The “Big Idea” History Syllabus

1. Whereas 99.9% of the past is forever lost to direct analysis, the past and everything that has ever happened anywhere (history) is different from the study of what has happened (History). Historians aim to assemble and examine stories about the past and Homo sapiens, a past full of complexity and simplicity, a past that shows humans at their strongest and weakest, a past starting a second ago. 

2. Important and relevant stories are embodied in an array of extant primary sources or cultural artifacts — e.g., cookbooks, songs, newspapers, bodies, memories, buildings, trash, and everything else humans have created or touched or that have created or touched them. Nothing is off limits for analysis. 

3. Stories can be found and told from any vantage point—a person, a group, an institution, a period, a city, a state, a region, an ideology, and even the environment, for example. Historians write works focused on the history of pigs, marriage, children, hotels, swimming pools, wars, drinking, genocide, inventions, grandmothers, etc. Everything and everybody has stories to tell about everything—including you. Private life and public life matter. 

4. In creating understandings of these stories, context matters — time and place (including geography) matter. History is not about events but processes. Such contexts and processes help reveal how humans create and live in culturally/socially constructed worlds. You cannot take anything as a given or an absolute. 

5. These stories show how people have answered the big questions of life. They provide rich information about hopes and fears and everyday life. They show what people value. They show what people knew and didn’t know, what they used and didn’t use, what they needed and didn’t need. 

6. Always appreciate how much Homo sapiens have in common. They were all mostly “blank slates” at some point. Generally, they have all needed nourishment, have experienced happiness and sadness, have communicated in some way, and have learned about their culture.

7. Respect, too, how much Homo sapiens are different. Differences dictated by time and place and differences created by the powerful. Different in what they believe or don’t believe when it comes to higher powers, different in what they need and have access to in terms of nourishment, shelter, and medicine, and different in terms of how they are divided up and identify.  

8. While studying these stories, always look for new perspectives—not truths—and new ways of acknowledging agency (e.g., crip studies is one of the latest examples of how scholars have brought more people into the narrative – in this case those deemed not able-bodied). Being interdisciplinary will best help this be possible. 

9. Eagerly look to analyze the ideas of other historians, change your mind as you learn more about the world, be a public intellectual or critic who sees beyond prevailing mores of your time and place, and acknowledge how History is far more about “the present” than the past. 

Inspired by Dr. Michael Wesch’s “Big Idea” syllabus for Anthropology. For more of my thoughts on the Philosophy of History, click here

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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11 replies

  1. I hate to show my ignorance, but what is “crip studies”?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s mostly a brand new field that examines the history, psychology, sociology, biology, etc., etc., involved with determining who is considered disabled, how such disabled people are treated and what their life experience is like, and how such people are represented. Overall, crip studies also aims to challenge notions of ableism – since no one is always, forever during their life going to experience ultimate, idealized ableism.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Perfect! Since I fit into the “crip” category due to arthritis, old(er) age LOL, and chronic pain, I should get a degree in these studies!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post, Dr. Pegoda.

    “always look for new perspectives—not truths”

    So true. Most college students are looking for truths, which basically follow the rules. As I mentioned elsewhere, most of the young college students (20-somethings) are still caught up in learning and using the rules they learned, so they expect more rules to be taught in college. Of course a very large part of the adult population are still at the rule-making stage. Many are raising kids and need to simplify the world into “rules.”

    Nuance, however depends upon and comes with perspective. Perspective generally comes to you with living long enough to develop it and it matures as your brain matures. The ultimate stage of perspective comes at around 50 years, as Jean Piaget discovered, when you are able to understand categories and concepts you couldn’t when younger, simply because you have more experiences that enter into the nuance. You are able to use perspective best after 50, though there are many who start earlier. With the PhD, we get immersed into perspective (except those in many STEM professions where we get immersed into learning a new technique, thus the paucity of nuance in the conclusions drawn in many scientific articles).

