The Great Antidote

Eric Daniels on History

February 03, 2023 Juliette Sellgren
Eric Daniels on History
The Great Antidote
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The Great Antidote
Eric Daniels on History
Feb 03, 2023
Juliette Sellgren

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Eric Daniels is the assistant director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, as well as a professor with Clemson’s Lyceum Program

Today, we talk about history as a discipline and profession, getting down to what it is and why so many podcast guests say it is so important. We break history down into a few components and even address Adam Smith as a historian! 

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Send us a Text Message.

Eric Daniels is the assistant director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, as well as a professor with Clemson’s Lyceum Program

Today, we talk about history as a discipline and profession, getting down to what it is and why so many podcast guests say it is so important. We break history down into a few components and even address Adam Smith as a historian! 

Never miss another AdamSmithWorks update.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Juliette Sellgren 

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Selgren, and this is my podcast, the great antidote name for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www.adamsmithworks.org.

Welcome back. Have you noticed that the most common answer to my first question, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don't is history? We haven't really explored that in itself today, on December 8th, 2022. We're going to do exactly that. Um, exploring history as a discipline and a profession, and getting down to exactly why it's so important and what it is. It's my pleasure to welcome Eric Daniels onto the podcast to talk about this. There's no one I'd rather have on to talk about this topic. He's the assistant director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and we first met in a reading group for Atlas Shrugged that he led with Clemson's Lyceum program where he's a professor. Welcome to the podcast.

Eric Daniels 

Thank you, Juliette. That's great to be here.

Juliette Sellgren 

So what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don't?

Eric Daniels (1.26)

Well, I have two answers. One is relatively brief, and the other answer, maybe we can talk about a little bit more, but the, the first answer, which I think is vitally important, is that no one is going to teach you how to think for yourself. And I, I say that because I think a lot of what education is about today, a lot of what people talk about is important for young people to do, is to think critically or, or to have these skills. But ultimately, it's important to keep in mind that that responsibility is on you. That, that you, that the, the very definition of thinking for yourself means that you can't rely on other people to help you do it. Uh, and so it's a very important thing that I think people, your generation and really all people, uh, as often this advice on your podcast, uh, applies not just to young people.

All people need to think about that, and work on that. Uh, the other thing is, uh, I tried to make it really cute and have a cute formulation, but I'm not sure that I came up with a perfect one. But I think the other thing that your generation, I, in particular young people should, should know, is that there is a difference between growing up, uh, and giving up. Uh, a lot of times, uh, if we go back to, you know, uh, that I put away my childish things, as the Bible says, that there's this idea that as you mature chronologically, that you need to give up certain things about what it is to be a young person. And I disagree with that. I think that there is an enormous amount of, uh, of the spirit and the joy, and especially the curiosity of youth that is too often considered something that should just be put aside when you become an adult. Uh, I think that those are traits that are human traits that unfortunately a lot of people diminish as they get older. They, they leave aside, but for the wrong reasons. Not because they're not a thing that's useful, but because they're a thing that has been unfairly treated as a phenomenon of the young.

Juliette Sellgren (3.33)

And I mean, that's such a good response. We were talking about something kind of related to this before where there's this moment on the podcast where I'm always in shock about this thing about the world, and the person I'm interviewing is like, yep, that is how it is. Yep. Yeah, I've been doing this. Yeah. And eventually, maybe I'll stop being in shock because I'll know. But questioning it and learning about things like that and having the curiosity is like not the thing to abandon. It's maybe, maybe you get used to it. Okay. There are things that are not great. There are things that we don't like, but I'm not gonna stop pursuing knowledge or asking about it or accept it. Um, right. That's, that's a good piece of advice. It also reminds me of how, um, a lot of studies show that when you're an adult, you ask something like one fifth of the questions that kids ask in nu in terms of like, number of questions. And yeah. You just accept the world as it is instead of being curious about it.

Eric Daniels (4.43)

Yeah. And there's something, it's a, it's a high falutin way of putting it, but there's, uh, a concept that was, uh, introduced to me and I, and in some of the reading about curiosity or childhood curiosity, um, you need to maintain a sense of intellectual neoteny, and neoteny is just a word to describe the persistence of childlike traits into adulthood. It's a biological concept. But if you maintain that intellectual curiosity and flexibility and idealism and, and, and spirit, uh, I think that's the key to a successful life to, to a life that's engaged and, and unwilling to accept the status quo, um, as opposed to just getting to adulthood and then kind of grinding through life.

Juliette Sellgren (5.30)

Yeah, everyone says life is an uphill battle, and I just, I, I don't really like that. Um hmm. I, I mean, obviously like there are trials and things and all that, but I don't know. I kind of wanna enjoy life. So

Eric Daniels 

Yeah. And, and, and having that attitude, I think is, is part of that.

Juliette Sellgren (5.49)

So let's get into history and the first question, but other people's responses to it. Um, what is history? Maybe a simple question, maybe not.

