The Wisdom of the Greek City States

In the Federalist Papers, our Founding Fathers consulted the wisdom of the Ancient Greek city-states when writing our own Constitution. They learned a lot. They knew what they were doing.

This comes from the transcript of President Trump’s comments during a commemoration of Greek Independence day at at the White House last Thursday (3/22). After only a short delay ancient historians jumped on the comments to point out the deeply troubling, if still persistent notion that Greece is the origin of Western Civilization. It is easy to chalk this up to this specific audience since Ancient Greece would be the appropriate topic for this setting, but doing so forgives a vision of Greece that not only diminishes the contributions of Asia and Africa, but also skips directly from the “wisdom of the ancients” to the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century when they could again be cast as the heroic resisters of oriental despotism.

Greece is only the origin of Western Civilization when it is convenient.

This is not meant as an attack on President Trump specifically, but a general observation about the ways in which political addresses reinforce pernicious historical myths, regardless of whether the line is deliberate or a careless addition. The nature of “Western Civilization” and clash of civilizations are among the worst offenders of this rhetoric, but they are hardly alone.

The line that jumped out to me most, however, was the one quoted above, that the founding fathers looked to the wisdom of Ancient Greece in the Federalist Papers, leading to a scattered and ad hoc Twitter thread, collected and expanded upon here.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 9:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy

Hamilton, in Federalist 6:

The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the SAMNIANS. The same man, stimulated by private pique against the MEGARENSIANS, another nation of Greece, or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened as an accomplice of a supposed theft of the statuary Phidias, or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity, or from a combination of all these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the PELOPONNESIAN war; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth…

…Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a wellregulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.

Hamilton and James Madison are more charitable to Greece in Federalist 18, where they look at the Delphic Amphictyony as a parallel to the Confederation of American States. The Amphictyony, they say, preserved the independence of the Greek states while offering them a means to provide common defense.

Very different, nevertheless, was the experiment from the theory. The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities; and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest. Athens, as we learn from Demosthenes, was the arbiter of Greece seventy-three years. The Lacedaemonians next governed it twenty-nine years; at a subsequent period, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans had their turn of domination.

It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party.

Even in the midst of defensive and dangerous wars with Persia and Macedon, the members never acted in concert, and were, more or fewer of them, eternally the dupes or the hirelings of the common enemy. The intervals of foreign war were filled up by domestic vicissitudes convulsions, and carnage.

After the conclusion of the war with Xerxes, it appears that the Lacedaemonians required that a number of the cities should be turned out of the confederacy for the unfaithful part they had acted. The Athenians, finding that the Lacedaemonians would lose fewer partisans by such a measure than themselves, and would become masters of the public deliberations, vigorously opposed and defeated the attempt. This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.

Thus, they conclude: “Had Greece, says a judicious observer on her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.”

A cursory glance at the Federalist papers shows an engagement with Greece, but only as a flashing warning sign for what not to do. So much for the wisdom of the Greek city states.

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Do Your Job – a plea from Demosthenes

Demosthenes is an interesting ancient orator to read. On the one hand, his speeches are good (an understatement; he has been the gold standard for political oratory for thousands of years), but, on the other, he is a bit of a one-trick pony. Demosthenes made his career in Athens opposing the rising power of Philip of Macedon, forcefully and repeatedly denouncing the king and challenging his fellow citizens to do something, anything. These speeches continue for a bit over a decade, and culminate in one final crushing defeat of the combined armies of Athens and Thebes.

Preparing for yesterday’s class, I had an opportunity to reread the first of these injunctions, Demosthenes’ First Philippic of 351 BCE. Some of the speech is given over to explaining why people should listen to him (people ought to pardon his youth because older people aren’t getting the job done, 4.1) and a specific proposal for military defense that gets into the weeds of fourth century Athenian fiscal management, but a large portion is dedicated to haranguing his peers for their complacency. Their inaction, explained as a combination of specific Athenian failings and the fact that democracies are reactive rather than proactive when it comes to fighting wars, has put the state at risk.

Above all, though, Demosthenes blames his peers of putting their own comfort and self-interest above the needs of the state. He does not blame anyone of being in the pay of an enemy agent; those accusations come later. There are issues with how Demosthenes makes his case, but reading the speech in 2018 it is hard not to sympathize with him. He just wants Athenian politicians to do their jobs.

