The Great Antidote

Albert Zambone on Historical Inquiry

November 10, 2023 Juliette Sellgren
The Great Antidote
Albert Zambone on Historical Inquiry
Show Notes Transcript
Albert Zambone is the author of Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life. He is also the host of the podcast Historically Thinking, where he teaches listeners not only history but how to do it. Go check it out if you haven’t. 

He also has a doctorate in history from the University of Oxford. Today, we talk about what history is, why it’s so important, how to do it, and what it tells us. We touch on culture and narratives, and the education system as well.  

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Juliette Sellgren 

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliet Sellgren and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith

Welcome back. A lot of the questions on this podcast and even interviews, entire interviews deal with the issue of history issue, both its importance and its relevance to life today, but also general historical information. Like that episode I did on Grover Cleveland. Check that out. Today on November 1st, 2023, we're going to be looking at a few different things, but they're all connected and they all have to do with history, like how to do history, why to do history, and if presidential history deserves the rep that it has. I'm honored and excited to be hosting Albert Zambone on the podcast today to talk about these topics. He's the author of the book Daniel Morgan, A Revolutionary Life, which is not a presidential biography. He's also the host of the podcast Historically Thinking, where he teaches listeners not only history but how to do it and interviews some great people. Go check it out if you haven't. It's really great and I love it. It's always the first place I go when I want to learn something new. He has a doctorate in history from the University of Oxford. Without further ado, welcome to the podcast.

Albert Zambone 

Juliette. Such a pleasure to be here.

Juliette Sellgren 

Before we jump in, I have to ask you this, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don't?

Albert Zambone (1.48)

Well, as a longtime listener to your podcast, I have to say it's no easier for me to answer this than all the people that I've heard stumble over it. So I've been watching 18 year olds professionally for about 25 years, and I would say the thing that I realized from the time I was a graduate student and it's only gotten worse exponentially, is that high achieving undergraduates like yourself, and these are the people that I'm going to refer to people who are at places like UVA, they need to give themselves some grace, and that sounds really new agey, but I mean it very seriously. The high achieving undergraduates, the high achieving 20 year in 2023 are clinically some of the most depressed and disordered people in the United States. Kids who attend elite high schools are now considered an at-risk group in terms of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

Part of this, I think a large part of this relates to how we, I'm thinking about Gen Xers have taught your generation to deal with stress. External stress is seen as really bad and places from which external stress come are bad and are minimized, but no one ever taught kids now between 18 and 22 how to deal with internal stress. So we've got this combination where the elite high achieving undergraduate, it's both tough as nails, knows exactly how to get ahead in life, knows how to work the system, and is also fragile. That's the snowflake mythology. Snowflake is only half of it. There are titanium snowflakes, and this has happened because of an achievement culture, which wasn't created by you, it was created by us, and other than saying, Hey, let's change the culture, which is kind of a big ask, I would say the first thing that students like you should know is you need to fail and be okay with it. That life involves failure. Failure is required to learn. Not everyone, no place on earth is like Harvard with an average GPA of 3.8. There has to be some failure involved in life in order to develop resilience, and part of that resilience is I guess what can only be called come through a process of understanding your failure, accepting it, and moving on. And that's what I mean by giving yourself some grace.

Juliette Sellgren (5.50)

It's such a wonderful answer. I'm struggling to talk at the risk having a tear because I think it's hard to explain to adults

Because I have failed and I've accepted my failures more than a lot of the Harvard kids. For example. I like to consider myself a lot more neutral in terms of I have a foot in both camps, I'm kind of okay with failure, but also on some things I'm way not okay with failure and then it's kind of explosive. So I understand and I see exactly what you're saying and I feel it, and it's hard to explain the way that it's so pervasive. It is not really a choice because it is culture and not to bring econ into this, but in culture as much as you can affect it yourself, you're kind of a price taker and you have to be okay with that. You're not the entire world. You cannot, you are not Kim Kardashian. You are not making culture as we see it today. You play your role and that's important, but there's only so much you can do and that is what I'm learning now and it's not an easy thing to learn.

Albert Zambone


Juliette Sellgren 

So thank you.