Eric Daniels (6.01)

Yeah, it's, it, it is, it's deceptively simple because it is in a literal sense, anything that has happened in the past, but in a more, in a more important sense, uh, a definition that I once came up with history. History is a field of study, and it's a particular way of understanding the past. It's not just everything in the past. I mean, in a literal sense, of course, that is true. Anything that happened in the past, what you ate for breakfast two years ago is part of history. But whether it's a significant part or an important part or even meaningful part of the past is another question. And so, to really answer that, I think we have to look to what it means to talk about history as a field or as a, as a endeavor that humans, you know, that, that humans engage in.

And this is, this is my definition. I kind of came up with this many, many years ago in thinking about it. Uh, I say history is the systematic study of the record of human action with the goal of understanding past events. And I, I did that, I, I kind of came up with that definition on, with the purpose of trying to highlight what the boundaries of history are, as well as to highlight some of the important things about how we do history. Um, it's, it has to be systematic. Uh, you know, that first word, it's a systematic study. It's a, it's an attempt to make sense of the past, of the record of human action, which means, you know, we, we don't have anything besides the records, the evidence of history. So we have to rely at least in part, on what it is that has been recorded.

And there are certain problems with that and inferences that we have to make and, and, uh, leaps of understanding that we might have to perform to get a sense of the past as, as we go distant into the past. Uh, but the goal part is also important. It's the, the goal is to understand the past events, to be able to put ourselves in the position of making reflective choices in the present through understanding how those choices or the values that inform those choices, the motivations behind those choices have worked out in the past. So that's, that's the, the, the not so easy definition, uh, of history.

Juliette Sellgren (8.13)

I mean, given that definition, it seems kind of self-explanatory why it's so important, but why do so many adults, why do so many of my podcast guests express the importance of knowing history? And I mean, obviously with you studying and teaching history, there's gonna be some bias in your response. But what would you say is the thing that makes history so important to understand and to pursue?

Eric Daniels (8.37)

Well, so in a, in a lecture that I did, I think that I sent to you, and that watched, one of the, one of the easy ways of thinking about this is to imagine that you fall asleep tonight, and in five years or in 10 years, uh, or you wake up this morning and in the last five years or 10 years of your life are a complete blank. And you want to make sense of the world. You want to understand why things are the way they are. As you look around the world, you have to ask yourself both how did things from the last point that I remember, to the point that I'm at right now, how did they develop? Why did we go from point A to point B? But to do that, you have to understand the question of what would I even count as a piece of evidence to explain that process?

It's one thing to see that the process, you know, if you imagine that the last five years of your life suddenly went away, you wake up tomorrow and you've got, uh, a perfect five year amnesia. So that takes us back to 2018. While the world is a very different place today from how it was in 2018, what would explain those changes? How would you understand the, the institutional development, the cultural development, et cetera? And what would you, importantly, what would you count as the evidence that you would use? Would you simply read the old newspapers and, and website articles? Would you ask your friends? Would you use government documents? You would have to have a whole skillset of determining what evidence to consider and what evidence is, is unimportant, what to leave out, uh, how to evaluate the credibility of various pieces of evidence. And then ultimately, you have to have a conceptual framework to, to string together a narrative story that is an explanatory story, not just a just so story that tells you everything was inevitably coming up to this point, but something that actually gets you into the past.

And, and you think like you did in, in 2018, and you understand the world from that point. That's relatively easy to imagine for a five or a 10 year span in the life of an adult. But then when you talk about a hundred years, or 200 or a thousand or 2000 years or even longer, the question then becomes that that's an even greater task. But what's interesting is that the old saw about history as philosophy, teaching by example, is I think why many of your, uh, interviewees explain that history is so important. Because as we look out to the world, often there are these glaring headlines about how little history, uh, people of the young generation know that they can't name basic facts. They can't identify who was president or how many states there are. And you know, there's tons of Instagram reels of people making fun of this by stopping people on the street and asking them basic questions about history that they're completely ignorant of.

And there's almost kind of a cottage industry of highlighting how little history people know. And it is disturbing because for those that understand history or have studied history, the ability to draw conclusions and lessons from what has been done in the past and make analogies to what choices we're facing today as a, as an individual or as a country, or as a, you know, as a global society. Those, those lessons or those examples are basically the way that we can draw principles about what is good and bad and, and how do we know it. Um, without that, it's almost as if you're starting from that point of amnesia over and over and over again. So I think most of the people, and you have a lot of people involved in policy, how did the policies get to the way they are today? How did the economic situation get to the way it is today? If you don't know how those things developed, you have no real idea of what contingencies led to them and what the constraints were right to speak in economic terms, that that controlled and constrained how they got there. And so you might make very foolish decisions about how to respond to those things in a way that is in ignorance of how they got to be, which is of course, it's history.

