Since our school buildings closed in March, Gary and I have gone through several stages in thinking about “History Questions,” the 4QM Teaching blog. Now that Massachusetts schools are officially closed for the rest of the year, the current situation feels less like a temporary accommodation to crisis and more like a new normal. Given that, we’re going to try to blog more or less regularly through mid-June. So here’s our first entry in the “new reality” pandemic series of blog posts.

Historiography and Questions 2 & 3

Reflecting on my own feelings at this time, I find myself making analogies to other historical crises, like World War Two or the Great Depression. Like the people who lived through those tragedies, I feel myself being swept along by a huge historical event over which I have no individual control. My choices are constrained by decisions being made by powerful people who are themselves constrained by events beyond their control. But because my history teacher brain never shuts off, this train of thought brings me to ruminations on historiography and the tension between Questions Two and Three. 

Historiography, because I think of the arguments between historians who focus on the role of particular individuals in making the world, and those who focus on the role of large forces of economic, social, or political change. Did the Mongols create the world’s largest land empire because Genghis Khan was a political genius who figured out how to unify the Mongol tribes? Or did the empire rise because the Song Dynasty and the Abbasid Caliphate were in decline at the same time that a change in climate reduced the yield of the traditional Mongol pasturelands?

Of course the Four Question Method is designed to acknowledge both explanations (it’s the Four Question method after all, not the One Question method). Genghis Khan was a political genius whose success was enabled by a particular context. Question Two (What were they thinking?) recognizes his genius, while Question Three (Why then and there?) recognizes the context that made that genius more likely to succeed so spectacularly in thirteenth century Asia. 

A historic crisis like the current pandemic throws the power of huge forces that change the world, outside of any individual’s control, into high relief. We are powerless in the midst of the pandemic, and when it is over our world will be changed in myriad ways. We will all think and act differently than we did a few months ago, because the economic and social context for our individual lives will be dramatically changed by a pathogen, not by a person. 

But at the same time, the crisis highlights the importance of individuals in positions of responsibility and power. While it may be historiographically fashionable in some circles to  dismiss the study of powerful leaders as irrelevant “Great Man” history, the current crisis makes it impossible to argue that leaders don’t matter. Just consider the different decisions made by Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, for instance. Both are national chief executives operating in the same historical context, but their performances have inspired very different responses. 

Before March of 2020, I enjoyed historiographical debates about the relative importance of Question Two and Question Three in an abstract and intellectual sense (How much credit should Lincoln get for the North’s victory in the Civil War?). But now I feel the urgency of both questions in a visceral way. On days when I’m obsessively checking Massachusetts infection rates it can feel like historical context is the only thing that matters. But every state and national press conference reminds me that individual leaders matter too, and maybe today as much as ever.

Good historians ask and answer all four questions, and good history teachers coach their students to do the same thing. I’m looking forward to getting back that as soon as we possibly can.