Gary and I have been trying to finish the chapter in our book about Question Three, “Why Then And There?” It’s the most abstract and difficult of the Four Questions, so the chapter has been the hardest to write. Because we’ve been thinking about this Question so much we’re both also blogging on it. Gary wrote last week about the resource problem with Question Three: so many textbooks get it so wrong. This is one reason that makes it hard to teach well. But if you understand Question Three you can find examples of its thinking everywhere, and you can even stumble across some good resources to teach it. Today I’m writing about a New York Times article that would make a great classroom resource to practice Question Three thinking: “Why Does Louisiana Consistently Lead the Nation In Murders?”

Great Headline

First off, let’s admire the headline: A classic “Why there?” Question Three. The headline gives us a great opportunity to review our rules for answering Question Three with our students. First off, we want to “Explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference.” Louisiana is different from the other 49 states, in that its residents murder each other an an unusually high rate. In order to explain why that is, we need to look for some underlying difference between Louisiana and the other states, and explain how that underlying difference could account for the high murder rate. And when we’re looking for ways in which Louisiana is different, we’re looking for “Factors Not Actors.” We’re looking for  underlying conditions, “factors,” not the actions of individual people.

Factors, Not Actors

Then let’s dive into the article. It wanders around a bit, but at the end of the first section it includes this gem of Question Three thinking: 

Many factors could help explain Louisiana’s unwelcome ranking, including disproportionate racial segregation, job discrimination and poverty. But nearby states have a lot of these problems, too. So what might make Louisiana distinct?

This is a beautiful example of how Question Three works. First of all, the quotation identifies specific contextual factors that might conceivably explain the high murder rate. But even more impressive, it quickly rules them out because none are unique to Louisiana. And it leaves us with a clear restatement of the Question Three puzzle: “So what might make Louisiana distinct?”

Guns And Sugar

The article goes on to rule out the possibility that New Orleans is skewing the data, noting that even if that notoriously violent city is taken out of the data, the state still has the country’s highest  or second highest murder rate in twelve of the last fifteen years. The two factors that the article ultimately suggests might be good explanations are the number of guns in Louisiana, and the state’s history as a sugar growing region. Louisiana has an exceptionally high rate of guns recovered and traced by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. That suggests that the state has a very high number of guns, and especially illegal guns, per capita. If it’s especially easy to get a firearm, one might reasonably expect the murder rate to be especially high.

And the history of slavery in Louisiana was somewhat different than in neighboring states. Many enslaved people in Louisiana worked on sugar plantations, which were especially brutal and violent. Cotton plantations were less dangerous to their work forces, with lower mortality rates. Perhaps Louisiana’s history of violence associated with slavery created a culture that echoes into the present day. (Don’t discount the power of this type of argument. Political Scientist Robert Putnam was able to correlate corruption in parts of present day Italy with the presence of absence of regional singing societies during the Renaissance. Singing societies built “social capital,” which cuts down on corruption.)

As we’ve said before, Question Three thinking is hard, and the lack of good resources for teaching it makes it harder. Once we finish writing our book Gary and I will be creating a series of Question Three DBQs: Document Based Questions purpose-built to make Question Three thinking accessible to students. (Email us if you want our “Outbreak of WWI” or “Modernization in China & Japan” DBQs, which are ready now.) In the meantime, if you keep your eyes peeled and know what to look for you can sometimes find a good newspaper article to practice on.