Juliette Sellgren (12.49)

So, I mean, you touched on how a lot of people don't really know history, and you gave some information about that, which, I mean, this is the moment that's crazy to me. I <laugh> it seems, maybe it's just because I'm alive today, but at least from what is said, it appears that we know less than we've ever known before. And maybe in terms of history, that's because there's more history than there's ever been before. I don't know mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, but is that true? Do we know less than we did before?

Eric Daniels (13.22)

I, you know, this is a, it's, it's always a very interesting question. I've, I've looked into this question in terms of how people discuss the knowledge of young people in terms of, uh, history, knowledge, how they know science, you know, basic principles of science, basic principles, the things that are constantly on the forefront of the debate about education in this country. There are, though, I think in my, in my opinion, there are a number of ways that these surveys or tests or questions often go awry in, in the form that they're almost preloaded to try to find in the case of history, to try to find factual things that are simply unknown. You, you, you don't know certain facts, certain dates, um, you know, something like 60% of high school graduates in America can't name the decade that the Civil War took place. Um, or who was president during the Civil War.

Juliette Sellgren 

That, that kinda crazy. That's, that's a little crazy.

Eric Daniels (14.21)

Those, those, those are a little astounding. Yes. Um, but I submit that even if I could wave a magic wand, and all of those students who were ignorant of those facts, whatever they happened to be, suddenly knew those facts, that that's only half of the case. It would be, uh, as I draw the analogy, it would be like saying that memorizing 20,000 words in a foreign language is the same as speaking the foreign language. You don't know the grammar. You don't know the, you don't know any of the constraints or the conjugations or the, or the endings or anything like that. You just know the words. You've just memorized a dictionary. Well, you'd have a lot of language, let's say French. You'd have a lot of French in your head, but you wouldn't really speak French. But at the same time, you can't just explain French grammar to someone and talk to them about how some verbs end this way, and some verbs end that way, et cetera, et cetera.

And then explain all of the ways that sentences are put together and why they have these funny constructions about, uh, double negations and so on and so forth, without them actually learning the words. So, like the analogy of language, you have to both have vocabulary as well as grammar to truly understand the language, to understand history, you have to have a certain amount of factual knowledge, which is in effect the raw material of understanding history. But you also have to have the ability to think about those things. So even if every high school graduate in America could, could name all of the presidents, I don't, and, you know, and, and, and place all of the significant, uh, legislative packages from the New Deal to the Great society to, you know, these different things. If they could place those all correctly on dates and, and name main provisions, I wouldn't necessarily think that they could understand the history behind them, because there wouldn't be anything explaining it.

And so, what's really important, and what I think is true today, is that the methodology for thinking about the past, in addition to just the raw factual knowledge, has started to decline in a way that is significantly different from what an educated person 40 or 50 or a hundred years ago may have known. Um, because it's, it's curriculum, the, the curriculum of history has been transformed by the changing of what is taught to young people. It's not taught in a pure sense anymore. It's, it's, it's part of a package of social sciences, economic sociology, psychology, you know, the kind of social studies of the modern American high school system puts history as a kind of sidelight when it ought, I think, to be more central.

Juliette Sellgren (16.56)

And I don't know, it's kind of interesting. My mom, she immigrated here, and so she had to take the citizenship test. And maybe this is just another memorization thing, of course, because when you're taking a multiple choice test with a hundred questions, you're, you kind of have to memorize the stuff. But she knows more of the basic facts about American traditions, the figures, the dates, all that important stuff than a lot of her friends who grew up in America had the American education. Um, and it's just kind of interesting because that actually kind of spurred a lot of curiosity in her. And now she learns about that stuff because she wants to, whereas a lot of other people don't care. So maybe, maybe that's just more about education and when you learn things or something. I don't know.

Eric Daniels (17.48)

In, in part, yes. I think that there is, uh, pedagogically, there's a time when those kinds of, um, that kind of content is more accessible to people in their development. And it's probably the case that often we think children far too young, uh, ought to be memorizing certain things about their country, et cetera, when they really ought to be learning more of the methodological side based on where they are in their, in their intellectual development. Uh, like you, my mother also was not an American citizen, came to this country and took the citizenship test as an adult and went through that process of learning, uh, when I was, uh, uh, you know, after, you know, this was before not after, uh, I'm sorry, this was after I was born, not before I was born. So I got to watch this process, uh, as I was doing my degree in history. And I got to tease her a little bit about what she did and didn't know. But like your mother, she took it very seriously and got curious and, and definitely learned a lot about the background of the United States in preparation for her citizenship test.

Juliette Sellgren 

And I don't know, it's just funny. Like, I remember my mom, I was in early middle school, and I had already forgotten some of the stuff I learned in fourth grade that was on the exam that she was learning, and she was making fun of me <laugh> for not knowing it. Yeah. 

