Historical lenses

After the introduction of the steamship, the poorer peoples of Eastern and Southern Europe began to predominate among those crossing the Atlantic and emigration across the Pacific also accelerated. Prior to the steamship, transoceanic emigration meant largely the emigration of Europeans—mostly Northern and Western Europeans—across the Atlantic, mostly to the United States.

—Thomas Sowell, Migrations and Cultures, p. 40

Most historians, it seems, just like most other people, can't help seeing the past through the filter of the present. For instance, here's a sample from the Wikipedia entry on William Henry Harrison:

A week into his term, tensions briefly flared with Great Britain again, but were quickly resolved by diplomacy. Harrison called Congress into a special session, which he set to begin on May 31, 1841. He and Henry Clay had disagreed over the necessity of the special session, but Clay's powerful position in both the legislature and the Whig Party quickly forced Harrison to give in. He thus proclaimed the special session in the interests of "the condition of the revenue and finance of the country."

Can you imagine a modern legislator dictating actions to the president these days? It would be inconceivable because of the growth in presidential power during the ongoing transformation from Republic to Empire, but at the time was nothing special. Yet still children are trained to view the past in the modern mindset in which if you only know about one person, it's the president. Almost all non-specialists and from what I can tell most specialists follow this pattern, whether with presidents, kings, or applicable local variants.

How narrow a view! The steamship surely had more impact—and certainly more positive impact—on history than did the rulers doing more than their share to make life miserable for the immigrants, and their counterparts on this side of the Atlantic. Of course this impact is well-known to historians, but the common pattern in the non-specialized literature I find seems to me to be: "Here was the ruler. He did X, Y, and Z. And also A and B happened. Next was this other ruler, who did X2, Y2, and Z2. ..."

One of the reasons that economic history and other explanations (example) are such a pleasure to read is that they focus on what, from my view, are vastly more important phenomena, and things that affect day-to-day life for the societies under analysis much more than who the man in the castle is.

Historians among the readers, please feel free to comment. (I'm looking at you, Payne.)

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I agree that impersonal,

I agree that impersonal, sociological phenomena better explain the progress of the world. But when researching history, I still concentrate on the significant figures of the age, because it makes for a better story.

The focus on great men is

The focus on great men is more innate and less learned, I think. I agree that it is inferior.

Focusing on the leaders

Focusing on the leaders makes a better story, and is much easier to study, since all the data tend to be aggregated in one place or around one person, as opposed to diffuse economic data.

Names, Dates, and Places

I actually have the opposite response. I always found all the date place and persona memorization of the typical social studies courses to be tiresome.

What I found much more interesting was historical discussions that work on a theme which explains the overall political and economic processes going on. Lysander Spooner's, or Rose Wilder Lane's, or Rothbard's approaches appeal more to me.

I wasn't going to comment,

I wasn't going to comment, but when I'm publicly called out like this, I suppose I have a duty to respond.

No doubt Randall is correct about this problem, but I would suggest it's far worse than he imagines. If you don't believe me, take a look at a high school world history book sometime (trust me, I'm now a high school history teacher, although I'm really starting to question why). At least with American history, the text only has to deal with 400 years of history in one specific country. That allows the authors to go into a decent amount of depth about Congress, state governments, businesses, churches, famous authors, etc.

Well, it's a decent amount of depth compared to world history books that attempt to grapple with all of recorded history in around 1000 pages. A great example is how they typically deal with Ancient Athens. It was the most open government in the Western world, and yet all the books seem capable of doing to describe it is droning on about Cleisthenes, Draco, Solon, etc. Now of course, these men were very important, and I'm sure it's difficult to write a narrative for high school students involving a loud and often fickle mob of thousands, but the Assembly was the driving force in Athenian political life.

Furthermore, it's not just that these books overly focus on the highest political leaders, but they also frequently suffer from a similar pro-Great Leader bias that Gene Healy has written about in the American context. For instance, the book I'm currently using presents the Emperor Diocletian's order to tie workers to the land they worked as a noble, albeit futile, effort to save the Empire. There are so many things wrong with that that I couldn't possibly go through them all here, but a few will suffice: it takes for granted that the Roman Empire was worth saving; it ignores that this was essentially slavery; and it never acknowledges that this decision plunged Western Europe into the economic pit of feudalism for the next 1000 years or so.

When attempting to explain thousands of years of history, it may be necessary to hit only the highlights, but that certainly leaves rooms for the big technological advances that dramatically change the world just as much as it does for wars and the dalliances of over privileged individuals who just happen to be born into politically powerful families (i.e. royalty). But I would be happy if textbooks stopped being so reflexively pro-political power.

Fortunately, great leader

Fortunately, great leader bias only afflicts the study of history. No one is obsessing over the current US president. What was his name?

Unfortunately, it's probably

Unfortunately, it's probably easier, more fun, and probably interesting to more readers to connect the big dots via interesting stories and colorful characters, rather than go through the grueling effort of analyzing data. Particularly historical data, which resists at every turn. I think academia recognizes this problem, and gives subdued props to creators of data-sets, but the top honors go to popular dot-connectors like Cornell West.

Until audiences prefer solid analysis to entertaining story-telling (not holding breath), this probably won't change.