Complexity and Time: Letting Go of the Grand Narrative

I just finished listening to a recorded talk by a former grad school professor who is close to publishing his magnum opus about the Soviet Union in WWII. In listening to it, I learned how his research deep into Soviet archives debunks commonly held and taught theories about the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the German invasion of the Soviet Union. It turns out that Stalin feared the British more, thought the Germans were the weaker power (at least until the fall of France), at one point sought to join the Axis, and had excellent intelligence about the impending invasion in 1941, but was unsure which intelligence to believe when they conflicted. Also, he did prepare for the invasion but tried to do so in a way that would not provoke one, if indeed the Germans were focusing on defeating Britain first, as both Stalin and the British believed. Much of the negative press about Stalin’s preparation came from his generals, after he had died, which itself is a reason to pause. Blaming a dead dictator for such a devastating war is awfully convenient.

I am rethinking how I will handle discussion of the Nazi-Soviet pact in class today. It will take longer to explain the complex reality than it would to stick to the old narrative, which I bought into until I saw this video. In speaking to a colleague about WWI, we were talking about how the conventional story of the harshness of the Versailles Treaty after WWI leading to the rise of Hitler and ultimately WWII is really too simplistic. The treaty was not really that harsh in context, and the road to Hitler and WWII cannot be explained without taking into account the Great Depression.

The simpler conventional narrative is easier and quicker. By diving into the more subtle complexity, we can help students see a more nuanced version of history. Ideally, they will question things that seems too simple. The cost here is in coverage. In order to teach complexity, we need to leave some things out. Whenever there is a gap in someone’s knowledge of world or US history who has been in my class, I feel a pang of guilt that I left something vitally important out. Of course, there is a lot that is important, and different things are important to different people.

At this point in the year, I feel the dilemma of breadth v. depth most acutely. There is not much time and so each choice I make seems that much more significant. I was taught a pretty straightforward narrative when I took history in school. I left thinking that knowing the narrative was understanding history. At some point early in my college career, I realized (after getting dinged on papers) that I had to learn to interpret and make sense of the history. Narrative was not enough because there wasn’t really a single narrative anyway, and the real purpose of history is to make sense of it. So I learned how to analyze.

In my classroom, I err on the side of complexity and analysis, rather than grand narrative. I hope I am making the right choice for my students. I always question myself in May.

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Wikipedia isn’t the devil, is it?

Grandiose plans run up against real world time constraints. In planning the Cities project for US history, I envisioned this glorious accumulation and deepening of research skills, which would lead students to complex, subtle and extensive knowledge about the city they chose to research. They would do research into the whole of the history, learning about economic and demographic changes, able to trace the rise and fall of businesses and industries, the impact of different groups moving in or out, and how their city measures up to the national trends at any given point in time. After learning so much, they would distill something interesting and significant to share with the class in the form of a podcast or a TED talk.

Reality – with just a few weeks to go, most kids have only been able to commit a little bit of time outside of class and many only have used one source – Wikipedia. If the project were the only thing they were doing for my class, it would still probably be too much. But in addition to the city research, they are learning the economic history of the US as a whole. They have readings to do, blog posts and summaries to write.

Adjustment – I had to ask myself what I really care about the most with this project, and what I would do if I had their constraints. I mostly care about them uncovering the fascinating story, the important dynamic, the local history that captures the essence of their city and allows them to create an engaging presentation – either TED style or podcast. So – I am letting go of the multi-source, Digital Library driven background piece. I am actively encouraging them to use the Wikipedia page for the basic narrative, from which they can find some aspect of the city’s history into which they can dive deeper. I want them to spend the time investigating a particular episode or turning point through historical newspapers or primary source documents in the Digital Public Library of America.

In the interest of time, I want them to get the basic story and then zero in to focus on the podcast or TED talk. So – I am making my peace with Wikipedia, although feeling like I might get struck by lightning whenever I actually direct a student there, which is one step beyond simply looking the other way.