Even if something should happen to that one, you would quickly make a new Philip attending to the matter this way. That man has not grown strong out of his own resources, but our negligence. (4.11)

Should we remain sitting at home, listening while speakers accuse and abuse one another, then we will never accomplish that which needs to be done. (4.44)

It is not necessary to consider what could happen, but to know that our future will be a sorry state unless you attend to affairs by being willing to do what needs to be done. (4.5)

καὶ γὰρ ἂν οὗτός τι πάθῃ, ταχέως ὑμεῖς ἕτερον Φίλιππον ποιἠσετε ἄωπερ οὗτω προσέχητε τοῖς πράγμασι τὸν νοῦν: οὐδὲ γὰρ οὗτος παρὰ τὴν αὑτοῦ ῥώμην τοσοῦτον ἐπηύξηται ὅσον παρὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν ἀμέλειαν. (4.11)

ἂν μέντοι καθώμεθ᾽ οἴκοι, λοιδορουμένων ἀκούοντες καὶ αἰτιωμένων ἀλλήλους τῶν λεγόντων, οὐδέποτ᾽ οὐδὲν ἡμῖν γένηται τῶν δεόντων. (4.44)

οὐ γὰρ ἅττα ποτ᾽ ἔσται δεῖ σκοπεῖν, ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι φαῦλα, ἂν μὴ προσέχητε τὸν νοῦν καὶ τὰ προσήκοντα ποιεῖν ἐθέλητε, εὖ εἰδέναι. (4.50)

1493 – Charles Mann

I have a mixed relationship with reading non-fiction, and particularly with reading history books. On the one hand, I enjoy it and there are lots of interesting stories that I want to read about; on the other hand, it is work-adjacent and I have a little voice nagging me that if I have time to read this history, why don’t I have time to read the latest scholarship. This and other issues explain why 1493, a book recommended to me by a friend who teaches high school history, sat on my to-read shelf for so many months. But here in 2018 I am trying to read more non-fiction and I decided that it was work-adjacent enough that I finally picked it up.

Mann’s thesis in 1493 is fairly simple: although it is fashionable to forget, condemn, or otherwise disregard European explorers such as Christopher Columbus (Colón, as Mann calls him), they collectively initiated a process that resulted in the development of the “homogenocene”—a sub-epoch of the holocene that unified the global ecosystem. In other words, we are living in a world that is linked to an unprecedented degree. What makes 1493 worth reading is the evidence he marshals to support this thesis.

1493 starts and ends in Mann’s garden, contemplating the fruits, vegetables, and tubers that found their way from all over the world into this patch of ground. Between weeding his tomatoes, Mann treks all over the world, looking at in turn tobacco, malaria, silk and silver, rice, potatoes, rubber, human trafficking, and all of the other organisms that went along with these goods back and forth across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Woven in are elements of environmental determinism and the ways people have tried to change their fates, how the global Columbian Exchange resulted in millions of people dying from illness, but saved millions more by introducing crops like the potato that can thrive in otherwise marginal land.

Mann is an engaging writer and while he is more comfortable entertaining speculation where there is at best circumstantial evidence than I like, he builds his argument by bringing academic research to life. This strength comes to light, for instance, when Mann talks immigration to the Americas. There is discussion of the slave trade, but he also discusses the rise and fall of Maroon (fugitive slave and native) communities and the influx of Asian populations in Central and South America. Mann embraces the complexity, explaining in lucid terms the push-pull factors that lay behind the population movements, how the demographic changes led to changes in the economic structures and goods, and, above all, how the cultures constructed their social hierarchies. Memory and its opposite, which are central to cultural memory, serve as a recurrent through-line as the tomato and sweet potato became embedded in cultural self-fashioning and many of the people who introduced these crops were, for better or worse, forgotten.

This is not a deep dive, but that is the tradeoff for its truly global scope. In the end, I appreciated 1493 and can envision using some chapters for a World History course. Mann’s basic thesis about the Columbian Exchange is shown beyond question, and it is hard not to be caught up in Mann’s sense of wonder at the immense changes. There are moments when that enthusiasm seems to walk the line with admiration for the human agents of the changes, irrespective of their outcomes. Of course the irony here is that despite Mann’s stated aim of restoring Columbus to this global narrative, these men were in the long run forgotten by the world they played an incidental role in helping to create.

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I am currently reading Omer El Akkad’s debut novel American War, which is a story set during the bleak future of the second American Civil War.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom.

In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. to awaken them is to reveal that they are en empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

I do not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.