Eric Daniels (19.05)

Well, I had a, I had a fellow teacher when I, for a short period when I taught middle school, and he taught eighth grade history, and he would give the citizen citizenship test to the students in eighth grade to see if they could pass it a immediately after they had taken a unit on the American Revolution and Constitution. Um, and they found that really fascinating because a lot of them thought, well, how is it possible that anyone fails this? And <laugh>, you know, but they had all just learned it, of course. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But it was, it was interesting to them because yeah, in a few years, many of them probably had forgotten that material.

Juliette Sellgren (19.40)

I mean, I had a professor who does the same thing to test economic education, like the effect of economic education on, like policy outcomes. Because Bryan Caplan talks about how once you learn about economics, your understanding of economic policy just fundamentally changes regardless of what you actually like ideologically believe. It kind of, I mean, knowledge is power, I guess. I don't know. Um, but he would do the same thing. He would just test his students before and after the semester, um, before they took intermediate or intro macro. Hmm. And he said the results were very fascinating. I mean, the changes that, like even a semester of education of introductory principles makes a huge difference. Um, how did, yeah, how did history come to be regarded by the majority of people, especially, I mean, the general public, not historians, as something that is just knowledge of what happened instead of the methodology?

Eric Daniels (20.43)

So part of this, I think, goes back to different trends in educational psychology. And the advent in the early 20th century of what in psychology is called a kind of behaviorist approach, coincided with the development of some of the more modern educational systems and testing and, and really the development of the first time in American history where routine, uh, it was routinely expected that all children would go to high school. You know, if you look at school rates at the mid 19th and late 19th century, there was a very small number of, uh, American children. There were very small number of American children that actually continued on through high school, let alone into college. And that changed during the 20th century in a, in a few different phases. But the coincidence between the behavioral behavioralist type psychology, so we're talking about the idea that human beings are almost deterministic in their learning, like, like Skinner uh, cage rats, that, that just respond to stimulus.

And if that's the case, then the idea is that you just simply train children, uh, in, in whatever kind of way is effective to memorize and produce results, that it's just a, a stimulus and a response rather than it being a cognitive process that you digest and understand and integrate and, and can think about these things in, in a conceptual way. The development of these curricula, the, the committee of 10 that developed a lot of the high school curricula in the early part of the 20th century had relied upon this educational psychology that said that. And, and it was great because it's easy to test as well, right? If you just test objective knowledge, do, can you, can you memorize these dates and names, yes or no? That's a really way, great way to see if you're doing well. If you say, do you actually understand the causes of the Civil War?

Well, that's a more complex conceptual question. It's more abstract. It's harder to do a quick assessment of that. And so, as the education behemoth began in really to get its full steam in the, in the 20th century in the United States, that same process was happening, where the way that people were being educated was reverted to an almost mechanical approach. And the cognitive re revolution in psychology, and especially in educational psychology that really began in the late 1960s, early 1970s, wasn't fully implemented in the educational system. Uh, and perhaps isn't, still hasn't been fully implemented, but the cognitive revolution where psychologists and educational psychologists understood that children have developing minds that work on the conceptual level, uh, was a reaction against all of that. And so there's now a kind of battle going on in, in schools of education and, and, and those who write about education about what is the proper way to teach and to assess and to understand whether or not a child is capable of historical thinking,

Juliette Sellgren (23.54)

Huh? It's a deep history. But I see, I see that in my education, and I see how it's changing now, and yeah,

How it's also not changing in some ways. And I don't know, I think experiments in education are becoming more common, um, but that's also an entirely, it is different. Um, also topic for another interview. Um, so let's get into the, the components of history, because I mean, you briefly summarized and have alluded to them, but I think it's kind of important to go into each one and talk about each bit. Especially, I mean, what really happened? We say, oh, well, in 1776 they sign the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, all of that. But then you have the 1619 Project, different date, different narrative, all of that. Um, it seems like even the, the objective facts, the things that these tests have measured and can measure, and the way that education seems to assess history and history, know historical knowledge in kids, it's even historians don't seem to really have a consensus about what actually happened. Why?

Eric Daniels (25.24)

Well, the most, the deepest reason is that there is in all things about the past, at least even the recent past. But, but for sure, the, the more distant past, there is a fragmentary record of what happened. And one of the things that we as historians have to discern in tracing through that record, and, uh, getting those pieces of evidence and evaluating those pieces of evidence, is something about the motivation of human actions. The causes of history are the ideas of the people who act historically, that, you know, my, my perspective, of course, this is not everyone's perspective. Marxist historians think that history is determined by the forces of production. And, and there's a number of varieties that, that spin off from that. But my perspective, and I think of course, the correct perspective, is that ideas move history. What people believe and how they understand the world, the concepts that they hold are what drives their action.

