Gilder Lehrman’s “Essential Questions”: Big Issues in Short Videos

Essential Questions in American History” is a series of short videos of prominent historians summarizing her or his thinking on an important topic in two minutes or less. They are the historian’s version of an elevator speech, designed to quickly challenge conventional wisdom and whet the appetite for further investigation.

As a number of bloggers, tweeters, and readers have been talking about William Cronon’s challenge to academic historians to consider wider audiences (and a wider tent, professionally), the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has quietly demonstrated through these “Essential Questions” videos that some of our most celebrated “academic” historians can readily communicate complex ideas to a general audience.

How was North America settled before European Colonization? Let’s remember first that the “new world,” from the perspective of the natives, was very much an “old world,” already thoroughly settled, with several “sophisticated complex societies,” argues Peter Mancall.

 

What caused the American Revolution? Pauline Maier has a three word answer: “Obviously the Brits.” She goes on to elaborate on the “Massive failure of British statesmanship,” an answer that should inspire teachers and students to expand their thinking beyond events in Massachusetts and Virginia.

 

What caused the Civil War? “Slavery,” states Edward Ayers. But how? Or more specifically, why would slavery cause this war at this time? Ayer’s explanation demonstrates how even the simplest answers unfold into complex explorations.

 

What caused the Civil War? “Slavery,” states Edward Ayers. But how? Or more specifically, why would slavery cause this war at this time? Ayer’s explanation demonstrates how even the simplest answers unfold into complex explorations.

The project, which currently consists of 10 videos online, arose from Gilder Lehrman Education Coordinator Lance Warren’s experiences with Teaching American History workshops: “I have heard teachers request, time and again, short succinct videos that they can use to help explain complex topics to their students.” Warren decided to take this idea to some of the most eminent in the profession; to let them explain, in their own words, the importance of the question and some of the more surprising answers. “Some of the scholars found the interviews perhaps a bit more stressful than fun,” Warren recalled. “Condense what I’ve studied my whole life into two minutes?—Crazy!” Still, he concluded, “everyone was genuinely invested in offering our audience a crisp, cogent answer that would inspire further study.”

This struggle to condense isn’t apparent in the online videos, nor is any of the “Professional Boredom” raised recently by William Cronon. More apparent is the enthusiasm historians can experience when they are able to juggle context, multiple historical threads, divergent actors and motivations, and all the while poke holes in simplistic, pat answers. In the videos, we see historians in their element, yet able to communicate to those outside.

Warren hopes the videos will draw teachers and students to other aspects of Gilder Lehrman’s new website, especially to the “History by Era” feature. But even further, he added, “For anyone who accepts the canard that scholars can communicate only through dense scholarship—and never with ordinary people—these videos present an eloquent challenge. They are evidence of the excellence and relevance of the historical profession today.”

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