Would You Rather

I do know that “who would win, a viking or a samurai?” is an inane question. Any time I’ve actually used counterfactuals in my teaching, I’ve tried to raise subtler issues. That said, “who would win”‘s very inanity makes it an easy, grabby, natural conversation starter. I’ve had several conversations since Wednesday about vikings and samurai–more, certainly, than I’ve had about Tuesday’s post on history and narrative. I’ve even been pointed to a hilarious TV show called Deadliest Warrior, which devoted an entire episode to the great viking vs. samurai debate! And the wide range of people with whom I’ve had these conversations–from a 3-year-old to a professor of Asian history–suggests to me that even silly questions can scale to accommodate multiple levels of historical knowledge.

One thing I don’t love about the “who would win” question is the way it tilts the playing field towards military history and the history of technology–worthy subjects, but hardly the only histories worth talking about. It seems like alternate history almost always ends up using the old school, Boy’s Own flavors of history–military, political, technological. I talked about this in the coda to Gernsblack, which was a stab at alternate cultural history (with a crazy technological deus ex machina, I admit). This is going to sound like total name dropping–insufferable to people who know who she is, pointless and nerdy to people who don’t–but I had a great conversation once with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich about whether you could write alternate social history, alternate gender history, alternate material culture history, and so on. I think I almost had her sold on the idea, but I also think she is very good at humoring people.

So here’s another demonstration question, not much more complicated than “who would win?”

When and where would you rather have lived: 18th-century France, 15th-century China, 8th-century Ghana, or 1st-century Rome? What would your life there have been like?

Obviously you can swap in other times and places if you like. As with “who would win,” the question is deceptively deep. As soon as you start discussing it, you’re talking about social history, material culture, and the history of everyday life. One of the first things anyone considering this had better ask is, “What would I be? Can I be born a noble or a queen, or do I have to be some kind of peasant or slave?” And whatever the answer, now you’re talking about class and hierarchy. You’re also thinking comparatively. Whose lot was tougher: the poorest tenth of the world’s population before the industrial revolution or the poorest tenth today?

For a follow-up question you could ask: “if we asked the same question to somebody living in 18th-century France, 15th-century China, etc., what do you think they would answer?” Many of us living in the 21st century would probably choose on the basis of material comfort, and so find most earlier eras wanting. But would that be a universal choice across time? What other criteria might other times and cultures use? Are we certain that the sum total of human happiness has never been higher than it is in 2010?

This question’s grabbiness comes from the second-person pronoun–it’s not “which is better,” it’s “would you rather”–which pulls you in to imagine yourself in history. This is a staple of history at play. Think of reenactors, roleplayers, historical romance readers. It’s also almost totally illegitimate in serious history, much more so than counterfactuals. Niall Ferguson can edit a collection of alternate histories and it merely burnishes his hunky teledon credentials. But don’t hold your breath for the anthology about, say, Patricia Limerick at the Alamo or Tony Grafton’s fantasy life as a Renaissance magus. I’m not saying I really want to read that anthology, but I have no problem with leveraging the roleplay instinct for history teaching and fun.

If you’re getting the idea that what I mean by “playful” historical thinking is known by many as “bad” historical thinking, go to the head of the class.


  1. It’s also worth some time to examine where we like to play in history, if only to see where we don’t. Re-reading your Gernsblack post, another alternate “When and Where would you have rather lived?” question came to mind. “Would you rather live as a black man in America in 1875, or in 1935?” But that’s not a very playful question, and some folks won’t play in such a space. I myself would be afraid to.

    Yet the biggest lesson I ever got about the power of U.S. Constitution was when I got confronted with the question, “When did blacks get the vote in America?” by an friend in the middle of an argument. I remember wanting nothing more than to run when he asked it. But when I answered “like 1870ish”, and got my misconceptions corrected, I never looked at constitution rights the same way again.

    DeCamp could write “Lest Darkness Fall” and speculate about a lone modern man trying to save the Roman empire. But would anyone try to write such a speculation about a modern man going back in time and attempting to hold off Jim Crow, and keep the gains in electoral power blacks had in the 1870s? The adjective that comes to my mind is “fraught”.

    But learning there’s history we don’t like to look at is pretty powerful and important in its own right.