Albert Zambone (7.28)

We're going to talk a lot about culture probably in the course of this podcast. Now I just said that. Now I realize you might ask me to define that in a little bit, but let's wait for that. But I think that is what you say is so very true and it is the feeling of being truly oppressed by a culture is when you feel as if you've been strapped down on I 95 and the culture is just the morning commute rushing towards you. Of course that metaphor is not adequate. Culture is much more complex than that. It's more of a river. It's fast. It can sweep you away in the current, but there are places to both benefit from being in the river and there are places to be sheltered from the main force of the current. That's what friendships are, that's what families are, that's what communities are. We live in an anti-institutional anti communitarian age, which is one of the reasons why these things oppress us and you and 18 to 22 year olds are part of that culture. So you're not experiencing something that no one else is experiencing. You're just experiencing in an enhanced way at times. But if we come back to community and institution and families, it'll because we realize that those are the places in which we need to be renewed and refreshed and protected and reinvigorated in order to deal with the river that flows around us.

Juliette Sellgren (9.03)

And it's not to bring econ into this. The kids I TA just had an exam on this, but in a way community is like, it's like a cartel or a labor union. It increases the market power of the group. So then the preferences of the group and the characteristics of the group have more sway in the overall culture. And I don't know, I don't want to use community as a tool

Albert Zambone (9.33)

That's certain. Exactly. I mean, that's exactly right. I mean, think about, I know nothing about labor history. It's kind of sadly ignorant, but I do know something about medieval guilds and where economists of a certain bent see gilds solely as a way of avoiding competition, and they are, there's another dimension to guilds and that's they all are located, usually focused on a chapel or a region of Florence or Milan or Bologna or Paris. So they are expressions, a certain of a community and a craft. Those things also a function as well as the economic rationale, which we can argue about, whether that becomes predominant, certainly becomes extremely, extraordinarily important in a life of guild, but any community has that function. 

Juliette Sellgren (10.30)

And I know this question is geared towards people my age, but I would kind of flip your answer back towards older generations. I think what's needed is a call to grace for everyone because freaking out about cancel culture and getting inflammatory about it, sure it's alarming, but it's a symptom of something and without having grace towards whatever is causing that, you couldn't ever fix it. That's right. And especially conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals, we spend so much time being rational and talking about logic and lamenting the feelings culture, but the issue is a human is mind and body. A human is thought and feeling, and if you don't take both, we can't fix it. We can't even diagnose it properly. I think grace is the way to get there.

Albert Zambone (11.27)

Yeah, that's very good. I think as a member of Gen X, which we’re often overlooked, but I think we can acknowledge the greatest generation. We spent much of our teenage years and our twenties being lectured by baby boomers about how we were inadequate and we had not lived up to their high expectations or to their, we had not conformed to their model. So despite that sort of lifelong animosity that baby boomers have made me feel towards themselves, it really, I find it pathetic when I hear 20 somethings talking about the whole, hey boomer meme, the most important things that affect us are not generationally divided. They're not divided into political party. They're not even divided into regional aspects. The big things that we find that are really driving us right now that bear down upon us are cultural things, which we find Trump voters and Sanders voters and Biden voters and et cetera, all of them share it now.

It's part of a nature of our political pathologies at the moment that people refuse to recognize that commonality, but it's the cultural commonalities that are important and which we need to focus on. So you're right, it's not just the 18 to 22 year olds that needs to have grace. Gen Xers live in perpetual fear of their children turning against them. I think a lot is explained by that, and we need to get over that and get over ourselves and forgive ourselves for being bad parents in the ways that you have to forgive yourselves for the ways that we've made you behave as high achieving robots.

Juliette Sellgren (13.35)

It's funny, I don't remember if this is something someone said as a response to this question, but I think it was whoever it was said, the problem with America came when parents decided not to just be parents, but to raise children and to do parenting. Yes, this was definitely a podcast moment and I think that's part of what it is. You need to forgive yourself for trying to parent, because I don't know if you can properly do it. I don't know. I think this is the thing that humans keep trying to learn. It's one of those things that we have to keep relearning because A, no one can do it perfectly. There's no formula, but also it's, it's one of the main parts of human life as we go through life.

Albert Zambone (14.30)

Yeah, I can speak very confidently about this because I have no children, but I have seen it again and again and I always thought of myself, well, I'll do this much better. I don't think any parent, well, most parents probably say at some point in their life, well, I'm going to do this better or differently than my parents. And then they realize that it's not going to work out like that. They're going to, if they're doing it, even if they do it differently, they might not be doing it better or they find themselves to their horror doing exactly some of the same things that they learn from their parents about how to parent. So yes, it's one of the things that we have to sort of get beyond is that feeling and in an era where everything is achievement oriented, everything is master oriented towards mastery, that's a culture in which being a good parent to it, it's being a competent parent, being a good parent, and quite frankly, those are some of the worst.

