"Very well,” Mrs. Jenkins said, fetching a small hardbound book from a cupboard.
She began flipping through the pages. “Just remind me that we must stir
the soup that’s on the fire so it does not burn, and meanwhile we will make a
cake. Hmm. . .Let’s see. . .I rather fancy this one.” She pointed to a recipe, and
held open the book on the table, so they could both read it together:
To make a fine feed or faffron-cake.
You must take a quarter of a peck of fine flour, a pound and a half of butter,
three ounces of carraway seeds, six eggs beat well, a quarter of an ounce of cloves
and mace beat together very fine, a pennyworth of cinnamon beat, a pound of
sugar, a pennyworth of rose-water, a pennyworth of saffron, a pint and a half of
yeast, and a quart of milk; mix it all together lightly with your hands thus: first
boil your milk and butter, then skim off the butter, and mix with your flour,
and a little of the milk and stir the yeast into the rest and strain it, mix it with
the flour, put in your feed and spice, rose-water, tincture of saffron, sugar, and
eggs; beat it all up well with your hands lightly, and bake it in a hoop or pan,
but be sure to butter the pan well. It will take an hour and a half in a quick
oven. You may leave out the seed if you chuse it, and I think it rather better
without it, but that you may do as you like.
“What’s a feed or faffron-cake?” Hannah asked, pointing to the words with a
Mrs. Jenkins turned to her and tutted. “Silly girl! That’s seed
or saffron cake. I thought you said you could read?”
--Look Ahead, Look Back (The Snipesville Chronicles, Book 3)
Readers of The Snipesville Chronicles know that I love to write about food and food preparation in the past. Whether it’s Hannah making a seed cake with Mrs. Jenkins in 1752, or Mrs. Devenish converting unappetizing British World War II picnic fare into a tasty snack, or horrified time-traveler Hannah stumbling into the slaughter of her favorite pig in 1752, I sneak in lots of food for thought about, well, food.
Food is a subject that appeals to most of us, and so it’s a good subject through which to teach history. But how does it teach historical thinking?
Simply preparing a food from the past brings home the concept of change over time, through changing tastes and practices in food production and preparation. Kids with whom I once made 1950s Jello salad featuring ham and pineapple were suitably grossed. When I prepared mock cream, to a British wartime recipe, they thoroughly enjoyed it (impressive, considering that it was mostly a blend of margarine and powdered milk). Both foods made quite an impression.
But we can also dig deeper. Why did people eat a particular food at a particular time and in a particular place? A simple staple dish might suggest very limited options for food at a particular time of year, or limited opportunities for trade. Did this mean people were suffering? As more and more people added previous luxuries like sugar and spice to their diets, where did those ingredients come from, and why were they more affordable than in the past? How did electricity change cooking? When we examine historical cookbooks, we should ask who was actually using such cookbooks in previous centuries. Was it the wealthy or, more accurately, their cooks? How do we know? If a cheap price and ads inside suggest a wider audience, consider the growing availability of cheap printing as well as cheap ingredients, and how cooking was affected. Why were they cheaper? To what extent was even a popular recipe aspirational, something people would like to make, rather than something they did make? After all, many people buy celebrity chef cookbooks today as reading matter, not guidebooks.
You don’t even have to make a food with kids to have the desired effect: In my schools presentations, I often like to ask kids to raise their hands if they would like to tell me their favorite food, and after hearing three or four of them describe their favorites (pizza, steak, and chicken wings are most typical), I tell them why they wouldn’t likely get the foods of their choice in the time and place we’re discussing. If I know when that particular food reached the region in which they live, I tell them. This is a great way to reinforce the differences between then and now.
The questions we can ask are limitless, but how do we tie them to curriculum? Think of spending 10-40 minutes on food as an introduction to a topic like World War II (think rationing) or colonial America (think of the very different foodways of various groups, and discuss how they show how differently people lived) Practically any time and place can be introduced through its food. How hands on with actual food do you want to get? That’s up to you. Either way, leading kids to focus on how they eat today, and why, and how it differs from fifty or a hundred or three hundred years ago is a great way to lead them to thinking historically, and to begin to visualize different periods and places.
