Given, received, earned

New York Times on class grades

I must say that as someone who did not receive great grades for a time in college, since turned it around and desires to teach, the entitlement of students in infuriating. When I was not getting the grades, I knew full well that I was not trying my hardest and for whatever reason this was simply acceptable; when I cared about grades, I made them.

The average grade, or rather the grade that should be attainable with only attending class (note no preconception about attention therein), and doing most of the reading should be a C. This does not account for studying, paying attention in class, asking questions and generally caring. If a professor suddenly has a class wherein no-one is getting better than that, perhaps the guidelines or subject audience needs to be addressed; on the flip side, if attending class (usually) and doing the readings alone is enough for an A, then the effort and dedication of the students deserving an A is for naught. If college is preparation for the real world, how is coddling students with preposterous curves or no challenge supposed to do that? There is no magic formula, but hard work on the right projects will, ultimately, provide success. As my father always imparted to me, half of all schooling is to determine what course your work will need to take to provide success, be it memorization, thesis paper writing or anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, I think every student should endeavour for that A, I just think that they must also go searching for it. No matter what level the students are operating at. Entitlement produces frustrated students and parents, in some ways whom are worse than the students themselves. I don’t have the solution to this problem, all I know is that if teachers at all levels must instill that good work is not easy to come by and therefore should be rewarded. Effort is invaluable, if only because it is the path to the the product, but the product itself is what is graded.

“scholarship,” “Historical Scholarship,” and “Historiography”

In a discussion about the progression of historical scholarship throughout history on In Our Time (BBC radio program hosted by Melvyn Bragg), John Burrow, Emeritus Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, made an offhand remark that there was a difference between being a historian and being a scholar. This was encased within a discussion about objectivity versus bias, argumentation and persuasion versus fact.

The implication here is that most historians are trying to persuade the reader of something, often that their subject is truly worthy of study. This is true of the modern historian as well as it is of the historical historian, whether talking about where the world has come from or what is currently happening, often framed in reference to where the world is going. Of course there are the myriad of quotes, from Kennedy, to Santayana, to Hoover, to Jefferson that claim that the best predictor of the future is the past and that the study of history (and by extension historians) are vital to the continued “improvement of the human race. ” (My quotations). This claim would be true whether studying the brilliance and folly of great men, or the winds of cultural change.

The scholar is instead interested in truth. Why did things happen, and, in many cases, what actually happened. This seems to me more important than the argumentation and worth of various events. Indoctrination of values is not what the study of history should be about. At the purest sense, the study of history should be about what happened and why people should care about a given historian is the connections they are able to draw between periods and their ability to persuade people that their information is correct; in this regard the study of history should be about knitting the history of the world and the human race throughout time closer together.

I must be careful; my enthusiasm for scholarship must not be mistaken for disagreement with those who find insight and lessons from the study of history. Quite the contrary, I just don’t think that in scholarly historical research there need be overarching lessons explicitly stated. This is why history, in an ideal world, is discussion based; the lessons are those that each person discovers for themselves or are come to in discussion. It is not the job of the historian to proclaim morals, values and “lessons;” it is the job of the historian to provide stories that are true and well written. There will be enough interest for all, or nearly all, facets of history to be covered. It is the job of the history teacher to provide students a forum and the expertise to mine the lessons for themselves.

Aside from these lessons from history, which people may be steered towards, but ultimately derive from the individual, the purpose of studying history is to prepare students for life. It opens the eyes to a wide world, a rich world, which should in turn open students to new ideas; and above all, the ability to read, write, discuss and argue. These are skills which every person should be endowed with and will serve people in all walks of life. Sure, this information and these skills are available elsewhere, but not in the same condensed location.

A radio programme that would receive little support in this country

I firmly believe what I wrote above, but clearly there is some support, else Chad would not have sent it to me and I would not be listening it to the neglect of nearly all else.

This is not a usual post, but a PSA and free advertising for the BBC. It is In Our Time, a radio series dedicated to history, science, modern times–any so-called “serious” endeavour, or so it seems. It is topical, so the first two I listened two were on Robin Hood and Historiography. Hugely interesting getting to listen to specialists, most with British accents talk about the issue. In these first two segments, I probably have three posts I am writing–and this is without really having an opportunity to listen with rapt attention.

In Our Time

Greatness and Reputation: opportunity vs action

Warning: little in the way of direction binds the following thoughts together.

Where to begin?

“Greatness” in generalship seems to be composed of a series of complementary pieces: tactics and strategy; dogged defense and speedy assaults; and then capacity for inspiring troops. Most often successful commanders exhibit multiple of these traits and the higher in rank they are, the more likely to require multiple of them, though the actual honorific “great” is a product of success more than any particular brilliance of operation.