And their action is what drives historical events, the choices that they make, the values that they hold, the ways that they behave. If that's the case, it is something like trying to understand, even in the, in the simplest level, that, that everyone has to relate to, why did my friend do this? Or why did that person in my social circle, you know, why did they take this action? What caused that action? That's hard enough to do when you can talk to someone and ask them, because, you know, they might rationalize or they might give a, a, a reason that they want to give to please you or to distract you or whatnot. But to do that for someone who's been dead for a century or, or more, is to have to reconstruct the record and, and the evidence that is pieced together from diverse sources about what it is that they did.

So Collingwood, the great philosopher of history and historian, uh, made the following observation in his book, The Idea of History. He said, as natural science finds its proper method, when the scientist in Bacon's metaphor puts nature to the question, so history finds its proper method when the historian puts his authorities in the witness box, and by cross questioning extorts from them the information, which in their original statements they have withheld, either because they did not wish to give it, or because they did not possess it. End quote. So he, he's basically saying, the historian has to take that evidence, whether it's a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison, or whether it is a copy of a speech that Ja, uh, James Madison May have given in the House of Burgesses, or whether it's a, you know, a, a, a publication of The Federalist that we know that Madison wrote through our deduction about his style versus Hamilton's style.

All of these pieces of evidence go together and, and maybe one of their journals, their diaries, they go together to help us form a picture of what people understood about themselves when they were acting in the past. And as I said, the reason why historians don't always agree about how events in the past were caused, or even more importantly, as you pointed out with the con contrast between the 1619 project and what I would call an accurate understanding of history, uh, how to essentialize, how to choose which facts have the most impact, and how to measure those things. Uh, I listened very, uh, I, I was very excited to listen to your podcast with Phil Magness, who has, uh, has done enormously valuable work in demonstrating both the historical fallacies behind some of the 1619 project, as well as some of the methodological fallacies, as well as, uh, Alan Olmsted and other historians have really sort of shown that there are just mistakes after mistakes after mistakes.

Even to the point, uh, I don't think Phil mentioned this, but it's one of my favorites, where some of these historians that support that project don't even know how to count G D P. Um, they actually triple count some resources because they are so economically illiterate, uh, that they, that they misestimate the value of certain domestic production of cotton in the Antebellum period, because they don't understand the difference between raw materials and factor inputs, uh, in the accounting of G D P. So there's a lot of errors behind that. But most important, I think, is the error of methodology of asking how do you determine what is essential and how do you determine how to weight the various pieces of evidence that, uh, stand for or against an interpretation of history. So, for example, in the 1619 project, to allege as they originally did, although, uh, shadow edited and, and have since denied as the New York Times originally published the piece, uh, to allege that slavery and the protection of slavery was a driving force behind the desire to rebel from the British Empire, uh, or some such language, I should have looked up an exact language.

I know Phil's got it in his book. Um, and then to say it was a factor, or it was a factor among some people, uh, is to over construe a piece of data, right? To take one piece of data to find one thing that one person said, and then to, to explode it as if it's the entire motivation behind the action of hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of people, is a gross error of historical methodology. So part of that cross-examination that Collingwood is talking about and putting, putting the evidence in the witness box, is also knowing that when you go into that courtroom of assessing what's happening in the past, you have standards of evidence, you have rules of evidence, and you have rules of inference about what can and cannot be a sufficient cause, what is or is not, uh, an event that is large enough to account for a particular change in policy or direction of government or motivation of individuals. So a lot of it is really about the fact that historians, as much as they have tried, and as much as they debate it, they've not yet arrived at a consistent agreed upon standard for how to make those judgments.

Juliette Sellgren (31.37)

What are some of the tools then, in the historian's toolkit? You know, there's the economist's toolkit. I don't know if historians refer to their toolkits the way that we do, but what, what sort of methodologies are there?

Eric Daniels (31.52)

Well, so I think that the most essential and universal thing that professional historians do is to look to what we call primary sources to try to find contemporaneous evidence that gives us an idea about what happened at the time. So, you know, the difference between the newspapers, the diaries, the letters, the government documents, the speeches or the cultural artifacts, the pictures, the art, uh, et cetera, of what happened at the time. And if we can find those things, let's say we're trying to assess, let's say the question of what caused the American Revolution. Well, we can read a history that was written in 1802 by someone who perhaps interviewed and even knew some of the figures who helped lead the American colonies in their revolution against the British Empire. But we know that reading something from 1802, there is a distance of time and memory that may distort some of what is accounted for as the cause of the revolution.

And so, as a historian, although that might be useful, we wanna go back to the actual documents. We want to see if we can find as much primary evidence that points to what it was people were thinking and doing at the time, rather than later accounts. And we have to do so with a very critical eye, with, with an eye to the fact that just like today, the way that people account for their behavior and the things that they say are not always trustworthy, we also have to understand that we need to interrogate that evidence. We need to know how do we know that this is good evidence? Is this a forgery, or is this someone putting on a story for later readers because they want to shade the events in a certain way, uh, et cetera. So the, the proper approach to history really involves not just the what, the what happened, but how do we know it happened?

