An American historian in England: Blenheim

Blenheim Palace was where I learned to hate Capability Brown, and the aristocracy generally.

I never meant to have a bias against the aristocracy. I am a firm supporter of King Charles I, and have little tolerance for Roundheads. I have friends who are republicans, but I’ve never overcome my fascination with royalty. Those times when the royalty and aristocrats join forces with the lowest social groups are some of the most interesting in history. We’re seeing it again now in the U.S….but I digress.

A day out from Oxford to somewhere with gardens – that was my goal. And I’m a fan of Winston Churchill and his American mother, so I thought it would be nice to see his house. And of course everyone said it was so beautiful, you must go. So I got on a bus heading north and I went.

They were setting up for some huge event when I got there. The path from the bus stop was hugely long, and obviously intended for vehicles. I had to insert myself bodily in front of a car to purchase a ticket at the booth. Then more walking across crunchy gravel, but there was no entry on that side, so pedestrians had to walk around. The gardens were open first (I’d tried to get there first thing in the morning – I despise crowds), so I went for a walk.

It all seemed more than ridiculously grand. The palace from the courtyard looked like a classical temple, built to the Gods of Marlborough. It wasn’t just fancy or large or ostentatious or bold. It was religious. The columns, the pediments, the statuary – all seemed to portray worship rather than just grandeur and wealth. And they’d built it themselves, of course. The land and its ruined manor may have been a gift for services rendered by the 1st Duke, but the money Queen Anne gave him went to Sir John Vanbrugh to build this monstrosity, presumably approved by the Duke himself.

I stood in the short line to enter the gardens, then tried to enjoy the lovely boathouse by the lake, the gentle creaking of the boats. “George Charles and Lily Warren Duke and Duchess of Marlborough” was actually carved onto the building, as if they didn’t already own the whole lake and everything you could see. Did they think someone would stumble upon it and wonder who built it?

The long walk from the bus stop The Temple of the Marlboroughs

I continued through the grounds, which were huge. I came upon The Cascade, with an explanatory sign saying that Capability Brown had been commissioned to build it in 1764 by the 4th Duke. He had dammed the river to created the lake, and wanted an audible water feature to conceal the dam and give pleasure to the family, because they could hear it before they got there to see it. It was unsafe enough that in 2009 it had to be restored to meet the requirement of the Reservoirs Act.

The Duck of Marlborough The Cascade

Capability Brown is known throughout England for his landscapes, which were supposedly designed to look “natural”. Naturalism was a trend in which Brown was a bit ahead of his time – the Romantics would pick it up in the 19th century. I understand that an extraordinary amount of artificiality is necessary to make something look natural, but miles of rolling green landscape punctuated by a Cascade that would obviously not occur in the landscape by itself didn’t seem natural. Nor did the circular rose garden I walked even longer to find, placed to be discovered among the trees. The sheer amount of work to mow the lawns must be amazing. I was impressed by the amount of funding required to both do this and keep it like this, but I was unimpressed by the design. In its sheer immensity it was as classical and formal as many places with which the landscaper hoped to avoid comparison. Or perhaps I’ve been reading too much Ruskin…

I went into the house, but was not about to buy a ticket to see certain rooms, and many of the ground floor exhibit rooms were mobbed with people. The indoor statuary, the large collection of Chinese knick-knacks, the furnishings, seemed inelegant and overblown, but by then my attitude may have affected what I was seeing. I stopped by the gift shop on my way out and was surprised, oddly, that it was full of overpriced garden goods and pillows and things to make your home look like Blenheim.

The Foyer The Gift Shop

I have, romantically, always appreciated the faded grandeur of the aristocracy, and felt sorry for them, saddled with grand houses that can not make money in an age without landed wealth. Blenheim wasn’t like that, or was frantically trying to avoid it by hiring itself out for events (not only was the entire courtyard filled with chairs by the time I left, but there was a film crew interviewing someone on the terrace). But as I wandered the grounds I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if this were available to the people? For everyone (especially those who actually like Capability Brown) to enjoy as part of the community? Shouldn’t this much ostentation be critiqued rather than celebrated? Perhaps I’m turning into a republican after all.

Three myths about history

Students of history come to class with many preconceptions, as evidenced by the popularity of books revealing the lies they were told in K-12 classrooms. Here are three of the most popular, and why they are myths.