The first book I completed this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letters to his son, a memoir examining issues of race in America. Coates recounts his experiences growing up in rough neighborhoods in Baltimore, his awakening at “the Mecca” (Howard University), his years of writing about racial issues, and the losses he suffered along the way.

Between the World and Me is an angry book, but also a fearful one, and fear is the source of much of the anger. Coates appropriately focuses on black bodies and how, whether through slavery, limitation, incarceration or, particularly recently, police brutality, those bodies are destroyed. If, as he argues, the government is the “legitimate” authority of white America, the police represent the force, the killing edge of that authority, a blade that is often wielded against black bodies. This violence is often racial, but it is not exclusive to white people. It deputizes members of minority communities, making them complicit in the ongoing racial violence.

I read most of Between the World and Me in Washington DC, including a brief stint outdoors sitting between the Capitol and the Library of Congress—one building built by slaves and another that uncritically commemorates Thomas Jefferson. The overall appearance of the Capitol and its accompanying monuments would likewise be much different were it not for other racially constructed legacies such as the white-washing of the polychromic appearance of classical antiquity. Reflecting on these issues is not sanitizing history, but the first steps in grappling with it in search of a better future.

There are points at which it is possible to disagree with Coates and he admits but does not address how many of the same things he talks about apply to other minority groups. But this is a memoir, not a history of race in America, and Between the World and Me is all the more powerful for it. This should be mandatory inclusion for any civics reading list and my only regret is how long it took me to get around to finally reading it.

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Earlier this week I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a book that is as immersive in its dystopic vision as any of Atwood’s other work I have read and yet fell short of her best in its achievement. I am now reading (and am somewhat baffled by, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

Ilium – Dan Simmons

Earth has changed dramatically since the Lost Age. The few remaining “old style” humans live in communities or estates that are connected by faxnodes and protected from the roaming dinosaurs by the omnipresent, but ultimately mysterious voynix. Surrounding earth are the fabled cities of the Post-Humans, who exist not unlike gods to the old styles who remains. Aside from distractions like parties and fornication (learning to read is a preoccupation of a single person), old styles lose themselves in the spectacle of the “turin-shroud”—a visual device with exactly one show: the Greeks and Trojans slaughtering one another on the plains of Ilium.

At the foot of Mons Olympus on Mars the Trojan War is nearing a climax. Events so far have unfolded basically as described in the Iliad. Achilles has raged at the injustices heaped upon him by Agamemnon and the gods have continued to scheme against each other while using Trojans and Greeks as their playthings. Amidst the carnage and camaraderie flits Thomas Hockenberry, one among many scholics—revivified Homeric scholars who have been equipped with technology that allows them to possess the bodies of Trojans and Greeks as they study the events. The gods wield enormous power, but they are not omniscient; in contrast, the scholics know the future, at least in theory. Then Hockenberry gets entangled in one of the many divine schemes.

Meanwhile, Orphus and Mahnmut, two moravecs (self-replicating, intelligent robots from the region outside the asteroid belt) have joined a mission to Mars, where spiking levels of quantum activity are threatening the stability of the solar system. Lovers of Shakespeare and Proust, neither is prepared to be attacked by what appear to be Greek gods on chariots. The deities destroy their ship, kill the other members of the expedition, and leave them to complete the mission alone.

Ilium uses three plot lines to resolve two loosely-connected narrative threads, one on Earth, one on Mars.

On Mars, Hockenberry is tasked by Aphrodite to kill Athena, but takes the tools she gives to go on the lam, afraid of the consequences of his action. A scholar rather than a fighter, he nonetheless finds himself embroiled in further schemes with both the Trojans and the Greeks as he tries, desperately, to survive. This quest therefore aligns him with the moravecs, as all three of them are doing their best to topple the gods on Olympus.

On Earth, a small group of old-style humans are likewise on a quest, in equal parts to steal knowledge from the gods and to learn what it even means to be human anymore. Although they had begun to rediscover long lost skills such as casting bronze, the humans are aided in their quest by Savi, an ancient Jew who missed “the final fax” and exceeded her allotted century many times over, and by a primitive warrior calling himself Odysseus and looking like the character of the same name in the Turin drama. The old-styles seek to enter a city of the Post Humans that orbits earth, but are unprepared for either the demons or the truths that they will find there.

Much like Simmons’ other novels, particularly Hyperion, Ilium is an incomplete story—this time, at least, he is a working from a template. The book answers, or begins to answer, many of the key questions is raises, exploring questions about the intersection of the past and the future, relationship to the divine, and humans and technology, but never reaches a final conclusion. It works well here, offering a deeply immersive setting where unknowable questions are part of the experience.

