American History: a very qualified "Yaaay"
February 11, 2014 5:27 AM   Subscribe

After a year of production, John Green's Crash Course US History has come to an end, traveling from the conflicts between the native Americans and the Spanish to the Affordable Care Act.
posted by The Whelk (40 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm still finishing the Crash Course World History series before I start the US History one, but I've really enjoyed it. The videos are short, but Green points out the nuance and complications behind many things, such as how trade was far more influential in our history than war, but is focused on far less. By and by, the series is worth checking out, as is pretty much everything I've seen from John and his brother Hank.
posted by I am the Walrus at 6:21 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


I have watched this entire series from beginning to end with my homeschooled kid, alongside Crash Course World History. We started watching both series after my kid told me early in the school year, "History is boring." Now he knows it isn't. In fact he has been begging me to buy him a "We're the exception" Mongols t-shirt the way some kids beg for Minecraft gear. I really owe John Green on this one.
posted by BlueJae at 6:30 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]


> trade was far more influential in our history than war

That's a meaningless statement—or rather, its only actual meaning is "I would rather talk about trade than war." Without war there would be no US, or if you want to grandfather in the Revolutionary War and start from 1782, then without war the US would only be the original thirteen colonies. You tell me how trade is "far more influential" than that. And anyone who hasn't read Anderson and Cayton's Dominion of War should do so if they're interested in this stuff.
posted by languagehat at 6:49 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


So would this be suitable for my 12-year-old who loves history but hates to read?
posted by briank at 6:51 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


briank: yes.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:01 AM on February 11


I love living in a time where stuff like this is readily available.
posted by Harald74 at 7:02 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


These are great! Is it better to watch the world history one first if I might watch them both?
posted by geegollygosh at 7:08 AM on February 11


That's a meaningless statement—or rather, its only actual meaning is "I would rather talk about trade than war." Without war there would be no US, or if you want to grandfather in the Revolutionary War and start from 1782, then without war the US would only be the original thirteen colonies. You tell me how trade is "far more influential" than that. And anyone who hasn't read Anderson and Cayton's Dominion of War should do so if they're interested in this stuff.

Interestingly, the entry on the American Revolution in this emphasizes that the Revolutionary War was but one part of a grander sweeping movement which tends to get overlooked, but anyway, I think a simpler way to explain this series is that Green is a big adherent of Social Forces theory (while clearly being fascinated by the so-called Great Men and Women all the same) and thus tries to frame things in that way.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:09 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Thanks, Navelgazer.
posted by briank at 7:20 AM on February 11


Though I agree with you languagehat, I think a lot of it was to head off comments from a certain crowd about hurf-durf battles and war is the only thing that happened etc. and less so really saying that war isn't important.
posted by Carillon at 7:27 AM on February 11


Considering that the American Revolution began rather explicitly because of Britain's insistence on maintaining a trade balance with its colonies that was unfavorable to the colonies . . . well, one might argue that trade was a major impetus for that war.

However, those who love to learn about war may be pleased to discover that there is indeed quite a bit of war in the Crash Course history series. Just not much discussion of individual battles or battle tactics; the social and poilitical causes and effects of wars are emphasized much more than arguments about, say, which Civil War general was the bestest, or the details of exactly how, when and with what weapons certain groups of people in certain wars chose to kill one another.
posted by BlueJae at 7:33 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Oh also: I would say that the series seems to be aimed at high schoolers (it is in fact co-written by John Green's own high school history teacher) and/or adults who want to brush up on their history but my child, a (slightly precocious, school-wise) nine-year-old, enjoyed it thoroughly, even though I am not sure he got all of the pop culture jokes. References to historically relevant sex and violence are not particularly explicit and are tempered with a lot of goofiness. It's very easy to follow. I think it would be perfect for a 12-year-old.
posted by BlueJae at 7:41 AM on February 11


I introduced the Green brothers' educational videos to Metafilter, and in a lot of ways am still taken with them, but as I've watched more of their stuff I've grown increasingly uneasy about their shows. Where the more I know about the various topics Hank, and to a slightly lesser extent John, Green discuss the more I'm aware that they really have no more than a solid high school level understanding of them.