I was delighted to be interviewed last week for a blog run by the American Council of Learned Societies, an umbrella organization of humanities groups.
Find it hard to get kids interested in history? Here are some questions I regularly ask myself when attention wanders...
Am *I* interested in this? If the answer is no, then it’s harder to excite the kids and teens. What would it take to get *me* interested? Can I at least watch a documentary or (better) read a book? If I teach history and never learn more about it, and not just what’s on the curriculum, I’m making life harder for myself and my audiences.
Am I talking about the past as the past, dead, gone, and quaint? Or am I talking about it as history, as something that continues to affect the present day, or at least informs us about the context for current events and our own lives? Like all historians, I’m wary of direct comparisons, since history never really repeats itself. Rather, I think carefully about current events or cultures of which kids are aware, and that can use some historical context.
Am I worrying too much about what kids should know, either because it’s deemed important by me or by someone in authority, or because it’s something I enjoy? What do kids most enjoy learning about? Obviously, I have the luxury of such choices. If you’re a teacher worried about getting kids through tests, my heart goes out to you: I won’t tell you what or how to teach. But I can advise that if you can bait and switch, hook kids’ interest with something that resonates from the period, then switch to what they need to know for the test, everyone wins (especially you). If you have to talk about the Great Depression, have the students read a letter from a kid or teen to Eleanor Roosevelt, one that shows the level of desperation of a young person, that they would write to the First Lady. If you have been charged with interesting kids in primary sources, pull out real artifacts or good reproductions, and choose things it’s easy to make relevant and/or interesting.
Watching on TV as hundreds of avowedly racist young men carried torches through a college campus, gave the Nazi salute, chanted anti-semitic and racist slurs, and flaunted swastikas through the streets of Charlottesville was profoundly shocking and disturbing.
This is a good time to revisit questions that nag at the backs of our minds: How does history help? What does teaching about long-ago people and events have to do with the present?
I do worry that even many of those who teach history confuse it with the past, and that sites and Facebook pages aimed at teachers focus so much on trivia. Just because something happened in the past does not make it history: History is not an attic full of colorful and quaint items to amuse us. That’s why I don’t post lots of “fun” factoids on my Facebook page, even though I expect both would make me popular. I don’t do it because, as an academic historian, that’s not what I’m about. Rather, I am interested in encouraging people to seek out context through reading, and thus to think historically.
Why? Because those who are most deeply informed about Nazism and the story of race in America are also the most appalled by what happened this weekend. The swastika is such a poisonous and dangerous symbol that it is banned in Germany: In a small footnote to Charlottesville, a drunk American tourist in Germany was beaten up this weekend after throwing the Hitler salute.
Attending a quiet protest vigil last night (unusual for me, since I’m not overly fond of protests), literally the first people I met were a German woman, and an Austrian woman who had arrived in the U.S. less than a week ago. We know, viscerally, what Nazism means. We know what it did to our countries. We know its evils. We learned because, literally, we were surrounded by that history while growing up. I do not for one moment intend to diminish the fact that nearly half a million Americans died fighting the Second World War. But Britons, Germans, and Austrians saw the war come to their doorsteps and into their homes. German and Austrian families, and even some Britons (look up Oswald Mosley) , became complicit in unspeakable evil, by actively participating, or by failing to speak up. This is a lesson that the postwar generation learned well: Nazism is something apart from normal politics. It has no equivalent on the American Left.
In Charlottesville, at issue was much more than a Civil War statue, but it was a Civil War statue that was the supposed focus of a fascist rally. We can certainly debate whether or not Confederate statues should remain, but we must consider what they mean, and that is much more than as a memorial to fallen soldiers. Indeed, these memorials were not put up until long after the Civil War. They were erected in the turn of the century South, at a time when the antebellum era was being romanticized, even as there was brutal segregation and growing violence against African-Americans.
People today who think of Jim Crow segregation too often reduce it to drinking fountains in the 1950s. That’s one of the problems with curriculum forcing us to race through important subjects. Read in depth (not just in a textbook) about the “progressive” era in America over a hundred years ago, and it all comes to disturbing life for those of us with neither personal nor family experience.