As for the Trojan War, I largely like the approach taken. Simmons literally embodies Hockenberry and the other scholics around the critical scenes, and even makes at several points the meta-observation that this would be a dream come true for many Classics scholars. After all, who would not want to have sex with Helen? The person whose body is occupied disappears, so the main characters from the Iliad largely appear in their own skin and many men are killed after becoming disoriented when the scholic leaves. In this way and others Simmons weaves together the incongruities and accidents of the Iliad, the prestige of some of the classic translations, and a human perspective. Some of the leaps he makes such that, for instance, cafe scenes in Troy may as well be a cafe scene set in 1920s Paris, struck me as a little bit hokey, but taking this section of the larger picture and fitting it into a story of evolution, technology, and civilization that emphasizes the way in which all of the above are dependent on constructed mythologies served as a nice counterpoint to the other narratives.

I have a long history with Ilium in that I picked it up probably in 2005, not long after it was originally published. It has remained in my collection every since, surviving several purges despite just one spectacularly failed attempt at reading it. I am glad that I decided to keep it around.

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I have one more in the overly-delayed backlog of posts on things I read, for Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, with my post being an unholy mess of a draft. My first book of the new year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Mass Persuasion (again)

Sometimes when you see a theme, it starts to appear everywhere. That is what is happening with the ancient Greek truism that people in a crowd are more vulnerable to persuasion in a way that the individual is not. Two more instances:

The Athenian ambassadors spoke as follows: “Since the speeches are not going to happen before the majority, there is no way for us to deceive the listeners and seduce the masses once and for all with uninterrupted speech safe from cross-examination (for we know that this is the reason we have been led before the few)…

οἱ δὲ τῶν Ἀθηναίων πρέσβεις ἔλεγον τοιάδε. ἐπειδὴ οὐ πρὸς τὸ πλῆθος οἱ λόγοι γίγνονται, ὅπως δὴ μὴ ξυνεχεῖ ῥήσει οἱ πολλοὶ ἐπαγωγὰ καὶ ἀνέλεγκτα ἐσάπαξ ἀκούσαντες ἡμῶν ἀπατηθῶσιν (γιγνώσκομεν γὰρ ὅτι τοῦτο φρονεῖ ἡμῶν ἡ ἐς τοὺς ὀλίγους ἀγωγῆ)…

Thucydides 5.85, in the opening gambit of the Melian Dialogue.

And the common people marveled [at the arrival of Alcibiades and Chalcideus] and were concerned. The conspirators had arranged that the council happened to be in session, and Chalcideus and Acibiades gave speeches, saying that many more ships were on their way and concealed the naval blockade around Speiraium. So first Chios and afterward Erythrae revolted from Athens.

καὶ οἱ μὲν πολλοὶ ἐν θαύματι ἦσαν καὶ ἐκπλήξει: τοῖς δ᾽ ὀλίγοις παρεσκεύαστο ὥστε βουλήν [τε] τυχεῖν ξυλλεγομένην, καὶ γενομένων λόγων ἀπό τε τοῦ Χαλκιδέως καὶ Ἀλκιβιάδου ὡς ἄλλαι [τε] νῆες πολλαὶ προσπλέουσι καὶ τὰ περὶ τῆς πολιορκίας τῶν ἐν τῷ Σπειραίῳ νεῶν οὐ δηλωσάντων, ἀφίστανται Χῖοι καὶ αὖθις Ἐρυθραῖοι Ἀθηναίων.

Thucydides, 8.14.2, at the outset of the Ionian War.

Class warfare in fifth century Ionia

Two instances: both episodes took place c.412 or 411 BCE, when the Peloponnesian War spilled over into the Eastern Aegean and the cities there began to reject Athenian authority. The first took place on Samos, the second (which took place chronologically earlier) on Chios.

At this time on Samos, the demos* rose up against the ruling class with the support of Athenians who were there with three ships. The Samian demos executed two hundred from elite and condemned four hundred more to exile, distributing amongst themselves their land and homes. After this, the Athenians decreed them autonomous. Henceforth they governed the city, excluding the (previously) prominent men from governance and forbidding intermarriage between them and members of the demos.

