Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

A Japanese nobleman prepares to kill himself. Why? Because he’d rather die than try to make sense of Japanese history using conventional sources!

The answer is Powell History’s “First History” method!  The first lecture of my new course on the  First History of Japan for Adults will be available FREE as a podcast, exclusively on Facebook, as of this Saturday!

Please join me at:  http://www.facebook.com/AFirstHistoryForAdults for the solution!

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As many PHR readers know, I created HistoryAtOurHouse–the ultimate history resource for homeschoolers–over five years ago.  It has grown by leaps and bounds in that time, and even spawned two (and soon more) associated product lines. Here are some relevant links to explore, for those of you interested in the potential for an educational revolution through sound pedagogy and the distance learning paradigm:

HistoryAtOurHouse Links

ScienceAtOurHouse Links


MusicAtOurHouse Links

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Want a tiny dose of what a history class could and should have been like when you were young?  Excerpts from the ongoing History At Our House ancient history program are now available via Podbean and iTunes.

This week’s segment:  A discussion with high school students concerning the value of history — especially a crucial contrast between the Founding Fathers and nineteenth century German intellectuals.

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Because as children we are not taught how to seek the living past in the present, most people never develop what I call the “history habit.

The “history habit,” like its more famous cousin the “reading habit,” is an ingrained intellectual method of functioning. It means studying history as an automatic, unquestioned behavioral pattern. It means that seeking to gain and sustain an awareness of the past on a regular basis comes as naturally as turning on the TV after a hard day’s work.

In my experience the fact that adult students, through no fault of their own, do not have the history habit, is the single most limiting factor in their ability to gain insight, inspiration, and instruction from history.   Even students of Powell History who find themselves carried along by the compelling narrative of ancient, European, American, or any other history, tend to take their history classes and then, returning to their normal lives, find that the content simply slips away.  Because history is not integrated into their intellectual lives, they can’t retain the facts — a psycho-epistemological problem I call the problem of “sinking concretes” — and in the absence of any integrated factual framework (i.e. a “big picture” outlook) from which to productively continue their studies, they find themselves back where they started.

Not entirely, to be sure.  Any student who has been inspired by A First History for Adults at least gains a more positive outlook on what history can be and may be inclined to dabble in it here or there, seeking ways to incorporate it into one’s professional life, political activism, or investing practices, as the case may be.  Some who have the time and motivation go back and listen to courses repeatedly.

Any form of periodic review of one’s studies of history is what I mean by “iteration”–the fifth I of history.

If one’s goal in studying history is powerful knowledge, then regularly revisiting and expanding one’s historical knowledge base is actually a necessity.  Powerful knowledge means useful knowledge, means knowledge that is used.  Here the popular phrase “use it, or lose it” definitely applies.

But how?

One form of iteration is simply going over the same content again, as in simply retaking Powell History courses.  (When you buy one, you get permanent access, so there’s no extra cost to re-listening. And you can keep a personal recording for yourself as well.)  Another, complementary approach is to use the resources that I provide in the various First History for Adults courses that I call “first histories,” which can be used in conjunction with my courses or after them.

In recognition of the challenges involved in the upkeep of historical knowledge for non-historians, I’m also going to be creating some other easier ways for Powell History students to keep their knowledge vital and relevant.

One is free one-hour video and audio lectures on various topics, including summaries of American, European, and ancient history.  Not only will these videos be the best introduction to the histories of any particular nation for those who haven’t taken my courses yet, but they will also be a great way for former students to go back and revisit the content they’ve seen before, as well as a way to motivate them to revisit the lectures they’ve taken which provide more detail.

Another way will be to follow the new PHR newsletter, either by subscribing to this blog or my e-mail list.  The newsletter will help adult students acquire the history habit, despite not having done so in childhood, simply by offering a regular, accessible presentation of historical topics, often connected to current events, to help people build a bridge between the past and their own values here and now, and to regularly practice fostering that connection.

I’m going to call the feature the “History Pop Quiz,” and my goal is to make it a weekly one.  Look for it, coming soon!

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It will have occurred to some readers that the notion that the key pedagogical principles of history can be stated in the form of five “I“s is a little too convenient, if not downright gimmicky. Nonetheless, the principles are what they are, and they happen to each start with the letter “i.” (Those readers who adhere to a code of rational egoism may find this fact mildly amusing.)

I consider the three Is introduced thus far to be the cardinal values of history. They are forms of that which by means of history we seek to gain and or keep: powerful knowledge.  I have discussed these three Is with my students at various junctures, and so it may have surprised some of you to find that the number of them had expanded from three to five.   The reason for the expansion is that the next two key Is in the Powell History method are the means to those ends, which I’ve come to recognize as being as crucial as the ends themselves.