In other words, what is the evidence and what is the quality of the evidence? If it's probabilistic, we have to say. So if we say we know that in all likelihood the sources tell us that the motivation to kill Caesar was, you know, X, Y, and Z based on the Roman, uh, senate's view of what Caesar's threat was to the Roman Republic, we have to point that out. We have to say there are po potentials for other motives or other evidence that we haven't had access to. But the more important things are also the why, why did it happen? We have to give that account, uh, of just explaining the, the, the texture of why people behave the way they do in the past. And then ultimately, of course, the last of the tools in the toolbox, which is most often forgotten by historians, is the significance, the interpretation, the what, what difference does it make, right?

I can tell a story about the history of some obscure, uh, group of people in medieval Europe, but unless I can tell you why it's important either to you, to the worlds to later events, it's not gonna be very motivating for you to remember that. And I think that's part of the key to going back to your earlier question about why people think that it's so important that young people know history is because more often than not, even when they're taught history, they forget it because it hasn't been taught in a way that ties into the motivation of why is it important and, and what interpretation of it do we have that can tie back to my life and my context. That's what makes things memorable and interesting. And so those are the kind of toolkits, the, the going back into the context and getting those clues about how people lived in the past, and then interrogating those clues, and then developing a, a story around that and, and being upfront about how much evidence we have to support a particular conclusion, and then weaving that narrative of why it happened, and then giving an account of why it's important.

Juliette Sellgren (35.51)

So I guess onto the analysis, um, even if you have the same, the same toolkit, you're using the same tools, you have the same con idea of like what happened in terms of like the basic facts of the situation. You might have a different interpretation as to what factor carried the greatest weight and why, or, I don't know, something depending on the lens of interpretation that's used like a school of shot. Sure. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So what are some, how does that factor into what, I guess the product of doing history, um, what you end up with when you tell some sort of narrative and how come they're so different, even if those other two things are the same or they not?

Eric Daniels (36.41)

Well, no, I mean, they are, I think, so you've asked a very, a very interesting question and, and probably one that keeps many historians up at night, which is, if I'm accessing the same raw materials and I'm using largely some of the same tools to determine the veracity of those raw materials and, and so on, why is it that I'm coming up with one story and my colleague at some other places coming up with another story? It's not as if we're looking at different pieces of evidence, and maybe we even account that certain pieces of evidence are more important than others, but we still come up with a different interpretation. That's where I think philosophy plays a key role. The philosophical understanding that someone has about the way that humans behave is going to have an enormous influence on their interpretation of history. So the, the, the weaving together, the what causes things and why is it important, depends upon how one understands human beings, both sort of psychologically and philosophically.

What it is are, are, are, do human beings make choices that guide their actions? Do they have free will? Uh, are they driven by, uh, forces outside of themselves? Are they deterministic by a grand, you know, divine plan? Or are they determined by economic forces? Or do they have the ability to choose their path in life independently based upon their ideas? Each of those different philosophical approaches is going to significantly change how a historian will look at even the same facts as another historian. So a Marxist historian informed by the idea that ideas are epiphenomenal, that they're just, the, the unnecessary byproducts of the development of historical materialism may look at those same facts of the American Revolution and account for that as part of the rise of the bourgeoisie and a liberal capitalist economy that requires certain state institutions to reinforce the property relations of a merchant class in order to advance the, the development of labor under a factory system.

That's kind of a, my crude interpretation of a Marxist in a Marxist account of the American Revolution versus, uh, uh, an account of the American Revolution that relies upon the idea that ideas move. History would suggest that, again, a a kind of crude quick formulation, but that a growing consciousness of the universality of individual rights drove the American colonists to recognize the incompleteness of the British constitution's, protection of those rights, and drove them to a desire to establish a government for themselves that could account for their understanding of those individual rights and, and form a government that served that purpose, uh, more readily than what they had at the time, based on the kinds of, uh, the kinds of violations that the British Empire had emitted against those rights. Still the same facts looking at the same documents from Jefferson or Madison or, or, or John Adams or others.

And still the same accounting of who's more important, right? It's not that some historian might come along, some social historian might come along and say, oh, it's actually the people who are working in the shipyards who were the most important to driving the revolution. That would be a different account of what facts to look at. But a Marxist may say, oh, no, it's, it's the Jeffersons and Madisons and Adams and so on that are important, but why they're important is because they're representative of these classes of economic, uh, uh, output, et cetera. And the person, the other person, uh, you know, me for example, would say, no, the cause of the revolution was intellectual. It was, it was cognitive. And we have to understand the ideas that drove these people, not just what, uh, what economic classes they represented. The economic classes they represented aren't irrelevant, it's just that they're not the sole driver in a mechanistic way that a Marxist interpretation of history might suggest. So those differences of interpretation largely come down to deeper philosophical differences about how we understand the way that human beings work in the first place.

