Don’t shut your students down

Here’s a good example of how to kill a kid’s interest in a topic. I always loved history and I was taking a course to which one of my favorite approaches was suitable: area studies. I particulary wanted to study the Netherlands. My professor, a very inadequate person in many ways, thought that was fine.

Our library at that time was poorly stocked and all I could find was a book on the history of the Netherlands that was political and military, the stock in trade of history books at that time (the 50s). So I took the book to the professor and said I would like some guidance on finding other material. His response was an exasperated, “But that’s what history is, kings and wars.”

Here was a 19 year old kid who wanted economic history b/c he was interested in the Hanseatic League. The Dutch were the greatest sea farers, so there’s technology. Social history fascinated me and I knew something about it, being an anthropology major. Military history had always been an interest, still is, but this book treated wars only as extensions of policy (which they are, I realize). And, of course, I would have been thrilled to find something on the fascinating mix of Germanic languages in that area: Dutch, Plattdeutsch, Frisian, Flemish, etc.

No help from him and I did not have the resources to explore on my own (remember, no library computers then, just card files, and using the reference tooks was cumbersome and interlibrary loan was creaky). So that killed that.

All he would have had to do was direct me to a librarian who worked in that area, probably modern European history or even outside history to find sociological, economic, linguistic material that treated the area in depth of time, showing its development. That’s history.

Nowadays, of course, the post WW II historians have emphasized social and economic history. Due to their sea faring skills, the Dutch founded a huge colonial empire. Not long after my stint as a history student, a group of “colonials” took a whole train hostage in the Netherlands and brought the immigration and imperialism issues to the fore.

After this rant about one professor, let’s be clear: all I am saying is do not shut your students down. “That’s what history is: kings and wars.” B.S.

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