[Apologies in advance; this post is long. If you make it to the end and write me a note, I’ll buy you a drink when the pandemic is over. GS]

Jon jokes at our workshops that it took me 18 months to convince him that there was a Question Three. The joke is largely true. In fairness to Jon, I kept asking the question the wrong way.

The original version of Question Three was this: “Why did that happen?” Jon’s objection was that we’d already answered this question. In narrating a response to Question One, we said what happened. Then we asked Question Two. The response to that question told us why the protagonists in the story did what they did. Now you come along and say, Why did that happen? I just told you: that happened (Q1), for those reasons (Q2).

I wore Jon down. (How that happened is a story for another time.) We eventually settled on the barely improved, “Why did that really happen?” Finally, a brilliant colleague attending one of our workshops relieved us of our misery by suggesting the version we finally adopted: “Why then and there?” 

We’ve had better luck communicating about Question Three since our colleague helped us reformulate it. Our mantras help, too: “Factors, not actors” and “Explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference.” Now, workshop attendees get less confused about the difference between Question Two and Question Three than they did before the change. They can see that, for Question Three, we’re asking about the context and conditions in which the action occurred, not the thoughts of the people involved in that action. 

Still, Question Three is the hardest part of the 4QM. We’ve heard that from a bunch of teachers and administrators who’ve done our workshops and generally like our approach. They take to the other questions readily and find it reasonably straightforward to plan lessons and gather material that addresses them. Storyboards are a hit; teachers who’ve done our training use them all the time, both to plan and to teach. Question Three, not so much, even for full adopters of the 4QM. 

“Why then and there?” is a real question, and it’s really different from the other questions. Students who attend college and major in one of the social sciences will spend virtually all their time trying to answer it. And, in fact, once you know to look, it’s all over our curriculum, even in old-fashioned narrative history classes. Why, then, do people who embrace 4QM-style teaching find Question Three so challenging to address with students? 

Textbooks Do A Terrible Job With Question Three

My hypothesis: textbooks. Other factors probably matter too. Question Three requires quasi-scientific thinking, which is less intuitive and familiar than narration and interpretation, the thinking skills we use to answer Questions One and Two. And it requires an awful lot of knowledge to answer a Q3 convincingly. But the basic pedagogical problem is that textbooks, our handiest resource, generally stink at framing and addressing explanatory questions. 

I only have room here for one example, but could give many, from many sources. (Over drinks, maybe.) Alan Brinkley’s American History, which we use for AP US History classes at my high school, has occasional boxed sections where the author surveys debates in the scholarly literature. And so, “The Causes of the Civil War” purports to contain a serious consideration of that topic. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was a Question Three.

In my rich fantasy life, Brinkley’s insert starts by defining the explanatory puzzle clearly, so that students know exactly what question the scholars under review will be addressing. Then it identifies the answer each of the scholars gives to the question, and maybe shares Brinkley’s view of the persuasiveness of each. Then it discusses the implications of the debate for our understanding of a larger topic — risk factors for civil war, hazards for democracies, the perils of territorial expansion — something transferable, a real history lesson. 

Here’s what we get instead. Brinkley’s literature survey has six paragraphs. The first one quotes President Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address saying that “all knew” that slavery “was somehow the case of the war.” Brinkley glosses the quote as follows: “Few historians doubt the basic truth of Lincoln’s statement, but they disagree sharply about whether slavery was the only, or even the principal, cause of the war.” 

We’re already off the rails. From an interpretive point of view — if we’re trying to answer Question Two — slavery was, of course, the primary “cause” of the war. That’s what the protagonists were thinking, the cause to which they were committed or opposed. They were thinking, “we must end slavery” or “we must defend slavery” or “we must keep slavery out of the territories” or “we must end the rule of the “slave-ocracy” or something like that. No doubt, the best one-word answer to Question Two, at least for American political leaders during the secession crisis of 1861, is “slavery.” 

Unfortunately, if we’re actually trying to explain why the civil war happened when and where it did, “slavery” can’t possibly be a “cause.” Enslavement of Africans began in the British North American colonies in 1619. It was acknowledged and accommodated in the US Constitution. Political compromises over slavery were enacted in 1820 and 1850. By 1860, prior compromises no longer held and a new one could not be reached. Why not? What factors made a political crisis likely in 1861, but not before (or never)? Why then and there? 

If you formulate the question clearly, as I just tried to do, then it’s obvious that “slavery” can’t be the (or even an) answer. Slavery is a constant. We’re looking for variables. Changes in slavery — its intensification and spread as a result of the industrial revolution in textile production in Britain, for example — are certainly worthy of consideration. Brinkley doesn’t consider them. So is another obvious factor: territorial expansion, which portended the introduction of many more states to the union, each of which would get two Senators, each of whom would support or oppose legislation to uphold, abandon, or undermine the institution of slavery. It’s possible, in other words, that the Mexican Cession (1848) created a structural crisis in American politics. Ditto: no mention in Brinkley’s essay. Consider, then, a demographic variable: growing immigration after 1848, the population Lincoln envisioned filling the new American territories, and eventually voting for members of the House of Representatives. That factor gets a wink and a nod, as I’ll describe below. 

Was The War “Inevitable?” What Kind Of Question Is That?

Brinkley devotes the middle four paragraphs of his six-paragraph essay to consideration of a ‘debate’ about whether the war was inevitable or avoidable. For the record, that’s a Question Four: Do we blame the politicians who failed to compromise and avoid bloodshed or accept that they did the best they could under the circumstances? William Seward, abolitionist and supporter of both Lincoln and the war, viewed it as unavoidable. Naturally. That was his judgment: he thought Lincoln did what he had to do in making war on the secessionists, and opposed those who viewed the war as “the work of interested or fanatical agitators” (a quote from Seward cited by Brinkley in this paragraph). Brinkley mistakenly cites this judgment as an explanation. 

