Monday, January 10, 2011

My Philosophy of History


There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “History is a maiden, and you can dress her however you wish.”  If you’ve read my blog much, you know that I love writing history posts.  I also like to dress up the maiden of history in a beautiful gown that will turn every eye in the room.  Too often historians and history teachers dress up the maiden of history in dowdy and frumpy clothing and it bores us all to tears.  The trick is to let the gossip flow and grab their attention when you walk in the room.

BOTD-073010-003For me, history is the gossip that survived.  The winners right history and only the most interesting get remembered.  There are many things in history that cannot be proved or disproved.  That is where gossip comes in.  The juiciest of the gossip is often what survives, whether true or not. A few examples, the history of the lives of the Roman emperors written by Suetonius is full of  historical gossip, especially of the sex lives of the emperors.  The wildest of the stories that Suetonius wrote are probably not true or at least greatly exaggerated, though the salaciousness is what keeps getting repeated. 

Another example is the death of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.  The imagestory goes that Catherine had an insatiable appetite for huge cocks, including those of horses.   When she wanted a horse hung man, she went straight for a real stallion.  She had a contraption built that allowed the horse to be lowered over her so that she could, well…you get the picture.  The story of her death is that the harness broke and the horse crushed her.  imageMost Russian historians will tell you that there is no truth to this myth (In reality, Catherine died of a stroke.), but it has obviously survived for some reason.  At the heart of all myths lies some reality, no matter how small.  Most likely the story was first told as a way to discredit Catherine, much like Suetonius told the the stories of the emperors of Rome.  So, Catherine the Great and her horse most likely did not engage in sexual congress.  True, Catherine the Great liked to ride, and she loved cavalrymen (the younger the better). So there was no equine sex, although it must be said that the Empress did enjoy dressing like a man and riding a horse astride her thighs.

History can truly be enjoyable, so I hope that you will continue to enjoy my posts on history.  I hope that the maiden catches your eye and becomes memorable, because no one likes a frumpy maiden.

Study the past if you would define the future.—Confucius


jaygeemmm said...

God, why couldn't I have had you for ALL of my history teachers!

This is exactly how history should be taught. Perhaps you've seen how seriously Virginia takes it: they bought textbooks written by a novelist that had major errors in them. FFS! You'd think ONE of the alleged reviewers might have noticed the inaccuracies. But no! And now they simply don't know what to do about it. ARGH!

Thanks as always for a great post!
Peace <3

Uncutplus said...


I just saw Andy Rooney, I believe, on TV suggesting that the students use the Virginia state history textbooks to learn proofreading to find all the misspellings and inaccurate facts. Apparently, the author relied on the internet for her "facts" and we know just how inaccurate Wikipedia can be. I have even made several corrections in Wikipedia myself!

JoeBlow said...

Thanks, Jay. I do try to make history interesting. Also, when I teach historical gossip I do tell my students that it possibly or probably is not true, but that the story is just too good not to tell.

Jay, I had not seen the stories about the Virginia textbooks, but looked it up. It is appalling. I've found errors in most textbooks I have to teach from, but they tend to be VERY minor errors These textbooks though are inexcusable. According to the publisher's website:

"In order to address concerns that have been raised about two of our textbooks, OUR VIRGINIA and OUR AMERICA TO 1865, we are taking the unprecedented step of distributing free replacement copies of these books to the schools and districts that purchased First Edition copies. We strive to provide high quality textbooks for Virginia students and are embarrassed that we failed to detect these mistakes during our production process. However, we hope that replacing the books will meet educators' and students' needs."

Uncutplus, I agree with Andy Rooney. That would be a good idea if students weren't too lazy to do so. However, the schools should donate them to college libraries so history majors across the country can see how not to be an historian. I just can't believe anyone would publish a book that used "internet" sources. I never allow my students to use internet sources, unless they are first approved by me first and never Wikipedia under any circumstances. There are some exceptions to internet sources, but those are legitimate academic research tools.

It's sad when we begin to try to cut costs when it comes to our students educations. Schools have enough waste they can eliminate without buying cheap textbooks that have not undergone sufficient peer review.

jaygeemmm said...

I'm not sure this was cost-cutting, though I'm sure budget played a role, it always does. I think this is some starry eyed reviewers liking what they see because it makes the case the blacks fought for the south, therefore, the south couldn't possibly have been as bad as all the "northern" textbooks make it out to be!

Hope you're staying warm!!!

Peace <3

JoeBlow said...

Jay the reason I said something about cost cutting is because I am pretty sure that I read that they chose these books partly because of their price, though I may be wrong. You are also probably write about the starry eyed reviewers liking what they saw, though they misinterpreted the sources the same as the author. Yes, blacks served in the Confederate military, but I remember no sources saying that they fought for the Confederacy. They served in servile positions (stewards, cooks, etc.), much as they had done in previous American war and continued to do until for the most part until after WWII. It is all politics, whether it is about opinions or money. Politics should not be used to interpret history in this way.

JoeBlow said...

Oh and Jay, I am trying to stay warm as I watch the Auburn game on TV. War Eagle!! We need to hang on for one more quarter.

fan of casey said...

Joe: I love history and I love it more when you tell it.

JoeBlow said...

Thanks, FOC. I do try to make it enjoyable.