Juliette Sellgren 

Yeah, it has a different end.

Albert Zambone 

It has a different end.

Juliette Sellgren 

With that, let's extend this conversation because it surely won't end. So I've done a few interviews on history and asked this question frequently, but I have to hear it from you. What is history a historian's favorite question?

Albert Zambone (16.05)

 Yeah, we actually do love this. My mind is cycling like a combination lock. This is like the first 15 minutes of the first day of the first autumn semester. So history is a terrible word in English because to my mind it means three things. First of all, most people use it synonymously with the past. He's history. That's all history now. History is bunk. They mean it the past, but they also mean it. And this is sort of, which is not the same thing, a written record of the past history as opposed to say archeology, you can do archeology, it's about the past. You might think that's history, but there's the written record, that's the third thing. The second thing, so the past written record about the past, and then the third is actually what history means in Greek or so I'm told by people who read Greek. When Herodotus comes up with the word history, it means inquiry. So Herodotus writes his histories. Those are just simply the inquiries. So that applies not just a third way of looking at history that's not just the past or things written about the past, but then actually a method of investigating the past. So history is at least three things. English is a very rich language, but at least in terms of history and historians, we've been failed by English because we should really be using three different words instead, but we just use the one word.

Juliette Sellgren 

Is there a language other than Greek or languages plural that do this in a way that English doesn't?

Albert Zambone (18.05)

I have no idea the, it's pretty much, I think in German there's a different ways of describing it, but you would know better than me about French. My French has always been for reading and bad reading at that I have.

Juliette Sellgren (18.27)

I have the French of a sixth grader, so although I can speak French quite fluently, it's more of a, I could tell you colloquially that at a non-intellectual level, it means the past, the written record, not the actual past. My past is not history necessarily in the way it's used, but I have no idea about the third meaning of history if that's what it means in French,

Albert Zambone (19.00)

I would really, now that you're pressing me on this, I'll have to look at say Samuel Johnson's dictionary is 1750s to see, because I'll bet you that he doesn't give history the first meeting that I gave to it that he probably does say the past or something, but it certainly in 21st century American English. I think colloquially it means the first two things where it also means the third thing, the inquiries part.

Juliette Sellgren (19.28)

When I think about the ways that people get interested in history or the way that little kids are taught history and who likes it and who doesn't, versus the way that I came to it again later and the way that people who study history professionally and do history, actually might be the right way to say that by your definition, it's very different from how it's done in schools. So I think of the little kids, the little boys especially who Napoleon and the Roman Empire and the Knights in shining armor and they're super interested about war and then everyone else who kind of falls off and doesn't quite care because it seems to be memorization or facts and how is that useful? But that's not how you practice it, is it?

Albert Zambone (20.23)

No, that's not how anyone practices it. You're absolutely right. I think mean that was me. I think every kid, every developing mind finds something that they focus on, say when they're four. I think my sister was Greek mythology, mine was George Washington, and little did I realize that I would be eventually thinking a lot about all that George Washington stuff, but that is that initial romance. I think excitement at a good true story. Not everyone feels that, but a lot of us do. And then eventually we get to school class on history and we get battered to death with boredom, with dates, with Missouri Compromise and Kansas Nebraska Act, and what the hell is that?

I think at least for a couple semesters, I was a C student in high school history and I almost had it completely washed out. Any interest in it was completely washed out of my skull because of the way that it was taught to us. Our teacher tried to teach us thrilling stories, but she, at the same time, I would say now, she wasn't showing us what history is in the sense of inquiry. She wasn't teaching us that, and certainly I think she did believe that in some way that history was a question of getting your dates in the right order, and it's more than that. It does help to know the dates, although I think historians are some of the worst people at memorizing dates that there are, it helps to get them in order, but the only reason is I always to say it to students, look, get the story in order, then the dates will come. If it's important to know who comes what, get things in order, in order to develop a narrative to get that story part, then you'll know the dates. But that's not the way we, it's usually taught.

Juliette Sellgren

What was I just thinking about the thought the second you stopped talking? Just left.

