exact same reason, that it consists of human stories. I have been a genealogy hobbyist for many years. I find that while when I mention history, many people start to tune out, when I mention genealogy, most people perk up, especially if I can tell them something about their personal genealogy. We are all interested in learning about ourselves. I think that would be a great way to introduce history in schools.

Most elementary school students have a family history project at some point. I still have mine in a file somewhere, and I still remember interviewing my grandparents and drawing a picture of an heirloom punchbowl to put on the construction paper cover of my report. It amazes me that those projects rarely lead to any further exploration of history. It’s a great way in. History is something we are all living through, as our parents and grandparents and great grandparents did before us. It is not a separate thing that happens only to famous people.

Researching my own genealogy has taught me a lot about history, particularly about mistaken assumptions we tend to make about previous eras. I have a lot to say on this topic, which is why I am starting a new genealogy category on the blog. I hope some readers will find it interesting. I will certainly have fun writing the posts.

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