She Blinded Me With History

Jeremy Kalgreen’s Science! t-shirts are, obviously, awesome. It’s a sign of how much I’ve changed since the 1990s that I have not already ordered a closet of them. If another sign were needed, that is, besides kids, minivan, hair in places where there was no hair before… The key is the Magnus Pyke exclamation mark. Science (no exclamation mark) is a painstaking process consisting mainly of grant applications, faculty meetings, and washing out test tubes. But Science! is giant guitar-shredding robots, cloned T-rex burgers, and tri-breasted alien honeys. You see the difference?

I want a line of History! t-shirts.

But what would History! designs depict? Shirley Temple decking Hitler? Voltaire and Ben Franklin playing electric guitar? Vikings, just being themselves? All worthy subjects, but not iconic enough to immediately read as a t-shirt design. What are history’s goofy, “hell yeah!” equivalents to Kalgreen’s jubilant mad scientists? I suppose some of his equally swell Teach The Controversy t-shirts, like UFOs building the pyramids or the Illuminati ruling the world, could work as History! designs. As could much of Kate Beaton‘s stuff. But I welcome alternate suggestions.

I’ve been trying to come up with a mission statement for this blog: to figure out if and why I want to keep writing it, to boil what it’s all about down to one or two sentences. I haven’t gotten there yet, but one thing I’ve always known is this: History ought to be awesome.

17 Comments

  1. There’s a huge disconnect, I think, between the reality of history — it being profoundly important, full of amazing stories, absolutely fascinating, and fundamentally vital to understanding who and what we are (and why) — and the horrible, horrible experiences many of us had in high-school history class.

    Sadly, that’s probably the last formal history education most of us ever got, so when we think about history-as-a-discipline or history-as-a-topic we shy away from those dusty memories of rote memorization of meaningless dates and names and boring crap no one ever figured out how to make us care about.

    I have no idea what you want to do with this blog, but I think it would be fantastic to have someone qualified (say, you) showing us why and how history is vital and fascinating. Anything, really, from the recent trends in the field to bizarre little fiddlybits from the historic record. Basically trying to undo the damage done in high-school :)

    A couple of examples come to mind, for other disciplines:

    Cocktail Party Physics
    http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/

    Plus Magazine (less a blog, more a journal, but full of awesome)

    http://plus.maths.org/

    I don’t really know that much about history as a discipline, but at this point I sure wish I had taken a few courses in university.

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  3. History has always been awesome to me, and to the majority of my audience! I don’t see that anyone says “finally, a history comic, just for me,” when they read my work, they say “heck yeah that was awesome I love that guy/lady!” instead. The enthusiasm surprises even me sometimes!

    Because history is so diverse, what means the most to people is different for everyone. A dude in a lab coat says “science” for everyone, there is nothing that says “history” for everyone in a way that they all rally behind. But that doesn’t mean no one is interested in it!

    Also, I thought history was rad even in the most boring classes. I mean, we had boring Science teachers too, my chemistry teacher in high school was brutal.

  4. First, history IS awesome.

    Second, a large part of history’s appeal is that it is not a free-standing project in the mode of Science!

    It is more a way of being or a way of seeing. History touches and informs all of human experience. It’s a source of awesome stories, or a way of being in touch with the awesomeness of human civilizations. Or a way of making awesome meaning of one’s own existence.

    History can be so many different things and can be cast so many different ways that there can be no History! It is a reflection of the person or the collective that tells the story, and its awesomeness derives from the possibilities of storytelling. In this case, the person telling the story is you.

    Perhaps your tshirt/mission statement should be “Rob!”

  5. History comics! Hey, I would really like to see an amusing look at Nefertiti and Akhenaton’s private life! It would be hit.

  6. Once you get the History! t-shirt line going, you could team up to do some ‘History! of Science!’ shirts. Newton and his Royal Society buddies dissecting a dolphin! Awesome!

  7. History ain’t what it used to be, but at least there’s always more of it.

    Very difficult to top Kate Beaton, but a Ben Franklin playing electric guitar plugged into a kite would be boss as long as he looked enthused to the nth degree like she’s depicted him running with the kite.

    The “Teach The Controversy” t-shirts are wicked cool, despite lacking an MP exclamation mark, I guess a picture is worth a thousand exclamation marks. Seems much of the controversy is rooted in past misplacement of exclamation marks, either in the history of Science or in the science of History. Truth changes with time, but it doesn’t necessarily become clearer with time. All those sweet ‘n’ crisp equations we learned in high school physics, for the most part they were approximations and half-truths. Trajectories of projecties and periods of pendulums and magnets surrounded by curves of iron filings, they’re in fact quite messy situations, and those guys with the beards ‘n’ spectacles have known so for a pretty long time: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagrangian_mechanics#Pendulum_on_a_movable_support . Exclamation marks are satisfying, but question marks need love too. “F=ma? Not really, little Jimmy, but if we told you the truth your ears would start to bleed!” “Gravity? Sure, mass likes other mass, but nobody really knows _why_ despite having thrown a lot of money and man ‘n’ woman hours at the problem!” “Electricty ‘n’ Magnetism? Actually, there’s only Electricity, Magnetism is just a product of relativistic observation!” This stuff comes full circle, the exclamation mark lies in the realization of the messier than previously thought solutions, that the beauty/wonder/coolness lies in solutions which lead to more problems to be solved. ?->!->?, or !->?->!