Albert Zambone (23.02)

So I'll keep on going then. My teaching sensei, Lendell Calder, he just at Augustin College in Rock Island, Illinois, he years ago, I think it was in oh 5 0 6, wrote a really important article for the Journal of American History about coverage versus un coverage, which this really influenced me. And eventually I was fortunate enough to be able to teach with Lundell and the other fantastic people at the department at Augustana. Lendell pointed out that we always talk about, historians are always talking about, oh, I've got to cover this. I've got to get move faster so that I can cover the civil War. I don't want to forget to cover reconstruction. Oh, I got to cover the Vietnam before the end of the spring semester. Cover, cover, cover. And what we mean is by get lots of that content and download it to the students in front of us in the lecture hall, but cover has a dual meaning.

The way that most people use it is we cover things up, we put a cover on the bed, we put a cover over our car, we engage in a coverup in Washington. Wendell's argument, which I fully persuaded by now is most of the way that we teach coverage in history actually covers up, it conceals how historians actually do history. So Lendell and a whole group of co-conspirators starting in the mid nineties began to urge people to teach for historians to teach history as historians do history. That doesn't mean that people weren't going to learn dates. Sure they would learn dates, but they would learn it in the course of learning how to do history. And I find that it's certainly a very rewarding way of teaching history and it's certainly a rewarding way, a good way of teaching that third understanding of what history is as an inquiry. And I think it also checks other boxes as well.

Juliette Sellgren (25.24)

Learning dates seems to be the most easily testable. This is what I'm realizing is a lot of what we do in schools, especially super standardized ways of teaching and structures of learning are not actually structured around learning. They're structured around testability.

Albert Zambone (25.42)

That is so true. That is absolutely true. And I can show you, in fact, I got this from Lendell. It's like a report card or a test from Kentucky in the 1890s, and it's like, it is a really granular level of detail on the test. What are the principle battles of the French and Indian War? What's the date of the treaty of Paris signed after to end the American Revolution? It's really impressive except that you realize the entire test is set up to be a test. It's because it never asks the really most interesting question that you can ask in history, which they always begin with. Why was that the battle, that most important battle of the French Indian War in the North American content, why did the Treaty of Paris and so on? No, why just the dates, just the facts that can be tested.

It's really hard to grade answers to why questions takes a lot of time, and I don't want to be cynical about this, but I'm going to be cynical about this. I find it tedious to grade exams with answers to why questions. It takes a long time and therefore I tend to avoid it or I am motivated to avoid it. And that's why I think for the most part, we don't do it. It's also really hard to do that with a lecture hall of a hundred class of 150 students taking history one, how are you going to grade all those tests? So we've tended for a very long time to change the content of history to make it testable.

Juliette Sellgren (27.35)

So I guess there's a lot of experience you can pull from in answering this next question. How did you transition from being a kid interested in George Washington to practicing history when teaching, do something testable and practical yet push students to appreciate history as the practice in the study? It is what is the leap that needs to be made and how do we make it? How is that possible? If for all practicality's sake or maybe even interest's sake, the facts and the stories and the covering is what we have access to most easily.

Albert Zambone (28.24)

It's not easy. I've been out of the classroom for what, seven years now? So my experience is getting rapidly older and older. What I began to, when I was converted to this way of thinking about teaching history, what I would invariably, what I did every semester that I was teaching say American history, is I would set it up around a conflict of narratives. So I would always give the students Howard Zinn to read and someone who violently disagreed with Howard Zinn, maybe William Bennett, the conservative well talk show host now. He wrote a history of the United States, maybe someone else. So I'd have someone from the left and the right. It's important that I have two people that I don't really agree with in all things. And then that is, those are their textbooks for the semester. They read both, and they are tested on whether or not they can reproduce or recognize the arguments from the chapter for the reading for that week.

So that's actually the most testable thing that's that I'm doing. In fact, I think that would be done, I'm forgetting at least once a week, and you can do a quick quiz. You can do a quick quiz for reading for the argument in five minutes at the beginning of each class. They can be graded by someone who knows what they're doing. They can be graded while the students are doing their next in-class assignment. So that's what I would, the first thing that I was trying to teach was something that's not just unique to historians, but something historians depend upon, which is reading to find the argument. What is the argument? What is this person saying? What claim are they making? If I could get a majority of students in a class to just learn that one thing, you could die happy. I think, because such an important thing to be able to do as a thoughtful literate citizen and a human being is reading for an argument. So that's the first step. You want me to keep on going from there?