Ἐγένετο δὲ κατὰ τὸν χρόνον τοῦτον καὶ ἡ ἐν Σάμῳ ἐπανάστασις ὑπὸ τοῦ δήμου τοῖς δυνατοῖς μετὰ Ἀθηναίων, οἳ ἔτυχον ἐν τρισὶ ναυσὶ παρόντες. καὶ ὁ δῆμος ὁ Σαμίων ἐς διακοσίους μέν τινας τοὺς πάντας τῶν δυνατωτάτων ἀπέκτεινε, τετρακοσίους δὲ φυγῇ ζημιώσαντες καὶ αὐτοὶ τὴν γῆν αὐτῶν καὶ οἰκίας νειμάμενοι, Ἀθηναίων τε σφίσιν αὐτονομίαν μετὰ ταῦτα ὡς βεβαίοις ἤδη ψηφισαμένων, τὰ λοιπὰ διῴκουν τὴν πόλιν, καὶ τοῖς γεωμόροις μετεδίδοσαν οὔτε ἄλλου οὐδ᾽ ἐς ἐκείνους οὐδενὶ ἔτι τοῦ δήμου ἐξῆν.

Thucydides, 8.21.1

*Note: demos is a somewhat loaded term since it can mean the citizen body. Here there is clear differentiation between the super wealthy and the majority. The redistribution of land indicates that Samos was experiencing a consolidation of wealth in the hands of a few, but the extent of this is unknown.

Straightway after the naval battle (Aegospotami) the rest of Hellas deserted the Athenians, save the Samians, who had gained mastery over the polis by carrying out a slaughter of the prominent men there.

εὐθὺς δὲ καὶ ἡ ἄλλη Ἑλλὰς ἀφειστήκει Ἀθηναίων μετὰ τὴν ναυμαχίαν πλὴν Σαμίων: οὗτοι δὲ σφαγὰς τῶν γνωρίων ποιήσαντες κατεῖχον τὴν πόλιν.

Xenophon, Hell. 2.2.6

The reason that they sent these ships was that the majority of the Chians were ignorant of the arrangements. The oligarchs and those in the know were not yet willing to bring war to the majority before they secured their position and because of the delay no longer expected the Peloponnesians to arrive.

αἴτιον δ᾽ ἐγένετο τῆς ἀποστολῆς τῶν νεῶν οἱ μὲν πολλοὶ τῶν Χίων οὐκ εῖδότες τὰ πρασσόμενα, οἱ δὲ ὀλίγοι καὶ ξυνειδότες τό τε πλῆθος οὐ βουλόμενοί πω πολέμιον ἔχειν, πρίν τι καὶ ἰσχυρὸν λάβωσι, καὶ τοὺς Πελοποννησίους οὐκέτι προσδεχόμενοι ἥξειν, ὄτι διέτριβον.

Thucydides 8.9.3

The episode on Chios is not class warfare in the same sense as the episode on Samos was, but very clearly indicates a conflict between the few and the many. Here, the conspirators hoped to lead Chios into revolt against Athens, but were waiting on promised aid from Sparta before making their appeal and therefore sacrificed a squadron of seven ships as a way to avert Athenian suspicion about their motives just a little longer. Thucydides’ phrasing here is interesting. The conspiracy will bring war to Chios against the will of the majority, but it is a close step from that to the conspirators bringing war against to the majority.

Civilization and its Resources

A few months back I wrote about the rhetorical position taken by the Civilization series. This post cascaded into a desire to teach a course that blends historiography and historically-themed games and while I am not here to announce that I am teaching such a course, I recently found myself again thinking about these issues.

Strategy games operate on economies based largely on resources. The Total War games have a monetary economy paired with population, where the population is necessary to recruit troops, but the real limitation is money that acts as a proxy for all necessary resources. The Age of Empires series used the quartet of gold, stone, food, and wood and included trade and a supply-and-demand marketplace mechanism to manipulate your resource stockpile. Food was the most common resource so long as you had access to wood because you could continually build farms, but maps were finite and so were resources.

Civilization is different. (I am using Civ 5 as representative here.) At first there is stone, wheat, grapes, wild animals. Wood mostly exists for the energy used in construction, which then speeds up building the civilization. The other resources are not immediately usable, but they are visible. As the civilizations progress through the ages, resources become available. Horses, iron, coal, oil, aluminum, and finally uranium. In each case, the civilization constructs the human apparatus (pens, mines, plantations, wells) to exploit the resource, with each location providing a variable amount. Once the resource is exploited, it is available until used and reclaimed once free.