In the Army of Northern Virginia Robert E Lee made extensive use of two men: James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson. Both men were capable of inspiring their men, though Jackson may have beenslightly better in this regard simply based on the feats of endurance his men accomplished, and both were tactical visionaries. Jackson earned his nickname “Stonewall” because of a dogged defense at Manassas I, but his greatest asset was the speed with which he attacked, while Longstreet’s was defensive tactics fifty years ahead of his time (he helped pioneer trench warfare used in World War I).

Does this mean that neither possessed superior strategic sense? No, but it is impossible to superimpose a situation because it was not something they dealt with and therefore would be supposition at best.

Two thousand years earlier, Alexander is considered the complete package, although in his own time there was some question of his overall strategy. But he won, so it is a bit hard to debate it. Phenomenal success rate, yes, but Alexander never really dealt with any situation that called for desparate defense, and validates the theory that the best defense is a good offense, but then it is hard to know the outcome if he was thrust into such a situation. Lastly, Alexander only had to subject people, he did not then have to rule them.

At the other end of Alexander’s battle line was Parmenion, who did not exhibit the attacking flair, but did the defense. At Issus and Gaugamela Parmenion’s Thessalian cavalry, 2,500 strong, held off five or ten times their number of Persian cavalry wit ha series of squadron level charges and counter-charges. Just as the strengths of Jackson and Longstreet were complementary, so, too, were those of Alexander and Parmenion. Perhaps they would have been able to take the other role, perhaps not.

Then there is Richard the Lionhearted, whose strategic failures overcame tactical success; Agesilaos, whose strategic grandiosity helped bring down Sparta; Alcibiades, whose bedroom and social antics doomed strategic and tactical brilliance, etc.

In these so-called great ones there are two factors: opportunity and personality. Do the great attackers have the patience for defense of who they launch an ill-advised attack? Would the defenders have that touch of impetuosity and recklessness to make the bold, unexpected charge? Or, if put in the right circumstance, would they adapt to the situation.

Is one more valuable than the other? Should a debate about ‘greatest general’ include that most were considered spectacular for one or two specific things? should generals be considered less “great” because they did not have to deal with certain aspects of military brilliance? Should there be a handicap for the culture and systems they are in (for example, with a traditional Phalanx, glorious charges were limited and it is much easier to be considered exceptional if you have the best army the world has ever seen).

I have my thoughts, but I would like to know what others think.

fact vs fiction vs fabrication

Without spoiling much of the plot, Slaughterhouse Five emphasized one particular view of history in that the past, the present and the future are all composed of beings that are living at that particular moment. Traveling through time to another point is simple in that those times live and exist in some tangible manner.

This is not how history is usually thought of.

Usually history is viewed as a linear passage where the past is set in some concrete fashion, yet gone forever, the future subject to possibilities and therefore only existent in the most theoretical way; the only thing real by this view is the present. On one hand there is some argument here: while individual facts of history can be reinterpreted or discovered, what has come before, in theory, is done and immutable, however my chosen profession would be even further out of reach if this were the case.

In other ways all of human history is nothing more than an elaborate fiction constructed to provide lessons, morals, entertainment and justification. At the heart history is no more tangible than a work of fiction and in the works of fiction there is often some inner dialogue as to motive, where the basic fact of reality is that you can never know with one hundred percent certainty what goes on in the head of another human. Combine this with the simple fact that people tend to concern themselves with that which they know personally and history and fiction are suddenly equatable.

Intellectually it is understood that history actually happened, but functionally fiction and history are much the same. Built on this is that the job of the historian is to sift through facts; lenses with the proper angle of sifting can result in bizarre products and some of the greatest propaganda in history: Hitler the family man and misunderstood artist, Roosevelt the chain-smoking, boozing liar, etc.

Once more I find myself asking the question how much of history is actual events and how much of it is really a superficial fabrication by “historians?”

Alexander Essay no. 1

The series of Alexander Essays is taken courtesy of a course taught by Professor Waldemar Heckel at the University of Calgary. The list of topics may be found here

Evaluate Darius III as a political and military leader. Is he rightly depicted as cowardly and incompetent?

I feel obliged to preface this essay with a warning about expertise; I am not an expert on Ancient Persia. I do not know the customs well, nor am I as familiar with the political system as I should be. I am somewhat of a Greek history buff, although I stop short of expert, and am intimately familiar with the reign of Darios III through the Greek and Macedonian point of view, with the image of an incompetent, cowardly leader who tries to surrender half of his empire and twice allows his forces to be slaughtered as he flees to protect his royal hide. Then again, in battle the defeated had two options: give in and die in battle or flee and attempt to salvage a semblance of victory from the ruins o. The following is entirely generated from this knowledge, only afterward corroborated and edited with a review of Wikipedia.