So the other way that certainly Lendell Calder and others at Augustus up their classes is we set it up then is building towards an actual history research paper. And this is really difficult because students were no different than I had been as an 18 year old. I thought when I was 18 year old that a research history paper was basically like an encyclopedia article just with better facts, more facts. I did not have the slightest clue that you have to have begin with a why question. So why did, let's come up with a really big why question. It's on the top of my head. Why did the British lose the American Revolution? Okay, that's a why question. It's a really good why question? Why is it a good why question? Because there are a bunch of different possible answers to it. If it was a stupid why question it would be, or a stupid question to be like, when did the British lose the American Revolution?

What was the major battle of the American Revolution? Those are questions that can be answered with facts. A why question? Why did the British lose? The American Revolution has to be answered with an argument. It's going to be a sophisticated argument because it requires lots of evidence. It requires multiple perspectives and it requires lots of context. So when you're teaching people to think of history as inquiry, as to learn how to do history as a historian, I be teaching say, a class on the American Revolution, while at the same time also teach them how to ask a good question and then to respond to it with an answer, which is the thesis. That's the argument. How to look at documents and read them, how to connect one document to another document, how to basically understand, as I said, evidence, how do I know, how can I support my argument with evidence and on and on and on.

And that would be a process in which we would kind of build the thesis through at least half the semester we'd build our first research paper or first, it's not really an argumentative essay, it's not a full fledged research paper. It's a short history paper with evidence and sources. But we would gradually construct that through the first, say, six weeks of the semester, and then they would do that again probably three more times in a week or two week cycle. If I was at UVA, I would probably do an a week cycle, probably be a eight, 1200 page paper, 800 page paper. You could do something relatively short and sweet like that, but you could do it completely with all of these history, these moves, these things that historians do. You could integrate that into the paper. So that's how I would teach history. 

Juliette Sellgren (34.32)

When I taught history, 800 pages,

Albert Zambone 

No, I'm sorry, did I say 800 pages? 

Juliette Sellgren 

You said pages.

Albert Zambone (34.37)

Oh my gosh. There's a real Freudian slip right now. I'm thinking, I just said to myself today, I have to write 60,000 pages, but just 60,000 words, 800 words, 800 to 1200 words. I usually stuck with 800 words because that's actually about the length of a opinion piece in the newspaper anymore. You can say a lot of necessary things in 800 words and 1200 words is more than enough to get your point across about something that's discreet. So that's what I would usually shoot for.

Juliette Sellgren (35.15)

Something that I'm kind of interested on, and I'm going to push back on, not because I think you are wrong, but because I'm curious and maybe it will help clarify what you mean by history's inquiry. Isn't every discipline just a method of inquiry geared towards a different application or goal? But it's all the same thing. It's a different method of inquiry.

Albert Zambone (35.51)

Absolutely. I completely agree. So in fact, that's why political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists also claim as the father for their discipline, and they're not wrong. So everyone's engaging in some kind of inquiry. So you talk about economics a lot. I'm not surprise. So economics is a certain type of inquiry based upon a certain evidence, but it's also, it's beyond that. History and economics are different ways of thinking and different ways of practicing. The analogy I generally use is of being a doctor. Doctors are also interested in evidence. Doctors are also interested in seeing things. Doctors are also interested in interviewing people, but they're not oral historians. Obviously. When a doctor does a really good interview with a patient, they're actually doing something that looks a lot like oral history, but they're not oral historians. Their focus is on the body. And historians are focused on the past, not just all the past.

We're less interested in what archeologists do. Although I think that what archeologists do is immensely fascinating and very helpful to historians. But historians are interested in written evidence about the past. That's what we focus on. Doctors focus on the body, economists focus on witchcraft, whatever you people do. So we have different focuses for evidence and different evidence requires different means of thinking and different types of inquiry. So the evidence conditions are perspective and our inquiry, there are overlaps, there are economic historians, there are historians of capitalism. Those aren't the same things. There are historians of medicine. So they all inquiries overlap at some point, but yet they're different and they're also different. In practice, our outputs are different.

No historian can write an econometric paper, just it makes no sense to do that. Even an economic historian would probably not do that. We work with words in a different way. Yet nonetheless, sometimes the edge of our inquiries overlap. And there's another point related this something, this is, I'm quoting Lendell Culver a lot, but this is something that's always stuck with me. What he was calling for was a means of teaching history. The way that doctors and lawyers have long taught history, taught medicine and taught law. You go to UVA med school, you're a new student, what do you do? You go on rounds, you go from patient to patient with the doctor, you're watching the doctor do what they do. So medical students, when they do rounds, or even when they do dissections or in some ways they're replicating, they're learning, they're apprenticing in the action of being a doctor.

