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Historical Controversies Instructor Donald Ostrowski e mail don wjh harvard edu phone 617 495 4547 office hours MTF 2 00 6 00 p m office 51 Brattle St 703 Course Assistant Gail Gardner e mail gparis13 post harvard edu phone 617 492 0618 open meeting time TWTh 4 30 5 30 p m office 51 Brattle St 721 My intent in offering this course and in is to define a number of controversies that are currently exercising scholarly ingenuity and to analyze each of these controversies by means of three criteria of historical study accurate representation of the evidence logical argument and conceptually elegant interpretation As the course description says I wanted to choose controversies that were clearly dividing scholarship and especially those that were generating some emotional heat Such hot topics motivate scholars to dig deeper for more evidence and better arguments but they also often expose the weaknesses of scholarly contention My thinking is that students would find more interesting scholarly conflicts that remain open than those that have already been resolved Thus these treatments are not attempting a historiographical survey of each controversy but more a general introduction to the controversy and an analysis of the sticking points the bones of contention Nor are these lectures intended necessarily to present the debates that occurred about the most weighty issue in each area so called great problems Real life controversies even over seemingly unimportant topics are more interesting than artificially contrived academic exercises regarding important topics In the process of discussing particular controversies however I hope to introduce students to the major issues in that area of study specifically and to the nature of historical research in general I am using the word historical in the broadest possible sense to include what some scholars call the auxiliary historical disciplines although there is nothing auxiliary about them and what other scholars may say is not history In debating issues of research historians feel free to move beyond the area of past politics and wars that many people assign to them as their proper area of study into areas that include anthropology archaeology demography economics epistemology literary studies palaeography palaeontology philology philosophy religion sociology textual criticism and so forth If these are not part of historical study then one may ask how one decides what is The realm of study of the historian in my view is unlimited In presenting controversies for use in the classroom I am placing myself firmly on the side of those who find discussing the parameters of scholarly debate a remarkably effective method for involving students in the material I know instructors who say that they cannot even get their students to understand one point of view let alone two or three on a particular topic It would just confuse them further they say The fault however 2 is not with their students Merely presenting one point of view is a sure way to dampen whatever interest students may have for the subject There is no way for them to get involved with the material when they have only one interpretation to contend with that of the teacher or the textbook With two or more viewpoints students can then test one against the other s They can get some leverage on the material which in turn leads to critical thinking and teaches them to be better citizens They learn to decide between different arguments whether among candidates for office in a political campaign or among lawyers and expert witnesses in a jury trial Trying to teach them only one correct opinion does none of these things Normal science the term used by Thomas Kuhn to designate when a particular paradigm prevails occurs either when the preponderance of evidence and analysis leads to one overriding interpretation or when a scholar or group of scholars exercise such authority in their field that few dare challenge them and their views When such challenges occur the usual response is to attempt to marginalize the challengers and their ideas Sometimes these challenges become the next paradigm more often they do not because they are not as good at explaining the evidence as the old paradigm In the course we will be maintaining a distinction between mystery and controversy A mystery is something unknown unexplained secret obscure or puzzling A controversy involves a public dispute contending views or conflicting opinions about some person event object or idea There have been a number of recent attempts to survey unsolved historical mysteries Most of these such as Editors of Life The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of All Time Fifty Baffling Cases from the Files which presents 50 crime mysteries involve murders or some other crime which while significant for the people involved and others who are interested in crime stories do not rise to the level of what I would call a historical controversy At least five books devoted to historical mysteries are worth considering for a course on historical controversies Three of them are journalistic treatments that get mixed reviews when examined under the scrutiny of historical methodology The first of these E Randall Floyd 100 of the World s Greatest Mysteries Augusta GA Harbor House 2000 spends two to three pages on each mystery Some of the topics treated such as Mighty Zimbabwe and Lost Colony of Roanoke have potential value for the classroom but most such as The Pharoah s Curse and Judge Crater s Strange Disappearance are just sensational stories that people have heard about Given the brief treatment of each mystery Floyd s book has little value for anyone who would like to find out more about any particular topic The second of these books Paul Aron Unsolved Mysteries of History An EyeOpening Investigation into the Most Baffling Events of All Time New York John Wiley Sons 2000 is a more serious effort It deals with twenty five topics in 211 pages The third book is also by Paul Aron Unsolved Mysteries of American History An Eye opening Journey through 500 Years of Discoveries Disappearances and Baffling Events New York John Wiley Sons 1998 which deal with 30 topics in 218 pages Many of the 3 topics in both books are for the most part well chosen in terms of being pithy historical controversies a number of them I also hope to include in this course but also interspersed with what I would call historical mysteries Two sequential chapters in the latter book provide a good


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