    So, in the science of History, when [where?] did the stories get uhhh messier than previously thought? Over the last 20 years, what were the stories that got really messy? What kept you reading, not despite the mess, but _because_ of the mess? I don’t mean “mess” to be a negative term, just to indicate complexity or contradiction, is all. I’m just an armchair historian, but here’s a couple few nuggets w.r.t. American Politics:
    - Nixon in fact out-debating Kennedy despite losing the beauty contest?
    - America being founded by slave-owners who wanted to be free?
    - The Louisiana Purchase really being fancy talk for the annexation of Northern Mexico?
    - The separation of powers breaking down in 1868 when Congress nearly seized permanent control of the executive and bending the judiciary to its wishes, impeaching Andrew Johnson [only to have been saved by one vote in the Senate] nearly adopting a parliamentary system of government?
    - The strange indirect authority of the President, that he’s [she's] not really in charge of anything [other than the armed forces and that veto stuff]?
    - The freakiness of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, their citizens voting in presidential election despite no representation in Congress?
    - That time in 1995 when half the federal government closed down because [Bill] Clinton vetoed a spending appropriations bill that he considered wasteful, and Congress refused to pass another?
    - McKinley gets shot leading to Teddy Roosevelt’s bully pulpitism, making the United States into a world power, breaking up the great monopolies, establishing the national parks system and building the Panama Canal?
    - Lying in bed, just like Woodrow Wilson did? You know, that whole year he spent in bed after a couple few campaign-induced strokes, transacting government business through his wife Edith, making her the most powerful woman in American history?
    - Isolationism leading Congress to reject Versailles [which _may_ have avoided WWII]. The very same Congress would prohibit the sale or use of alcohol, allowing for the rise of organized crime.
    - FDR ‘n’ Truman saving Europe but losing China, stoking the fire for McCarthyism?
    - That whole Nixon thing. Ford pardoning Nixon despite Nixon not having been convicted of anything, probably losing Ford the ’76 election.
    - Carter inheriting a long economic recession provoked by the huge increase in the price of oil. The ’79 Iran hostage crisis underscored the gloom Carter couldn’t shake, though Reagan’s charisma more than anything allowed Reagan to take over and pronounce liberalism dead. Other than the film acting, Reagan hosted that GE show for like 10 years. If you make enough TV appearances showing a fridge full of food, you can’t _not_ become President.

    What was the question? Oh yeah, that T-shirt mission statement thing. My little bullet points here at the end, they’re kind of wordy, which may be the way to go, to print a ridiculous amount of history ranting on the front and back of the shirt with the word “History!” bursting through it all like a poster for a monster truck rally.

  8. So many great comments, here and on Twitter. Thanks, all!

    Deb: you’re absolutely right about the disconnect between history’s innate awesomeness and the bad memories many people have of classroom history. I know I attribute my being a historian to two particularly good history teachers, one in high school and one in college. (Someday I am going to bill them for all the money I would have made as a lawyer.)

    I mean, maybe everybody thinks that about their favorite subject (“organic chemistry IS awesome – you just never had a good teacher to make it come alive!”) but history seems particularly vulnerable to being taught poorly – and yet is particularly awesome when taught well.

    Timothy Burke had an excellent post last week about (among other things) the need for humanists to do a much better job of explaining why what they do matters: http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/2010/01/19/hester-prynne-schmester-prynne-or-sarah-palins-ressentiment-clubhouse/

    Chris: rock. I knew which image you were trying to embed before it even came up.

    Kate: Thanks for coming by! I’ve been a huge fan for ages – I think my first link to your LiveJournal was back in 2006 or 2007, is that right? You are doing more than just about anyone I can think of to make/keep history, especially Canadian history, awesome.

    You are also being way too modest. People may say “heck yeah that was awesome I love that guy/lady!” when they read your comics, but that’s only because you make it look effortless. Somebody – you – needs to “curate” the awesomeness, to use a currently hot buzzword–to recognize what’s awesome or funny or comic worthy about Joseph Kennedy’s parenting style or Lord Lovat’s letters or Jules Verne’s crush on Edgar Allan Poe, zero in on the key part of the story, and then transform it into art. You remind them or let them rediscover what’s awesome – but in that lies your awesomeness.

    (Man, and to think just six months ago I was saying “I really need to stop saying ‘awesome’ so much.”)

  9. Lisa: Your objectivity is suspect, but your awesomeness is not. (That’s my wife, everybody.)

    Adam: You are an awesome madman.

  10. You should team up with Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant for the history shirts.

  11. Hello, in order to help some bad things to be part of history and not present (some t-shirts could have helped), you can find something about a petition which could interest you in the top right-hand corner at the following address: http://eternal-cartesian.blogspot.com/ . Sincerely for a better world

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