Law students up the road from us where we're recording now, they're in their class, there're like 120 of them, and some of them this morning are being grilled to death by their professor. They're being cross examined by their professor in a way that a judge might do to them. It's not unlike a courtroom experience. So again, they're learning law that the way that law is being taught has something to do with the way law is being practiced when we teach economics or history or anthropology or sociology, it would make sense if we were teaching all those things in the way that those disciplines are practiced. So that's sort of the scheme I gave of how I used to teach history that is in effect trying to teach them the way historians think and the way historians act.

Juliette Sellgren (40.26)

That's beautiful. I feel kind of validated and the analogy is perfect. It clarifies the idea so much more and kind of gives a hint at the normative of how and how and why and all of the above of how to actually achieve teaching it and learning it and doing it.

Albert Zambone (40.51)

And this is not old, I mean, this is not new, I should say in many ways. You can see this is past practice. This is the way Plato set up the academy. This is the way Aristotle set up the lyceum. This is the way Jefferson set up the lawn. The lawn is the whole point of teaching at University of Virginia was students were to be taught in the front room of each professor's house. So there was something in which you are being invited into the professor's life. Now I take that as not necessarily domestic, although it can be, but actually an expression of what good university teaching is. You're being invited in to see how a person thinks and how they act and then trying to replicate it for yourself. And that's good teaching. They had to build the anatomy library, the anatomy theater, because one of the professors complained about dissecting cadavers in the front parlor of his house on the lawn. And obviously his wife didn't like it much, but that's the idea. That's kind of extreme idea. But to be invited in to see what this is master in apprenticeship. This is seeing how someone does things, how they think, how they approach something, and then working on your own attempts to do it.

Juliette Sellgren(42.26)

We're running up short on time, and I think this conversation is demanding of another episode sometime soon if you're willing. But there are a few things I want to hit on before we close. So if you have the time first is the predictive power. So now that we've kind of describe different disciplines as different ways of inquiring, I think about economic models, we talk a lot about, well, what's going to happen to inflation if we do this with the money supply or if this happens with spending the way government spends is now being discovered to be an important factor in what happens with inflation, whether or not you believe it or not, that's what's happening on the cutting edge of macro econ right now. And we talk a lot about what value these models have and when, because they're not always applicable. And so what can history actually tell us? What predictive power does it have and when should we listen to it and when shouldn't we? And I know that's a huge question.

Albert Zambone (43.36)

That is a whole podcast by itself. It's more than one podcast. I think I've had several of these. I range from wildly dismissive to mildly hopeful about history's predictive power. And it's probably depending on how much coffee I drank, I on one level, if there's anything that is fingernails on the blackboard for me, it's someone saying, well, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. That condemnation has been happening again and again and again through human history. If history had a predictive ability, then we would be probably in a much better shape than we sometimes seem to be. On the other hand, while dismissing some of the wilder aspects of it, there is this, I don't know if it might be too much to call it a burdening field, but there is such a field now of applied history. There's of course, it's a journal of applied history and they need to get someone on the podcast from them for them to defend themselves.

And the idea that you can somehow use certain historical models or possibilities to in it as it sounds to apply it to the present. I think the person I found most interesting about this is David Staley, who's a professor of history at Ohio State University, and he's been on the podcast, gosh, I dunno, maybe almost five times. David is, he actually calls himself a futurist or a historian of the future. And what David does is he develops scenarios for the future based on things that possibilities or things that have happened in the past. So that's a very agnostic sort of careful way I think, of sort of gently holding in your hands the possibility of some use of history towards learning something for the future, learning something for the present. That's as much as I could sign on to right now. But I tend to think that that might be a too social sciencey way of thinking about history.

The historians that mean the most to me are probably, are definitely on the humanist side. History as a discipline comes from the rediscovery of S and Ities and Renaissance Italy. And it's from seeing the possibility about writing the human experience. And so for me, a humanistic history is a way of understanding myself and my community as it is now rather than necessarily understanding of what I may do or might do or must do. It's that shock of recognition and the realization of common choices that I think is most splendid to me about history and that I certainly get the most out of when I read history and that I try to convey when I write history.