Juliette Sellgren (40.55)

So I guess, like right now, after all of this, I'm thinking about Adam Smith. Cuz you know, it's funny. Adam Smith just sits in my brand, sometimes <laugh>, um, all the time, I guess. Um, he was a historian and economist and a political scientist kind of all in one, I would say bus tether, a few others who also were public intellectuals who utilized all these different skills together. Um, do you think that the fact that we've kind of separated them out and specialized intellectuals into a discipline that that's kind of damaged the way that we can go about conducting historical analysis or even understanding history?

Eric Daniels (41.40)

Yeah, that's, I I, it's interesting that you bring that together with Adam Smith because I think that's a good example. Uh, as you know, Adam Smith in his academic career was a professor of moral philosophy, uh, which, or, or sometimes I guess maybe he was the chair of natural philosophy, which was this 18th century idea, this grab bag idea that these were individuals who studied what we today call economics, history, philosophy, uh, political science, um, probably what we call sociology, that there was a unified perspective of this. And so when we look at what Adam Smith wrote, it's important always to note that the, what we shorten to the wealth of nations is actually On the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith in that work is asking a historical question, what are the things that account for the history and development of societies as they differentiate themselves on the access of wealth, of prosperity?

And so that, that work is entirely about interrogating the evidence that he can gather about different economic policy and different approaches and different conditions in these countries. And explaining ultimately the question of what is the cause? What are the nature and causes of this differential outcome that we can observe in the world today? And, and then of course, but he's also famous for, uh, if not as famous for, but he's as influential for his theory of moral sentiments, his treatise that attempts to investigate what is the nature of the moral sense, as he would've called it, this Scottish enlightenment idea that individuals have a kind of moral compass that's, that's in them, that helps guide them through their lives in making choices. And that perspective, in many ways helps to integrate and, and, and cause us to understand what, what Adam Smith thought about human beings.

That gives light to how he analyzes the history of the, the nature and the causes of the wealth of nations. The two go together, and this persisted throughout most of the 19th century economics, political science, sociology, all of these fields didn't have their genesis as professional fields that were separate disciplines, really until the 1880s and 1890s when some of the early professional societies, the American economics, the American Political Science Association, these various associations that were formed in the American universities as they became in, in effect more Prussian, more German in their orientation, more professionalized toward these PhD original research kind of productions, rather than, uh, the, uh, American colleges in the late 18th and early 19th century that were designed around the idea of training the minds of young people to enter into the professions and to produce work rather than to be specialists in, or technicians even in highly specialized fields.

The fact that history, that history as a, as a discipline also went through that process and detached itself from moral philosophy and from, uh, the kind of humanistic economics that Smith practiced. And from the, the kind of political thinking that's some of these great thinkers throughout the classical liberal tradition did, you know, the Lockes and the Sydney's and the Smiths, and these others would never have understood these disciplinary distinctions. And they're thinking about these questions, and in particular about history is far more informed by those other fields in a way that today, really, sadly, they're not. Uh, and, and, you know, one of the great tragedies I think of the, of the late 20th century history profession is that there was a moment, uh, in the 1960s and seventies when historians and economists actually worked together. And the field of economic history, particularly quantitative economic history, was booming a bit.

And it was seen as a kind of cutting edge of the history discipline, but it was, it was methodologically passed by the questions that it was asking were no longer interesting because different, you know, philosophical changes were happening in a profession. And then most of those economic historians ended up in economics departments. Uh, and unfortunately today they're kind of a rare breed of, uh, economists who are particularly concerned with questions of economic history in, or, and even in the history of economic thought, the kind of more philosophical side of this. So it's a real, it's a real disappointment to me that these disciplines now talk to each other so little, because to do history right, to do economics, right, to do any of these things, right, it helps to have that more integrative perspective. And of course, the handmade of all of this, the, the, the, the one that unifies all of these philosophy is, is itself already kind of cross specialized in and removed, uh, and, and they don't talk to each other and, and they have their own professional journals and their own forms of publication. And really that sense of the unification of human knowledge has now gone by the wayside. And that's part of the reason I think you're right, that, that it's done less well today.

Juliette Sellgren (46.45)

Wow. You, I, I don't know how to explain this. I was sitting here listening to you talking about this, and I, I was like, oh, my, he's seen into my soul, this is the current crisis of my undergraduate moment. I, this has been the entire exact thing that I've been dealing with going through college, because it isn't really a liberal arts education. It can't be, if you wanna go into academia, it's just not really possible. Um, as much as universities and colleges try to incentivize and encourage it, it just, at the higher level, it doesn't really seem to exist. And so if you wanna be successful, you can't really be this all over the place interdisciplinary person, I don't know.