The Green brothers have never been so great at fact checking their stuff for how popular they are, generally not so terrible, but not so great. They are pretty consistently fooled by urban legends, popular myths, and easy misunderstandings of things, that they then present in ways that are accessible and easy to digest. They are great educators, but not experts in anything they talk about, and I guess don't get support from people who are because it does show. What set me over the edge was this video made by Hank Green where he gets suckered in by transparent cranks, communicates fundamental misunderstandings of a field he clearly knows nothing about, and spends most of it expounding on his own idiosyncratic nomenclature for no reason. He later retracted the video with an apology, after presumably someone talked to him, but that something so ridiculously bad made it up to begin with kind of makes the point.

For American secondary education to function it needs at least 1.05 million high school teachers, which is way too many for us to make them into experts in most anything other than education itself, but this seems like a waste of the potential that youtube has for education. For example just look at how many women who are actual experts there are using youtube for education, why should we rely on these guys?
posted by Blasdelb at 7:45 AM on February 11 [7 favorites]


"So would this be suitable for my 12-year-old who loves history but hates to read?"

Even with my other objections, it absolutely would.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:47 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


I think "trade was as influential in our history as war" is maybe more accurate and a better descriptor of the way Green frames it.

Oh also: I would say that the series seems to be aimed at high schoolers

Definitely, and this is what I love about some of Green's choices - the trade v. war thing and a direct look at the history of US imperialism are a refreshing change from the kind of history I got in high school.
posted by jason_steakums at 7:51 AM on February 11


Navelgazer: "Interestingly, the entry on the American Revolution in this emphasizes that the Revolutionary War was but one part of a grander sweeping movement which tends to get overlooked, but anyway, I think a simpler way to explain this series is that Green is a big adherent of Social Forces theory (while clearly being fascinated by the so-called Great Men and Women all the same) and thus tries to frame things in that way."

I think the objection is less toward his specific biases and more towards his inability to consistently present them in a coherent and meaningful way
posted by Blasdelb at 7:53 AM on February 11


Definitely, and this is what I love about some of Green's choices - the trade v. war thing and a direct look at the history of US imperialism are a refreshing change from the kind of history I got in high school.

Yeah a friend and I were discussing some problems with his treatment of the Byzantine Empire the other day, and there were some nits to be picked certainly, but he was actually talking about the Byzantine Empire which is refreshing for something aimed at this level. Similarly, his treatment of Native Americans is probably flawed, but it's more and better than I got in high school history. I'm sure that in the fields that he covers that I don't know about, he's got some errors, but after watching them I know more than I started with, so that's something.

I also like them because I find John Green kind of insanely charming, but that's another thing.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:57 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Yes, unfortunately the more you know about the subject the more you are likely to be uneasy with these videos. The crash course video on Buddhism, for instance is... not so great. But it's like compressing anything down to a sound bite; nuance is frequently everything, but if you've made someone interested in the subject it's probably a net success. And I have to imagine that the purpose of these videos are to create a desire for knowledge, not to satiate that desire.
posted by selfnoise at 8:04 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


I love pretty much everything the Green borthers do, but I do understand and to some extent share Blasdelb's misgivings (I'm especially nervous about Hank tackling psychology, an especially slippery subject).
I think part of it might stem from the fact that the way YouTube is structured (and maybe the way John and Hank fund and thus promote the channel, I'm not sure) makes it less than obvious that CrashCourse is written explicitly for high school students, not for adults or those seeking a deep understanding of the topic. I know less about the Hank science side of things but the John history and humanities series are written by Raoul Meyer, a high school AP World History teacher (and a very funny guy on Twitter). The target audience is kids, and I think that informs the way the content is presented (and works well with John's hyperactive speaking style).
posted by Wretch729 at 8:08 AM on February 11


And I have to imagine that the purpose of these videos are to create a desire for knowledge, not to satiate that desire.