Juliette Sellgren (47.11)

I want to continue on this vein because there's so much there, but how do we practically implement history for us non historians in our everyday lives? How do we begin to do that?

Albert Zambone 

So what do you mean by that? What do you mean practically implement history?

Juliette Sellgren (47.40)

If it's a form of inquiry, inquiry, inquiry, whatever,

I've decided to not get too hung up on how words are pronounced. If you get it, you get it. How would I or a student who maybe isn't a history major or a PhD in history, a DFI in history, a professor, how do we learn from history and practice this way of thinking in a way that is beneficial to answering the bigger questions that maybe we won't use history to its fullest because we only have so much time and maybe it's not our strongest point of identity maybe, but it's an aspect of study that is useful obviously to whatever end, whatever reason you want. And so how would I or a layperson, an arbitrary individual begin to do that if they say, just listen to this podcast. What are some things that you do on the regular that you do because of history, the way you question or look at the world perhaps?

Albert Zambone (48.55)

Okay. You asked also a big question.

No, but I actually have a very succinct answer. You asked this one simple question, this one simple trick, just like those annoying internet pop-up ads, this one simple question, what's the real his story here and how can I know it? The shorter version of this is, are you kidding me? But the longer it's, what's the real story here and how can I know it? That is, to me, that is the fundamental historical question. So I read something in, I'm looking around my room right now, William Still's, underground Railroad or carpenter's Southern gambit or Bruce Ragsdales Washington at the Plow, and they make a statement. They make an argument at the beginning of a chapter or at the beginning of a paragraph. And I think to myself, yeah, really what's the real story here and how can I know it? But that applies not just to the monographs around my room.

That rep applies to the stuff I'm reading about the battle going on in Gaza right now. It applies to who's being killed, who killed whom. It applies to what's going on in Ukraine. It applies to what's going on with zoning in Charlottesville right now. What's the real story here and how can I know it? So I think that if you take that question, and I think there's a like that for every intellectual discipline, for history, I think that's probably our most important question. What's the real story here and how can I know it? Or just, are you kidding me? And my wife finds it very difficult that when she tells me something that she read or someone told her immediately, I cock the quizzical eyebrow, I can't help myself. Are you kidding me? I have to test it and pull at it. Economists do the same thing, but usually when they get stats. But I think by asking that question when you read something written in the paper on a blog, that's the way to practice history in everyday life to practice the inquiry of history in everyday life.

Juliette Sellgren (51.22)

That's a beautiful answer. Okay. I have one last question for you, and I think it's your favorite question, but correct me if I'm wrong. What is the most important thing that's not the right beginning of the question. What is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Albert Zambone (51.43)

I love this question that you ask it every week. I find usually podcasts that ask the same opening and ending question, annoying, but I've never found yours annoying. And this one has made me think about a lot of things. It's really important to a project. I'm working now on my podcast on intellectual humility and historical thinking. So that is probably the second best question is asking that. I have a lot of answers to that. A lot of 'em are extremely personal and I do not wish to share them with all the tens of thousands of listeners to this podcast.

So I will stick to something that's history related. At one point in my life, I thought technology really influenced people in society, and I now think that I was reading too much science fiction at the time. I was like a teenager, and at another point I thought ideas were really, really the thing that changed everything. Someone gets an idea, someone else gets a cold, someone else dies of pneumonia, and that ideas could be traced through time, through human history, like a long intricate golden chain and that you could just tease at it and follow it through history. And that was what's really important. I'm now much more agnostic about those things.

I have come to see that certain technologies don't influence certain cultures because cultures won't allow those technologies to influence or they can't influence it. Certain technologies don't get adopted by cultures because the culture is just not ready for it or just is not so shaped. It can receive the technology. And the same goes for ideas. So I've come to believe in the real primacy of cultural change, both as terms of carrots and sticks in terms of guardrails and opportunities, which some of those makes a culture, the taboos, as well as the things that were encouraged to do in a culture that those influence the way ideas and technology, which are kind of sometimes the same thing, or technology's part of culture. Those that influences the ways that ideas and cultures technologies are received, the ideas. That's certainly something I've moderated my enthusiasm for. The importance of ideas. They're important, they have consequences, but other things are more important.

Juliette Sellgren (54.46)

Once again, I'd like to thank my guests for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to The Great Antidote Podcast means a lot. 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 great Thank you.

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