Eric Daniels (47.31)

Right? Right. No, it, it is, it is, it is, uh, the incentive structure in the modern university has moved strongly away from that kind of approach to questions that are rewarded, uh, scientifically, um, or humanistically or whatnot. I mean, there are, as you know, there are a few programs like Clemson Lycium program, uh, where people can still get some, uh, uh, semblance of the classical approach to education, um, that we do. But you're right, it's, it's, it's, it's a special program and it's something that is available only to a small number of people right now, uh, because the university is moving away from that. And, and I think part of that is the move away from the understanding that there is a value in training people how to be broad thinkers with depth in one particular field, right? That if education was done well, uh, I, I borrowed this, by the way, from Ian Leslie in his book on curiosity.

Um, people, people ought to have like a t-shaped distribution of knowledge that they ought to have one thing that goes very, very deep. And that's, that's kind of their career, their, their field of specialization. But they also need to have the top of the, they need to have a breadth of knowledge and curiosity and a breadth of integration of knowledge that assists them in being able to make sense of other fields. And in the same way that I'm articulating this idea, that history needs to have those connections and that individuals in any culture need to have those connections about their own past, about the past of their own society, of their own civilization, there's also a need for people to have that across fields. So just as I think it's important for people to know history so that they have a breadth of understanding of where their society, culture, political institutions are today, you need to have a breadth of knowledge about the different humanistic pursuits and scientific pursuits so that you are capable of processing and understanding what these other fields are doing for, for the people who do specialize in them.

 Right? We don't all need to know everything about every field, but if we're completely ignorant of how science works or how political science works or how economics works, and all we know is the one thing, we're not going to be very good. I mean, we're not gonna be very good citizens. And I, I think more deeply, we're not gonna be very good human beings if the only thing you know is what's right in front of you. Um, how do you interact with people? How do you enjoy culture? How do you have conversations? How do you learn more? I mean, you have to have that breadth of training that is, that is the hallmark of that older version of education, um, that unfortunately, as you note, um, and, and except in rare corners of the world today is very, very, uh, disincentivized in the, in the universities.

Juliette Sellgren (50.28)

I wish we had more time, because I have 1,000,001 more questions, but we'll have to do another interview, I guess. Um, one last, last question for you. What is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Eric Daniels (50.42)

Yeah. This was, this is, uh, having listened to the podcast and having listened to so many answers about this very interesting ones, I struggled to come up with a good answer for this initially, because there are innumerable things that I have changed my mind about that I, that we could talk about. But I thought that I would isolate this to something related to what we've talked about in the interview mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so one of the things about which I've changed my mind is the importance of a particular set of facts that that students, that young students that I might be teaching should learn about history. Uh, in the past, a as a, as a younger professor or as as a teacher in my career, I used to think that there was a more essential non-negotiable set of facts that that young people should learn about history.

That there, that there were certain core ideas and that everyone should know these ideas because you couldn't understand history without them. I haven't exactly changed my mind to the point where I'm agnostic and I say, as long as you're learning the set of facts with the methodology, your learning history, and that's great. That's kind of the other extreme. Uh, but I've become more aware that the individual development of, of students in, and children, I mean, even when I taught at a younger age in, in sort of fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade, uh, that the individual variation in background and culture in interest can really matter to the motivation of a child to learn history or, or a student, you know, in, in university. And so, although there are some essential facts to say that you understand American history or that you understand British history or, or Chinese history, I don't know that there's any essential facts or, or, uh, a non-negotiable facts that you have to learn in order to learn history.

There's a, there's a lot of variability that can happen. And the reason that I changed my mind about that was that I discovered through experience and through my own experience, that there were students in my classroom who were completely not engaged by the history that was in front of them. And it's easy to attribute that to the idea that these children or these students are simply not yet motivated, not in love with history, et cetera. But then I would find that when we would move to different topics or move to different areas of history, they would just be on fire for this. And so I started to realize that a prescribed narrative as the, the, the master narrative that that children, and these are again, these middle school age or late elementary age, that they had to learn in order to become good historical thinkers, was in fact more flexible than it was, that what was important is that they learned some history and the proper methodology for thinking about history.

And then the rest, actually, as we were talking about with both of our mothers, a lot more can be filled in as an adult when the motivation is there naturally for you to learn more about the country that you may choose to reside in, or where you can learn more about the, if you get fascinated by what caused the Civil War, you can learn about that as an adult. It's almost like you're putting together the hooks of a tapestry that is the whole past of history. And you need to, you need to create that structure and put some of the pieces of the tapestry together, but then let the, the learner, let the student then fill in the rest as their interest and desire and motivation drives them, rather than saying, this is the prescribed sequence that you must word it in, because you can kill the desire to learn history in someone by doing that. And the, and there's nothing more unfortunate, I think, than uh, uh, the kind of teacher or the kind of educational system that, that drives people away from loving history.

Juliette Sellgren (54.27)

Once again, I'd like to thank my guest for their time and insight, and I'd like to thank you for listening to the Great Antidote podcast. The great antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at the great antidote@gmail.com. Thank you.

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