I think in large part that's where the problems come from - the Green bros are very clearly just psyched about knowledge and education and using new media to reach people that there's a bit of quantity over quality going on in their approach to subjects. I'm not sure what their production schedule is like, but it would probably be a good thing for them to slow it down just a bit and have a few more critical, expert eyes give the scripts a once-over before they shoot.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:20 AM on February 11


I also really don't want to seem as negative about them as I guess my comment naturally reads. They, and especially John Green OMG, are insanely charming and really do a fantastic job of communicating and transmitting an excitement about their subjects, which especially at a high school level can be so much more important than communicating accurate information about the subjects themselves. The whole shtick would benefit immensely from some editorial control from people who know what they're talking about to keep out the bullshit and people with a better sense of whats not ok to keep out the virulent misogyny, but is inherently really cool.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:21 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


And to clarify I don't mean that being targeted at kids excuses factual inaccuracies (or the problematic language in that video Blasdelb just linked, c'mon Hank you're better than that), but I do think it explains a lack of comprehensiveness. The history series (US and world) walk a tricky balance between trying to give a decent summary of their topics in very compressed format and simultaneously draw out a few examples to show that history is a contingent inerplay between complex forces and more than just a single textbook explanation. They might not always succeed, but I'm happy they try.

Also Blasdelb's post about women in STEM linked above is really useful and great, moreso since many of the people linked therein ARE subject matter experts.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:30 AM on February 11


I think there's a case that can be made that American wars existed at the services of trade. Certainly the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

I mean, I'm not going to make the case. I think the primary motivating force in American culture was some occult urge to discover the ukulele.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:00 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


The history series (US and world) walk a tricky balance between trying to give a decent summary of their topics in very compressed format and simultaneously draw out a few examples to show that history is a contingent inerplay between complex forces and more than just a single textbook explanation. They might not always succeed, but I'm happy they try.

I'd really love to see what John could to with a deeper look at a smaller period of time or a narrower topic.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:04 AM on February 11


trade was far more influential in our history than war

That's a meaningless statement—or rather, its only actual meaning is "I would rather talk about trade than war." Without war there would be no US, or if you want to grandfather in the Revolutionary War and start from 1782, then without war the US would only be the original thirteen colonies. You tell me how trade is "far more influential" than that.


Without trade, the vast majority of wars wouldn't have happened. The Revolution? Tax revolt that went aggro. Civil War? Slavery was an economic issue for the South far more than a moral one.

Without trade, the U.S. wouldn't have been colonized at all. There's a reason no one's yet fought a war over Antarctica -- it's been too hard to get at what's there so far.
posted by Etrigan at 9:18 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


> Though I agree with you languagehat, I think a lot of it was to head off comments from a certain crowd about hurf-durf battles and war is the only thing that happened etc. and less so really saying that war isn't important.

OK, I can buy that. But having learned from the thread how casual their attitude toward accuracy is in general and the level at which the videos are aimed, I'm less concerned about it.
posted by languagehat at 9:36 AM on February 11


I'm not sure they need to slow down their production schedule for their purposes so much as to add a section in each video addressing concerns/corrections/clarifications brought to their attention from their (pretty massive) nerdfighter brigade. Since their goal is to get people interested in studying this stuff themselves, and since John already uses a device of mocking himself "from the past" and his earlier smug misconceptions, it should fit pretty well into what they're doing already.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:43 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I think the Crash Course Histories don't hold up so well to someone who's more familiar with the subject, and there's nothing really new there to anyone who knows their history, but the target audience is high schoolers and people looking to brush up on their history. It's not that the videos are full of egregious inaccuracies or anything, it's just that there's only so much you can do in 10-15 minutes. Crash Course History isn't meant to replace a college-level history course after all.

I'm jealous of the high schoolers that have the likes of Crash Course to supplement their classes. I had decent high school history teachers, and I still would have welcomed having an additional voice like John Green to supplement high school history classes that could rely too heavily on textbooks as the Truth of History.

Also, the Thought Bubble animations are a lot of fun, I've definitely watched a bunch of Crash Course videos just to enjoy those animations.
posted by yasaman at 9:44 AM on February 11


These are great! Is it better to watch the world history one first if I might watch them both?

Start with whichever one you're more interested in. FWIW, world history generally comes before US history in high school curricula in my experience. I started with the world history series first since I feel pretty up to speed on my US history already and knew I'd just get nitpicky about it.
posted by yasaman at 9:47 AM on February 11


Since their goal is to get people interested in studying this stuff themselves, and since John already uses a device of mocking himself "from the past" and his earlier smug misconceptions, it should fit pretty well into what they're doing already.

