The biggest problem with most history classes is that they are simply boring (as anyone who took history in high school can attest). Out of those that manage to be engaging or at least entertaining, the biggest problem is that you, the student, don’t retain the material you have learned: you may remember a few individual facts, but not the material as a sum. These classes are little better than storytime.
Powell History solves both problems, easily putting it in the top 1% of history lectures or writing I have ever encountered.
First, the lectures are engaging. Scott tells history for what it is: a grand, dramatic narrative, an epic tale literally about the fate of the entire world. He carefully chooses the characters and events to focus on, and explains the causal connections, the link from one event to another.
Scott shows you the connections between the people, places, and events of history–not only the causal connections in a sequence of events, but also, through his patented “periodizations”, the connections between events in a period, such as the Reformation, the American colonial wars, or the growth of the union in the period before the Civil War. The result is that each period becomes a meaningful mental unit and a means by which the student can remember history.
One of the great virtues of Scott’s periodizations is that they are hierarchical. There are only so many dates you can put in a period–say, the Age of Discovery–before you start forgetting them. Scott solves this problem the only way it can be solved: by organizing events in a logical hierarchy. Thus, the student learns to put a series of dates of individual voyages together under the heading “the circumnavigation of Africa”; another series of dates under “the discovery of America”, another set under “the circumnavigation of the globe”, etc. Then, only a handful of subheadings like this go to make up the higher-level integration of “The Age of Discovery”. Taking this a step further, the Age of Discovery can be combined with other periodizations at the same level–the Copernican Revolution in science, the Italian Renaissance in art, the Elizabethan Renaissance in literature, and others–to form the grand heading of the Renaissance, a historical “abstraction from abstractions.” In this way, Scott renders history intelligible and retainable.
This is why, when I took the first session of Powell History, I felt that I was learning history for the first time, despite all my previous study of it. I now know, for instance, the significance of 1066, the meaning of the Reformation, and the content of the Monroe Doctrine. (If you took history in an American school, you probably recognize all of those words–and know none of the content behind them.) I also know the challenges faced by the Founding Fathers to keep the nation together even after they had won the Revolutionary War, thanks to Scott’s explanation of the “Critical Period.” I understand the impossible compromises made in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and why they were futile. I know what made the Roaring Twenties roar.
In brief, I’m thrilled with Scott’s courses. They are what I have been seeking ever since high school: a way not just to hear about history from someone else who knows it, but to learn it for myself.