We learn of the everyday humiliations of people being told that they were unfit to sit on a bus seat, with the threat of assault or even murder if they showed the slightest resentment. Read of W. E. B. DuBois and his wife being harassed with catcalls as they walked behind the coffin of their small son in Atlanta. And if you can stomach it, or even if you can’t, read of the appalling torture-murders of black men that took place before baying crowds of men, women, and children. These are part of the vital context to the statues. I do not, I rush to add, expect anyone to describe lynchings to 5th graders. But teaching history well and meaningfully requires knowing more than we can actively teach, and modeling curiosity.
The more we overcome our fear of knowing, and the more we seek to know the truth, the harder it is to hate. I listened on the radio this morning to the emotional report of a BBC journalist who visited Amritsar, the site of the appalling 1919 massacre of hundreds of Indian men, women, and children by British troops who emptied their guns on people in a walled garden for ten straight minutes. Jason Rowlatt, the reporter, declared that he was the great-grandson of the author of the Rowlatt Act, a draconian law passed that year, aimed at Indians who protested British rule. Jason Rowlatt did not apologize on his own behalf, and I would argue, nor should he: We are not responsible for the acts of our ancestors. But we are responsible to continue to investigate the past, clear-eyed and without defensiveness, to continue to find the context for our lives today. Fighting back tears, Rowlatt did apologize on behalf of his family, and his country. Yet his family had already done their bit to bring the family history into the light: When he was young, Rowlatt’s parents took him to see the movie Gandhi, which depicts the Amritsar massacre, and told him of his great-grandfather’s shameful role in Indian history. This is how we make history matter: Through truth and reconciliation.
We are at a dangerous crossroads in American history. How do we proceed? How can we help? These are the questions we each must ask ourselves, again and again.
The appalling events in Charlottesville this weekend, in which Nazi demonstrators took to the streets, and those who stood up to them were assaulted and murdered, put me in mind of the Battle of Cable Street (1936) It's remembered in the UK as a great anti-fascist victory. But one historian argues that it's actually a cautionary tale.
Here's the link to the 2011 article in History Today: http://www.historytoday.com/daniel-tilles/myth-cable-street
My research for The War to End War, my new program for schools on WWI, led me on an interesting tangent, musing over the impact of propaganda, "fake news", and the rest. Here's my guest blog post for The Saporta Report:
The news comes this morning, following an online global shaming, of the resignation of the mayor of a small town in Clay County, WV, who had praised a revolting internet post by the director of the local development agency in which she had described Michelle Obama as an ape. I don't have to tell you that it was right that she should resign, and right that others in the community should condemn hate. The two women should send personal letters of apology to Mrs. Obama.
But note this from the article on the resignation: "The uproar occurred as the town of about 500 residents is still trying to recover from severe flooding in late June along the nearby Elk River. Clay County also has been hit by hundreds of layoffs in the coal industry this decade."
Now let's think. Was there the same national and international publicity about the catastrophes that have crushed this little community? Will there now be calls for aid?
Of course not. And therein lies a little clue to where Trumpism came from.
A local councilwoman pleaded with us all to visit Clay County, and meet the people. Most people will not, of course, take up her invitation. But having spent a week wandering around the poverty-stricken former mining areas of Wales last year, and having recently visited a working-class bar/grill with Asian husband while passing through West Virginia, and having a lovely time, I do recommend it, and hope I can visit Clay in the next year or two. We have to start talking to each other, and at the very least, give encouragement to the quiet majority of decent people.
But suppose the people of Clay are all bigots? Of course they are. Stay with me here, please: Years ago, in Los Angeles, I visited the Simon Wiesenthal museum (named for the famed Nazi hunter) To enter, you had to choose between two doors, marked "Prejudiced" and "Not Prejudiced." But the "Not Prejudiced" door was locked. There was only one way in. The message of course, was that we are all bigots. People find that hard to accept about ourselves. Even if we don't say "I'm not prejudiced, but . . .", we think it. The museum challenged that. We are all bigots, it said, and it was right.