That would be great, actually, the smug John of the present who mocked "me from the past" in one episode gets to sit down and be mocked as "me from the recent past" in a correction.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:47 AM on February 11


Also, John's Literature series (which he's getting back to now!) avoids a lot of the little problems of the History series (which I'm still fine with mostly overlooking) because he's going into analysis of fictional works of which he is clearly specifically knowledgable and passionate about.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:56 AM on February 11




So would this be suitable for my 12-year-old who loves history but hates to read?
inability to consistently present them in a coherent and meaningful way . . . I have to imagine that the purpose of these videos are to create a desire for knowledge, not to satiate that desire. . . quantity over quality . . . would benefit immensely from some editorial control from people who know what they're talking about . . . factual inaccuracies . . . a lack of comprehensiveness . . . very compressed format . . . I'd really love to see what John could to with a deeper look at a smaller period of time or a narrower topic . . . a meaningless statement—or rather, its only actual meaning is "I would rather talk about trade than war." . . . their attitude toward accuracy . . . they need to . . . . add a section in each video addressing concerns/ corrections/ clarifications brought to their attention . . . don't hold up so well to someone who's more familiar with the subject . . . It's not that the videos are full of egregious inaccuracies or anything, it's just that there's only so much you can do in 10-15 minutes.

So no, 'hates to read" is not an option.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:58 AM on February 11


The Revolution? Tax revolt that went aggro.

...not so much. They complained of taxation without representation, but the lack of representation -- being told over and over through word and deed that colonial legislatures were essentially meaningless and could be trumped by the British Parliament where the colonies weren't represented at all -- was the part they were worked up about. The Intolerable Acts were a part of the inspiration for the Revolution, but they weren't the imposition of crushing tax they've been spun as in years since. The Tea Act, for instance, lowered the price of tea, even below the smuggled tea prices. If you read the propaganda of the time, you'll see a lot more talk about liberty than taxes.
posted by Zed at 10:07 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


So no, 'hates to read" is not an option.

Well, these series are very good for sparking the kind of excitement that might lead to a desire to read up on this stuff, or as a stepping stone to some deeper history podcasts or something. The series has flaws, but most people pointing out those flaws that you've quoted are also taking pains to point out that it has great value, too.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:20 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


They complained of taxation without representation, but the lack of representation... was the part they were worked up about.... If you read the propaganda of the time, you'll see a lot more talk about liberty than taxes.

And "states' rights" was the propaganda reason for the Civil War, but at its base, it was about economics -- the trade of cotton would have been severely hampered if the South had to pay a market wage. No one's going to stand up in front of a battalion and say, "You boys are going to risk your lives and end other boys' lives because taxes are too high!" It's always about freedom -- the fact that most of the time, it's the freedom of people and nations to make money (and thereby to exert control), isn't talked about in the literature of the moment.

The Intolerable Acts were a part of the inspiration for the Revolution, but they weren't the imposition of crushing tax they've been spun as in years since.

The Intolerable Acts were imposed because of trade issues.

The Founding Fathers weren't upset because they didn't have a vote -- they were upset because they didn't have a vote and the votes that were taking place were taking money out of their pockets, directly and indirectly.
posted by Etrigan at 10:32 AM on February 11


If you read the propaganda of the time, you'll see a lot more talk about liberty than taxes.

"I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence." - John Adams.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:39 AM on February 11


I think a good way to look at Crash Course is that it fills much the same sort of role as Mythbusters.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:12 AM on February 11


> And "states' rights" was the propaganda reason for the Civil War, but at its base, it was about economics

You apparently believe that everything is about economics. Like all belief systems, yours is impervious to outside attack because it rests on replicas of itself, like the turtles that uphold the world.
posted by languagehat at 1:10 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


And "states' rights" was the propaganda reason for the Civil War, but at its base, it was about economics

You apparently believe that everything is about economics. Like all belief systems, yours is impervious to outside attack because it rests on replicas of itself, like the turtles that uphold the world.


The Civil War was about economics -- as you truncated from that very sentence, "the trade of cotton would have been severely hampered if the South had to pay a market wage." Yes, there was also racism behind slavery, but it was rationalization to justify why they had to keep slaves to keep their overhead low. If someone had invented a steam-powered robot that could replace a slave for less money, the proponents of the Peculiar Institution would have gladly rid themselves of it (in a way that kept all the votes for themselves).
posted by Etrigan at 3:12 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


If you read the propaganda of the time, you'll see a lot more talk about liberty than taxes.

You will also see a lot of talk about religion, not least of all the threat to install Anglican bishops in the colonies. Big stuff at the time.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:55 PM on February 11


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