Despite his misleading frame, some explanatory categories do emerge in the course of Brinkley’s review: culture and economics. Some scholars, Brinkley recounts, believe that the source of tension between northerners and southerns was primarily economic, while others believe it was primarily cultural. (It’s not clear why we need to pick one or the other, but Brinkley assumes that we do.) For sure, there were, by 1860, stark differences between northern and southern states on both dimensions, economics and culture. Alas, nowhere in the essay does Brinkley say how economic differences might have decreased the prospects for compromise or increased the likelihood of civil war. We simply learn that North and South were economically different. A difference to explain a change…? 

In any case, Brinkley is clearly more interested in culture. He devotes a full paragraph to a description of famous books by Eric Foner and Eugene Genovese, both of whom he describes as making cultural arguments. They are, in a way. They’re answering Question Two. Foner, in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, interprets the thinking of northerners, most of whom were not abolitionists but rather advocates of an ideology of “free labor.” Genovese, in The Political Economy of Slavery, identifies a kind of paranoia among northerners, who were convinced that the slave-ocrats were coming for their jobs and their way of life. The feeling was mutual in the south. That’s what they were thinking. 

That leaves us with an amended version of the original puzzle: Why such a fevered pitch at this time, but not earlier? Why was this what they were thinking at the end of the 1850s, but not at the end of the 1820s or 1830s? Why then and there? 

A Possible Explanation?

The closest Brinkley gets us to something that looks like a genuine explanation, one that a social scientist would recognize, is in the final paragraph, where he finally drops the conceit that the whole debate is about inevitability. In that paragraph, he recounts the argument of Michael Holt’s The Political Crisis of the 1850s. According to Brinkley, Holt argues that the collapse of the Second Party System, “the most effective instrument for containing and mediating sectional differences,” facilitated the polarization of American politics around the issue of slavery.

Better. Holt identifies an institutional change — a new array of parties — to explain a change. But this particular explanation still begs an obvious question, which Brinkley appears to acknowledge. Brinkley goes on to cite another scholar, William Gienapp, who has, he says, an account of why the Second Party System collapsed when and where it did. That explanation appears to have something to do with increased immigration, though Brinkley describes it as “ethnocultural,” on account of the movements against alcohol and immigration associated with those demographic changes. A wink and a nod. 

One last try: On the brink of the civil war, the issue of slavery became more salient in American national politics. Voters began to support parties that committed themselves openly to positions on slavery and its future and abandoned those that avoided the issue. In other words, Americans were becoming more politically polarized. (Sound familiar?) Our students already know this story from our answers to Questions One and Two about the 1850s. We still want to know, why was this the story then and there? 

I’ve already suggested the factors I think are most obvious and pertinent to a serious Question Three inquiry: territorial expansion and immigration. The mechanism through which both connect to our explicandum, the thing we’re trying to explain, is political power. Both changes, geographic and demographic, looked quite ominous for the south, in a way that would be extremely difficult to alter or impede by constitutional means. If all those new territories became states, heavily populated by immigrants, the gig was up for Southerners. They would be perpetually outvoted. Their economic system, entirely reliant upon violence to prop it up, would never again be able to draw upon the coercive powers of the national state. 

Compromise was possible so long as the future remained open — that is, so long as both sides, for and against slavery, could maintain a reasonable hope that they could get a meaningful share of power. Democracies seem to work that way. They work best when the divisions in the electorate are somewhat fluid and overlapping. That way, no matter who you are, you have the reasonable hope that on some important issue, you may one day soon be on the prevailing side. That’s why, on the contrary, emergent democracies in ethnically divided states are so fragile. They tend to reach agreement only on taking turns siphoning off tax revenues for private use. All it takes is one party to cling to the spigot a bit too long to set off violent conflict.

Students Miss Out

The specific answer to an explanatory question is, frankly, less important than the method by which we arrive at it. By failing to acknowledge and follow the logic of explanation, Brinkley’s textbook robs students of the opportunity to learn how to answer an interesting and important type of question. It sets them up for a rude awakening if they end up in a political science or economics class. And, sadly, it deprives them of a chance to learn something that might actually matter to them in their own lives. 

In this particular case, that’s especially poignant. Our students also live in a time of great political polarization. A sizable group of aggrieved white people, more rural and male than average, appear to believe that their futures are uncertain and their liberty threatened by the rule of what they see as a hostile and culturally alien elite class. That group is opposed to what they see as an unwarranted rise in the status and privileges of immigrants and African Americans, abetted by those elites. This group’s stakes in government are not (yet) hopeless. The party they prefer controlled the Senate and presidency until very recently. They have prospects for a return to power, thanks to the rural gerrymander built into our constitutional apportionment of congressional power and some fortuitous appointments to the Supreme Court — assuming, that is, that new states like Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia do not join the union. 

We like to tell our students that learning history is useful, that those who fail to learn from the past — you know the rest. Show, don’t tell. I’m particularly vexed by Brinkley’s textbook because he wrote a really first-rate narrative, included some mightily impressive and erudite interpretations, and then completely botched one of few opportunities he gave himself to teach students how to explain things. By doing that, he squandered a wonderful opportunity to help teachers like us to show students that learning from the past is for real, that it can make sense of things we’re still struggling with in our own lives. 

I’ve obviously gone on too long already, and complained up to and beyond my quota. Next time, good news about the rare textbook that gets Q3 (mostly) right. In the meantime, drop me a line below and we’ll set up a time to talk over libations this summer.