Now is the time to remind you that many people of color, black , Latino, and Asian, voted for Trump. Many Jews voted for Trump. Many Catholics voted for Trump. Many, many women voted for Trump. And, thanks to his deliberate goading of their prejudices, many voted out of fear and hatred, as well as economic anxiety.
Is this uniquely American? Of course not. Every country, every people has its scapegoats. I remember telling a Glasgow man in California that I was a little anxious about how my grandfather and a few other Scottish relatives would receive the news that I was marrying an Asian-American. "Oh, they wont care if he's Martian and has three heads," he said, "as long as he isn't a Catholic." (It was pretty much true, by the way).
I have known people (and not all of whom are white) who have terrible prejudices in theory, whether about race, class, or religion, but who in practice have treated others with dignity and respect. And I don't know anyone, most especially myself, who has not had cause to fight the demon of prejudice. This is something I think about a great deal. I developed a character in Don't Know Where, Don't Know When,the first of The Snipesville Chronicles, who has proven enormously popular with my readers. Mrs. Devenish, a middle-class woman in wartime Britain, is a kind, compassionate, and formidable woman with great integrity, who is resolutely anti-racist. In One Way or Another, the final book in the series, I have written at length about her one glaring form of bigotry, one that was clear from the start to the readers who were paying attention, and how she fights it in herself. [Spoiler alert] It's social class.
This is not a call to tolerate discrimination. I do not ignore the realities of the connections between race and power. I hope that my life will stand as testament to my goodwill on those scores. But this reminds me that's something else I have learned from the close study of history: Seek out context before deciding. Seek to understand. Cultivate empathy. And never be afraid to challenge your own received ideas about anything. Seek new ways of looking at the world. Read, but--and I cannot stress this enough--beware of those who peddle hatred and discord and lies, because they are everywhere. Talk with people, no matter who they are. And keep listening, thinking, and above all, reading. Education is for life, in more ways than one. Most of all, let us all strive to hold ourselves to the highest possible standards of human decency, even knowing that we will, assuredly, fail.
Most historians-- not all-- tend to stay away from active involvement in politics. Sure, we have views, but we're slippery creatures, always beholden to evidence, and subject to changing our minds as new evidence comes available. That's why we prefer to wait on current events to recede into the past before we start forming arguments about them. Personally, I prefer early American history, because all my subjects are safely dead, and we have a long -term perspective, three centuries in fact, on their lives.
I cannot, however, pretend that this election did not happen. I can tell you this much: Not one professional historian of whom I am aware supported Donald Trump for president. Not one. If I am wrong, I would be delighted to stand corrected. But I don't think I am. We are not all "liberals", a word with many meanings. We are not all upper-middle-class people. We don't all think the same way--historians sometimes appear to come close to fistfights at their meetings, because ideas and evidence matter. But on Donald Trump, historians agreed. There is no point in my pretending otherwise, nor would I wish to: Historians, even those most critical of how things have been for working people, are afraid, because so much of what is happening right now is evocative of the instability and anger and policies that gave rise to fascism in 1930s Europe. Will it play out now as it did then? No idea. I hope not. It helps that fascism never got very far in Britain or America, even then. But as one of my old professors used to say, historians are great at predicting the past. The future? Not so much.
But that's enough. The most important point I want to make is that, regardless of whom you voted for, there is one point on which I think can all agree. I have attended homeschooling conventions, teachers' conferences, and spoken (and listened) to people of all political persuasions throughout the South, much of that time in rural areas. We all understand that kids need to read books. Lots of them. They need to have available to them a range of books (not just reading the same couple of authors, the same kinds of books) and to make their own choices. Understanding history is not about memorizing facts, no matter what they are, or indoctrinating kids. It is about kids reading books, and forming ever larger and more complex contexts for their own experiences. That is what education must be. It is what schooling is not. We must sweep away the bad curriculum, the excessive bureaucracy, the absolute nonsense of a moribund system, and allow teachers to encourage and enable kids to read. That is what must change. Because, honestly? That's the only thing that will fix what ails us.
