History 17B Lecture 1 What is History? Page 5

III.  What is this course about?

A.  Facts vs. themes

History is one of those subjects back in high school that you either loved or hated.  Rarely is there an in-between emotion.  Maybe you only heard about dates and events.  Booooring!!!!  Nor is this really history.  It's what I call Jeopardy history - or trivia.  If you are ever a contestant on a game show and have a question about the Revolution, then it might come in handy for you to know the difference between Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill. 
Perhaps your million dollar question will be what U.S. naval ship the Japanese government surrendered on at the end of World War II (it was the Missouri).  If you're interested in this kind of stuff, then watch the History Channel.

By and large, I'm going to stress themes in this on-line course - class, race, and gender.  I want you to understand that Americans have fought (even killed) over issues of money and status, over political power, over racism and discrimination, over the position of women in our society.  I'm not saying that facts are unimportant.  You should know, for example, that Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941 - if for the only reason that you are not considered ignorant by your friends and family.  But facts are only important if they can be interpreted in a way that teaches a lesson.  December 7 becomes more meaningful if you understand why the Japanese went to war with America.  

Conversely, themes are pretty empty if you cannot offer specific examples as to how class, gender, and race come into play.  I could tell you, "America is a racist country" - but why should any of you believe me if I don't give you specific examples to support such a statement?  In other words, you need to remember and understand "facts" in order to make an historical argument.

B.  Lessons of History

Most of all, I want you to understand that there are lessons to be learned from history.  Whether we are doomed to repeat history if we don't learn from it I'll leave for the philosophers to ponder.  But I do know that you can only understand the present and make informed decisions as citizens if you have a grasp of the past.  Take hold of history; understand it. 

I am going to offer you over the next 15 weeks a very critical view of America's past 150 years - and it won't be pretty.  I do this not because I'm unpatriotic, nor do I hate America.  Indeed, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.  Americans have a lot to be proud of.  We have here a system of opportunity, participation, and ideals that are unique to the world.  But we can never take those ideals for granted (as we so often have throughout our history).  We have to work hard to make those ideals a reality.  We have to continue to fight against racism, discrimination, and sexism because these plagues resurrect themselves when we least expect them. 

My goal is not to teach you to hate America; it's to teach you to value it.


LINCOLN MEMORIAL - National Parks Service Site

"HISTORY IN THE RAW" - U.S. National Archives gives some tips on using primary sources.

INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL ON U.S. MONUMENTS AND SITES -- An organization committed to preserving America's heritage through monuments.

RECONSTRUCTION LINKS -- This site on my web page details a number of good web sites about Reconstruction.