Nuggets of wisdom?

November 19, 2004

A couple of days ago Brad DeLong mentioned that he wanted to assign a reading to his graduate reading class in economic history, but that he was afraid that it required too careful a knowledge of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. for it to be a useful reading.

I commented that I thought every graduate student in the humanities or social sciences should know Weber on the Protestant Work Ethic, just as they should be expected to know Locke on the relationship between property and liberty, Malthus's argument about population growth, Marx on alienation of labor, and the other basic working concepts of 18th and 19th century political economy.

This led me to two related thoughts.

The first is aimed at the basic tools of anyone teaching college level social sciences or humanities (History is both). Anyone who has sat through a few college classes in these disciplines, either as teacher or student, has noticed that moment where a student asks a question or makes a comment and in response the professor delivers a 5 to 10 minute mini-lecture, explaining the point, putting it into context, and then applying the concept to the particular matter in discussion that day. Those mini-lectures, call them nuggets, are something that we sometimes prepare in advance for a class, sometimes have handy because they come up on a regular basis, and sometimes have to create on the fly from our background knowledge when a student asks a tricky question. Mostly, however, they come from our general preparation in the discipline we teach or in the broader field in which we work.

Thus I suspect that not only does Brad have a fairly standard response to a student who asks, say, "but wouldn't we be better off getting rid of imports and producing everything at home" or "wasn't the American Civil War really just a conflict between industry and agriculture" but that he can also toss off a quick summary of most events in 20th-century history.

At one level a PhD program in the humanities or the social sciences HAS to prepare its graduates to deliver these nuggets on demand. They are the cultural literacy of the academic elite.

The second thought is that we also have to be willing to introduce these concepts, at least in their simpler form, to our undergraduates as well. That has influenced my approach to my reading list for next semester, which will be a separate post.

For now, however, I was wondering what those common nuggets are. Certainly all teachers have their own set of them. Some of mine are in the extended entry. Comment on your favorites.

Most of my nuggets relate to American History:

- historiography of the Lost Cause
- separate spheres feminism
- why the Great War shaped the 20th century
- republicanism and the American Revolution
- Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Posted by Red Ted at November 19, 2004 11:49 AM | TrackBack

How do I get to your extended entries? I didn't grow up in this countries and most of your "nuggets" would probably enlighten me more than your other readers.

Posted by: Angelica at November 20, 2004 09:42 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?