  2. I read an anthology of alt-history years ago, and your call for alternate (social) history reminded me of one odd story about a wave of ‘female empowerment’ sweeping the globe in the 1900s. 10 minutes on Google, and I found not just the story, Karen Joy Fowler’s “Game Night at the Fox and Goose” but a scholarly review:

  3. It seems to me that if you are talking about teaching, then these kinds of play are rather important for getting students to move away from the “dates and events” type of learning to really grappling with some historical concepts.

    Like paying attention to what might be similar in another time and place and what might be really different. Your question about whether someone in 15th century France would privilege material comfort, might really mess with students minds. In a productive way.

    As long as one then makes it clear what the conceptual point IS and how history should really be done (so they don’t do this kind of thing in an essay when we actually want them to do something else), it seems worthwhile.

  4. This is a fantastic idea! As JoVE said above, questions like this get students to think about the details of history in ways that they don’t usually, blending the cultural, material, demographic, religious, and political dimensions of history in unexpected ways, so that they can see the whole “world” of a place and time. They also can learn all the skills I (and probably many of us) are committed to teaching in history courses: things like using primary sources analytically and crafting compelling, *debatable* arguments supported by creative use of those primary sources. Sometimes at the intro level it seems like we must make a choice between prompts that teach big-picture historical thinking and those that teach interpretive, analytical understanding; counterfactuals like this might give us a way to teach both. I’m already thinking about how I could play with a question like this in my World Civ classes!

  5. I really like the idea of getting away from Boy’s Own history… I finally just finished watching “Canada: A People’s History”, aka: French Canadians and the People Who Shot at Them. I’m also a little disturbed/disappointed, going into alt-history, about how much of Steampunk and how many Steampunk personas seem fixated on violence and weaponry. It’s always air pirates and painted Nerf guns.

    Going with the “which would you rather…” nicely undermines it. Who would rather live in a warzone? One even gets a chance to discuss how generally awful war is, so that it can be properly factored in… “You want action? Where would you rather live: Nazi Germany, Civil War America, Roman-occupied Palestine or Warring States Japan?”

  6. One should also ask themselves, “would I know where I originally came from, or would I have been born and grown up in one of these hypothetical places and times?” Ignorance is bliss. Living in any of your suggested hypotheticals with knowledge of the future would be frustrating, like even in 18th-century France there still weren’t antiseptics and doctors weren’t yet washing their hands. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [even though it wouldn’t have been postulated until 1943] would still exist, it just wouldn’t be on paper yet. Sure, it’s not the be-all end-all of a measure of happiness but it’s still food for thought. I can’t help but think of the elders in Shyamalan’s The Village [not the best movie ever made, but an excellent premise]; they knew where they came from but try as they might they weren’t any happier going back in time. It goes in another direction as well, on one hand I can’t help but think that if we had today’s internet [Google ‘n’ Wikipedia] 20 years ago then I would have understood what I was studying in university much easier, though on the other hand I would have been easily distracted into wasting time on downloading music and porn. Kids these days, how do they possibly decide what they want to do with their lives, seeing as there’s so many options and a global competition to deal with?

    If I _had_ to choose, I’d go with 18th century France. The music was pretty good, and french is the only other language I know.

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  8. Lots of great comments here. Thanks, everyone.

    Bill: You said a mouthful. And fraught is right. The Forge was all atwitter a year or two ago for an RPG about escaped slaves. I understand it was done with good intentions and good taste, but I’m still not certain it would be my cup of tea. Then again, some of the things we DO choose to be historically playful about are a little squicky: aren’t the #1 and #2 most popular alternate histories Confederacy-wins and Nazis-win?

    Jo: Yes. If doing any of this stuff in a classroom, set up and debriefing / discussion are the crucial steps, not to be overlooked.

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  12. Have you ever used a classroom response system (“clickers”), Rob? These counterfactual questions would make fantastic clicker questions. I blogged about this a while ago, but I’d be eager to hear your take on the idea.

  13. Hi Derek,

    Thanks for your comment, and for your link back in March! (Wow – time flies.)

    I have not ever used clickers myself, but I am curious about them. I have not, in the last few years, had a lecture class that seemed big enough to warrant the effort/expense of taking up the new technology. But I am always interested in ways of making large classes more interactive, so if I ever do get back into a really big class, clickers are something I will think about. I know that some people feel they are not well suited to humanities / social science classes where there is often no single “right answer.” But I also imagine you would dispute that argument, and that you have talked about other ways to use the technology – as discussion prompts and so forth. I’m always curious about ways people use newer technology to teach history and other humanities subjects.

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