    So it seems that your “big ideas” for teaching history are critical for helping these students learn perspective, and thus nuance, and will probably put them years ahead of their compatriots in many STEM courses. But many professors only know how to teach the “rules” of their profession, no matter what the profession, because that is what their “clients” want. Even the so-called “ethics” courses are often reduced to “rules,” when the entire principle of learning “ethics” demands nuance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for all of these thoughts!

      These comments make me think there is a kind of “age/development-perspective” gap for those of us very educated. Piaget’s theories (which are fascinating – I took an entire grad class in Human Growth and Development/Philosophy of the Mind) don’t apply as much to us, it would seem.

      I do get frustrated when I see or hear about a professor who effectively discourages critical thinking, a kind of rule breaking, and whatnot. I find that students are a bit hesitant but ultimately very eager to “think differently.” Public schools “brain wash” them to think in certain, limited, very confined ways.

      Can’t articulate any more thoughts right now – brain is still not fully back from the surgery! Chat more soon. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I understand how the fog hits. I get it when there are toxins pouring into the brain from coughing and sneezing when they go into the nose and on down the front of the body. I still have a lot of metals coming out of the bone.

    I discovered that surgeons ignore the meridians and just assume they can. My theory is that the “chi” that the Chinese describe as running through the meridians, and loosely translated into “energy” by the West, is actually interstitial (hypodermal) fluid that supplies the nutrients to cells in the body. Yes, doctors describe blood as supplying those nutrients in the plasma, translated to lymph when they exit the blood vessels, but they never get around to how those nutrients even get to the cells. Dumping the nutrients out into the space surrounding the vessel is only half of what is needed to nourish our cells. There has to be a way to set up a diffusion gradient that will carry specific nutrients to the cells. Lipids are apolar, so are harder to transport and thus usually are taken to the cells by attaching to cholesterol (forming HDL). For all other nutrients, meridians may be just such specialized methods for ion transport by diffusion. Acupuncturists found a system, the Primo vascular system, that might do this.

    Yes, the meridians will re-form with healing, but slowly. Once the meridians re-form where they cut, the body gets back together. The cut ends tend to be mashed up and really hard to re-align. The brain might have the fog because it is looking for those meridians. I discovered that a section of the brainstem is devoted to regulating those meridians. It lies just below the 4th ventricle of the medulla and central aqueduct of the midbrain, as a sheet of cells with its own internal organization relative to the layout of the body’s meridians.

    My feeling is that if the surgeon describes the procedure before surgery, in equisite detail, even if you can’t understand most of what the surgeon says, your brain will be able to heal the body faster. So before you go to the next surgery, you need to ask questions, asking for the information in detail as to the tissue level, the cell types involved, what the surgeon expects to see and every step he/she takes, even if you can’t understand it, and no matter how simple the procedure is to the surgeon. Accept no 30 second answer. There is a lot of information in the sound waves from the person’s voice that gets to your brain. Your brain matches its patterns with what your brain has experienced before. When this analysis done in the brainstem is combined with your conscious thoughts at the same time, the brainstem learns what the patterns match in its own past activity (“everything you ever experienced gets stored in the brain”).

    Also, get a map of the meridians from acupuncture sites, especially where they describe surface meridians separately from those deeper in the body (e.g. those connecting liver, spleen, kidney, etc.), and imagine them on the areas where the surgeries will be done. Place your finger over where you think they are, both above and below the places that will be cut, moving your finger until you “feel” an internal “yes”. You may have to wait for as much as 5 minutes as your brain adjusts to the new communication paths being established between conscious and unconscious parts of the brain. With practice, the “yes” will come faster.

    Do this after the operation as well, but the response may be much slower. at both times, imagine how the meridians might look like as they form channels through the fat cells (even when they are extremely thin) that rest on top of the muscles/tendons/bones). Try to picture in your mind what it may look like. Just relax and your brainstem will send images to your conscious brain. You may not be able to interpret them at first because often they are just analogs for what is there. After all, your brain will use what you have seen before to generate images in every case. So you do not have to have seen a lot of anatomy before, but it does help here.

    The fog should clear up rather quickly after this.

    Liked by 1 person


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