1. You can’t change the past

But changing the past is exactly what historians (and journalists and celebrities and movies and politicians) do. The past is not a monolithic, unchangeable set of facts. Everyone has their own past, even when they share experiences. Putting these facts together to support interpretations isn’t just an activity of historians – we all do it in our own lives as part of sense-making. Every reinterpretation of the past changes it.

2. People in the past were less knowledgeable than we are and things were less convenient/hygenic/beautiful than now.pessarysheath

This is called presentism – assuming that what’s in the present represents the best of all possible worlds, the result of millennia of progress. I have an ad from the turn of the 20th century for a “pessary sheath”. Made of rubber, this contraceptive device was 2-in-one. Rolled down it was a condom, and rolled up it was a cervical cap. Washing with soap made it hygenic, cost effective, and reusable. Today I’d need to buy a pack of expensive condoms and get fitted by a doctor for a cap not covered my insurance. Food tasted better before synthetic chemical fertilizer. Medical knowledge from long ago is continually being revived – consider herbal medicines, midwifery, and electricity therapy. Not convinced? Watch the sales of Oscillococcinum when the next flu epidemic hits.

3. History is the story of progress.

Even apart from the idea that not everyone believes in the Judeo-Christian idea of progress, if you study long-term historical trends, you start to notice a pattern of steps forward followed by steps back, then steps forward again. This is true whether you are of a liberal, radical or conservative bent – sometimes things get “better”, but then worse again. Women’s role in society is a great example. More actively public in the 1910s and 1920s, less in the 1930s, more in the 1940s, less in the 1950s, etc. Similarly, with every “advance” there is something lost. To stay on the birth control topic, the advent of the pill made contraception easier, but as hormonal contraception because cheaper and more popular women lost the knowledge of their anatomy, which had been necessary with other methods.

I not only share these perspectives with students, but use them myself. Perhaps that’s what makes me skeptical of new technologies, and attached to some old ones (not out of nostalgia, but because they are more useful).

Textbook balancing act

No, I’m not talking about improving your posture by putting it on your head. Rather, I am once again examining the possibility of using textbooks (both open and closed) as I contemplate writing another online class (this one Early American).

I have been looking at open textbooks.  Last semester, for my modern US History class, I used OpenStax. When I printed it out, though, it filled a large binder, logging in at 579 pages (yes, of course I printed double-sided). Then I discovered something much more succinct – the textbook at the US Department of State’s website  (don’t panic – it doesn’t get overtly political until the last three chapters, so I can use that for teaching).

I decided to use the State Department text for my Honors section, but as I worked with it, I decided it was good for my regular sections too. So I spent some weeks writing test questions, and am using it this semester.

But when I looked at it for Early American, it seemed sparse – only 7 chapters for 16 weeks. I realize that the historian who most recently revised it fully (Alonzo L. Hamby) is an expert in modern American history, so I understand why. So I went back to look at OpenStax, and others. But they’re so huge! The one I really liked, a good textbook written by profs at the U of North Georgia came out at 852 pages!

Then I realized the issue wasn’t the textbook, but my lectures. I have no online lectures for Early American history. But I have good, long, multimedia lectures for Modern American. So it makes sense for the modern class to have a small textbook (State Department) and the new course to have a more complete text (OpenStax, perhaps).

The lesson I recalled: when you adopt a textbook, really adopt a textbook, you have to acknowledge the reality of student reading. Many students today have trouble reading, both in terms of practical literacy and concentration. They have challenges of structure, vocabulary and content. We can’t do what was done when I was in college – assign a standard text, expect that they’ve read it, give a quiz or two, and ignore it in lecture. They won’t read it, or even buy it.

Current publishers have understood this, and now provide guided reading tools as part of course packages. Pearson’s REVEL is the most interesting, because it literally guides students through each page of the text, reading it aloud to them and highlighting pertinent passages. I call this Ethel the Aarvark pedagogy (from the Monty Python skit where the bookshop owner has to read the book to the customer).

So even if I don’t want to use the pablum packages (and I did consider this for my failed Jekyll and Hyde experiment), I must face reality about student reading abilities. If I adopt a textbook, I have to get into it, help them through it, work with it. It has to become central to the class, and all other aspects must be built around it. That will only work in a class format where I do not have my own lectures, but rather comment on the unit and the textbook. Otherwise, if I want to keep the lab aspects of my class, there’d be too much for community college students to manage.

Nevertheless, I confess that the pre-digested history in a textbook is not very palatable…