From a game-construction perspective, this makes sense. The long version of the game spans thousands of years and has multiple win-conditions, including technology and culture. Conquest, which is the core of the other games mentioned above, is just one possible outcome. Resources are necessary to achieve any of these conditions and streamlining resource management improves game play. Civilization does offer a facsimile of colonization to find new resources as settlers move into uninhabited lands, but sanitizes the concomitant exploitation. At the same time, though, it is possible to win with only minimal expansion because all resources are permanent.

Just as there is no slavery in Civilization, neither is there rape of the environment outside the gradual reclamation of swamps and forests for their exploitation by humans.

Preparing for class and my undergraduate experience

The process of preparing for class makes me try to remember about my undergraduate courses. In terms of specifics, the answer is not much. Obviously I absorbed a good deal of content that I am now able to speak with varying levels of confidence about, but much less stands out about the actual classes.

Take, for instance, the equivalent of the course that I am now teaching—a survey of Greek history. I remember my professor’s opening spiel about the etymology of history and how it comes from a root that has to do with judgement, I remember bantering with a friend of mine who also went on to get a PhD in ancient history, and I remember one of the other students making a diorama from wax sculptures after taking the wax from individually wrapped cheese “cuties.” And some of those memories could easily be from other classes with this professor.

Most of all, though, I remember loving the class (and other classes like it) because the professor gave us room to explore long sections of ancient sources, even to the extent of seeming disconnected and disorganized. In fact, I remember having an argument with a fellow student in a class in another department altogether because this student hated the disorganization, feeling that it meant that she wasn’t learning anything. I vehemently disagreed at the time, which was something of a running theme in a course that had us working in a group for most of the semester. Believe it or not, we actually worked pretty well as a team.

Before laying blame on the professor, though, reflection shows this limitation of my memory is true even in courses with amazing lecturers. For instance, I have clearer memories about my favorite college lecturer declaring that blue exam booklets were the ideal form for writing lectures in, the fact that the Anatolian peninsula is, north to south, the international measurement unit “one Kansas,” and his apologies for the boring but necessary excursuses on medieval agriculture. Or that in the last week of class he never failed to take a photograph with a disposable camera and that I invariably left class every day with an aching hand. That pain and some later sweat ensures that I can go back to my notes if necessary, but, once again, I don’t remember much at any given moment.

I could go on, but there is one particular exception: language classes. The memories are almost certainly just as flawed, but I remember the act of being there, the feel and the look of the book chapters, and all of the things Homer taught to his brother. More to the point, my memories of language courses are clearer regardless of whether I liked or disliked the teaching styles of the professors. I don’t know why, exactly—maybe I found languages more difficult and so the classes left a deeper impression or the way that I learned the languages was tied to the classroom in a way that history never war—but the division in my memories is real.

Obviously I learned facts from these courses that, ten years later, have been baked into the collection of knowledge tucked into the dusty corners of my mind or else that I have forgotten. I also learned note-taking skills, research habits, a critical eye for source criticism, and something of writing. (Less by way of common sense, however, even if one of the professors mentioned above did try to warn me off of graduate school.)

I think about all of this when I am preparing for my own class. My class is just too large to toss the textbook in favor of embracing the glorious confusion of reading sources together, and I feel some responsibility cover a certain number of topics in a survey of Greek history. I tend, therefore, to err on the side of structured lectures with a powerpoint presentation modeled on the US history survey courses that form the large portion of the teaching styles I have seen in recent years. There is only so much that can be covered, so, in this sense, I look to give students a taste along with some tools to learn more.

At the same time, though, I think back to being encouraged to engage in forms of source analysis and informal, seminar-style debate with great fondness. Unstructured though those may have been, they also reflected active learning at its finest. As much as this form of class worked for me, ironically, it often takes a leap of faith for me to try it from the other side of the table (so to speak). I will probably never abandon lectures altogether in a class like this where there are details that I hope will encourage students to go out and learn more, but at the same time I am always looking for new activities where the students can grapple with the primary material together or on their own because, more than the lectures, that is often what I remember being most useful from my undergraduate experience. This experience didn’t do me any favors in terms of downloading and debating historiography for graduate school, but in the more universal tasks of evaluating how a source is presenting the world and challenging its prevailing biases, it is absolutely essential.

What is History? – Edward Hallett Carr

This post consists of snippets of wisdom from What is History? by E.H. Carr, that I put out on Twitter over the past few months as I read the book in fits and starts through that period. It is not intended as a review, but does highlight some notable passages and themes, some that I agree with, some that would make for good conversation primer in a class. For people interested in the “meta” aspect of history, it is well worth reading.

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