Like many--if not most-- academic historians, I have long been skeptical of military history. Too often, it seems fixated with troop movements and strategy, technology and logistics,divorced from the human story that is its inevitable consequence. Yet despite my usual interest in the slightly less violent subject of popular religious culture, the causes and consequences of war fascinate me. Since the 80s, I have paid frequent visits to the Imperial War Museum in London, which places human beings at the heart of military history. Still, unfortunate encounters with military historians in real life have led me to keep the field at arm's length.
Add the word "battle" to the phrase "American Revolution" to sum up some of my recent areas of interest, and you have a formula that, it seems, only a military history buff could love.
Fact is, I am a historian of Revolutionary America, if only as a teaching field. And I am deeply concerned with how different is the academic historians' version of the Revolution from popular perceptions. On that note, I decided that it was well past time for me to try harder to connect with military events, even if only to try to tease out the human story. My recent road trip to Pennsylvania thus took me via Kings Mountain (SC), site of a significant battle that is worth its own post (coming soon), Valley Forge (not a battlefield, but certainly a site of great significance in military history and the popular imagination), and Antietam, the Civil War battlefield that saw more than 20,000 horrific casualties in a single day.
Antietam is a harrowing place to anyone with an ounce of imagination, and when you pair a visit with the pricey but worthwhile audio tour (available in the gift shop), it can be overwhelming. This was not a battle in the romanticized sense of hand to hand combat by heroic opponents: This was slaughter that anticipated the First World War. Terrified young men marched toward death, dropping in the rows in which they marched. Many were slaughtered at point-blank range in a cornfield, cut down by bullets and cannon, along with the cornstalks through which they took their final steps. And there was nothing they could do to fight back.
By sheer chance, while at Antietam, I stumbled into a talk by historian Dr. Carol Reardon, along with Tim Vossler, her co-author of Antietam: A Field Guide . I decided to listen because I was intrigued by the fact that Carol is a professional historian, at Penn State, and because, quite honestly, she's a woman in a field that's overwhelmingly made up of men. As if reading my mind (and she had no idea who I was at that point) she gave a spirited defense of military history in the face of criticism from academic historians, and of how it is expanding to cover everyone affected by war. It was a terrific talk, and I have bought the book. As soon as I am done with my current obsession (the Third Reich, of all things, and particularly the work of the marvelously wise and readable Richard J. Evans), I will read and review.
What's with all this sudden interest in war on my part? That would be telling. But let's just say that I'm reading, experiencing, and thinking in anticipation of my next book, even as the last volume of The Snipesville Chronicles is at the printer . . .
An unexpected treat when I went to the movies in Atlanta to see Denial, the engrossing new film about the libel case that British Holocaust denier David Irving brought against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. After the movie, the real Dr. Lipstadt (who teaches at Emory) held a Q&A with the audience. You can just about make her out in my awful photo below, but that's her also on the screen with Rachel Weisz, who portrayed her in Denial. The movie was great, but this isn't a movie review as such, and I want you to see it, so no spoilers here. Just know that it's a film you won't forget. The Q and A was even better, and it is a pity that it's not humanly possible for Dr. Lipstadt to be on hand for every showing.
What I have found striking about this case (and I am reading the books about it as fast as I can) is how alarmingly timely it is, and how urgently we need to revisit what constitutes history education. Most people are getting our views from either media sources--mainstream or not-- that feed us what we want to hear (and yes, I include myself in this, to my eternal shame), or, worse, from internet babble.
We absolutely have to make the case for "slow learning", if you'll forgive the phrase, for students' reading books--lots of them--and for initially engaging young children in history in such a way that they will want to read more for themselves. What that is going to require is for historians to take a far more prominent role in developing curriculum, bringing their understanding of history as much more than "must know" factoids. It's hard to see the hand of historians in state and national curricula, and the anecdotal evidence I've found suggests that they're either brought onto committees as window-dressing, or aren't numerous--or assertive-- enough. Agree or disagree, historians who have been involved in the process of developing curriculum are warmly invited to share their experiences with me, privately if need be.
What's at stake? Education itself, which in all but a handful of elite institutions (K12 and college) is in danger of being reduced to vocational training. Democracy, which cannot thrive among a citizenry that is abandoning rationality and empiricism. Democracy, as Churchill observed, is the worst form of government, except for all the others. The Holocaust was the product of one of those "others".