Darios himself was only tenuously related to Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid dynasty; one of hte reasons for the Persian weakness when Alexander invaded was that Darios had just securted the throne from the usurper Bagoas, and re-centralized the state after a series of local rebellions, including one in Egypt. Just when stability seemed neigh, the Macedonian invasion began.

In the histories and biographies Darios appears as a character four times: the Battle of Issus, in a letter to sue for peace, at the Battle of Gaugamela and in a death scene after Bessos stabbed him. In each of these appearances he appears a failure, especially in contrast to the daring of Alexander.

Greek kings and generals fought with their soldiers, often on the front lines and when the troops broke and ran, it was often a given that the commander had fallen. This was the contrast between Leonidas and Xerxes at Thermopylae as much as it was between Alexander and Darios. Persian aristocracy and the royal family risked themselves, but the Great King was something entirely; instead of fighting on the front, he was to lead the entire heterogenous force. Thus at both Issos and Gaugamela, Darios did not fight. Further, Darios did not stay to rally (i.e. die with) his troops. On one hand this is the mark of a coward, but on the other he had responsibilities to more than ust those soldiers on the field.

Upon close inspection, life would have been simpler for Darios to die or flee into ignomity, but he did not. The reason for flight became apparent ad Darios raised a second force; no doubt he would have done so, or attempted to do so again after Gaugamela if given the chance. This is the mark of a fighter.

In the letter sent to Alexander, Darios played a shrewd card in that many of Alexander’s men prefered to stop, too, so Darios sought to “grant” Alexander those territories he had already won, which also happened to be those most unruly provinces. While this would be an enormous hit to the Persian prestige, the empire and all of the Capitols would remain intact.

Lastly we have an account of Darios’ death. This often is used to portray a failed and defeated King, which it does, but also implies incompetence. Darios had been defeated, but this does not imply that he had made huge mistakes or that the betrayal of Bessos was anything more than a play to curry favor from the new victor–or a power play of his own. Behind the scenes Darios had funded a Spartan insurrection and launched his own counter in Memnon of Rhodes, an officer who had out-maneuvered Parmenion in the last years of Philip’s reign. The persistence of Alexander, the death of Memnon and the betrayal of Bessos were all beyond the control of Darios. That he played the game and lost does not preclude his incompetence, merely his unluck and that Alexander outdid him.

Historical narrative, largely a created phenomenon

There is only so much complication that the human mind can comprehend; once complexity reaches a certain level, one that is different for each person, the ability to perceive the interplay amongst each component disappears. In books, movies and TV shows, this results in a limited number of main protagonists and antagonists. If the scope is not contained, then the story feels disjointed and convoluted to the audience.

The same is true in the study of history and in particular ancient history. Rome is a simple example; there is Rome and the “others.” The intricacies of the Roman state may be infinitely complicated, deep and full of characters pulling for one agenda or another, but when it comes to identifying a period as a historical one that can be covered in a continuous narrative, Rome is the ultimate. In fact, Rome is so much of a historical era that it is written in three or more eras: the republic, the empire and the fall. Of course each of those eras can be further broken down into smaller narratives, but such is always the case.

The nature of “Greece” makes even this level of narrative more difficult as nearly every city was a polis and each polis was an autonomous state. This has not stopped historians from covering the so-called Golden Age as a historical narrative, but they tend to actually be covering Athens and Sparta, with other city states such as Corinth, Thebes and Megara appearing as side, rather than main, characters. There is some justification for this decision, largely resting in the dearth of information from most Greek city states and the undeniable preeminence of Athens and Sparta. This said, it is still an artificial creation.

This brief introduction in the creation of historical periods and narratives leads up to the Hellenistic Age, called because it saw the spread of Greek-ish (as Hellenistic implies) culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of Asia. Loosely this period is defined from Alexander’s death until the advent of Rome, but when precisely it ends it difficult to say. This seems a solid block of time that could well be considered for a narrative, yet almost every historical book on the age covers three narratives, one-third of the whole narrative or only covers it in topical format. My proposition is that this stems from there being three main Hellenistic Kingdoms, each with their own peculiarities and issues. Then there are the Greek city states and two further Kingdom’s of sorts, one the Attalid state in Pergamum and the other the city state of Syracuse. All in all, the Hellenistic age is complex, but even with several thorough books on many of these issues, most scholarship and writing is set on avoiding the other end of the spectrum, which is to say that all three Hellenistic kingdoms were the same and therefore can be painted with one brush.