In evaluating the successes of my courses for adults and children over the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to confirm without a doubt that in the pursuit of powerful knowledge about the past, the fundamental challenge is epistemological.

History is a plethora of facts. When presented in an un- or dis-integrated manner, its vast constellation of facts are impossible to understand or remember. Only by brute-force rote memorization do professional historians manage to do so within their subspecializations, but for normal (and psychologically healthy) human beings, who lack the motivation to pursue useless information, the past is an insurmountable overabundance of information.

That is why integration is the key to learning history.

Integration,” in the words of philosopher Ayn Rand, “is a cardinal function of man’s consciousness on all the levels of his cognitive development. First, his brain brings order into his sensory chaos by integrating sense data into percepts…His next step is the integration of percepts into concepts, as he learns to speak. Thereafter, his cognitive development consists in integrating concepts into wider and ever wider concepts, expanding the range of his mind.”

By means of historical integration, one’s awareness can expand to include 5000 years of recorded human experience across the full spectrum of human civilizations.




Powell History integrates history like never before. The secret of the Powell History method is called “periodization.” Properly understood, periodization is not merely the breaking up of history into periods, but an abstract process of differentiation and integration, where the ultimate aim is the organization of history into a conceptually coherent whole. It is only in this form that history can optimally deliver the values of instruction, insight, and inspiration.

Students of the A First History for Adults series are already familiar with this technique to some extent.  It has actually been applied with far more rigor, and with fantastic results in the junior high and high school classes of History At Our House — which has allowed me to learn that much more about it and thus permitted me to study and communicate history with an ever greater efficiency.  (The power of this method will be demonstrated to a new degree in the upcoming A First History for Adults Part 5: Japan, China, and India, coming this summer.  Registration opens in April, so stay tuned!) 

Part of the purpose of the PHR newsletter, is to help my students and all adult learners of history better understand this method by acting as a forum to publish information about the ongoing development of this method, including the application of the method to specific examples from ancient, European, American, and world history, which brings us to the fifth “I”…

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One of the cardinal values of a proper method of history is the pursuit of “insight” into the world around us. Only history can answer the fundamental queries we naturally pursue from our childhood, and only become discouraged of asking through the failure of modern pedagogy. “Where did the world around us come from? How did things come to be the way they are now? Who made it so? Where are we headed? Down what path? What forces shape the world, and by what means? Do we control the world we live in, and, if so, in what sense?

When Herodotus, that other great ancient Greek historian, proposed to record the results of his inquiries into the shaping of the Greek world, he explained that his purpose was “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements of both the Greek and the non-Greek peoples; and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict.”

Herodotus’s goal was to help the Greeks see their land within a geographic and cultural continuum of peoples, and the events unfolding around then as part of a chain of cause and effect that had brought them where they were. To the student of the world informed by history, the moment is always to be integrated into an arc connecting past, present, and future. It is thus both the culmination of a knowable process and a link in a progression leading to yet further predictable milestones in a causal series.

One may not be able to predict, for instance, the precise moment of a revolution in post-Nasserist Egypt, but one may very well have predicted that Egypt would be the next US-supported Middle East regime to be toppled (see: The Islamist Entanglement, lecture 4) and that it would necessarily gravitate towards an Islamist government. While Western commentators were tripping over each other in the past year to find hopeful signs of a “liberal” regime emerging from the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the outcome could never have been in doubt for those who benefit from the insight that history provides.

One particularly sharp example of the difference between a purely journalistic outlook and a historical one was demonstrated in the exchange between MSNBC anchors and Harvard historian Niall Fergusson — available on Youtube:

One of the general themes I discuss in The Islamist Entanglement is that more democracy will always mean more Islamism in the foreseeable future of every major regime in the Middle East – including Turkey, the most “Western” regime, where growing Islamism is and always has been a popular movement in the post-Kemalist era there.

To demonstrate the importance of a proper causal perspective on history, one of the regular features of the new PHR newsletter will be a “Vectors” feature.  In this feature we will look at current events that reflect historically significant trends in order to predict the shape of the world to come.  (Coming in April, for instance, we’ll examine what I call the “debt aggregation” vector, which portends a false stability and far greater financial disruptions than the 2008 financial crisis to come. Stay tuned!)

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Although the instructional value of history provides a crucial underpinning of the American Revolution, it is not the only value that history provides that helped make the republic that is the United States and that can help those who still seek to keep it. “Without the classical example,” states historian Hannah Arendt “…none of the men of the revolutions on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then turned out to be unprecedented action.” In other words, history can empower us emotionally as well as intellectually by presenting actual, successful heroes who moved the world.

Literature and art, for their part, serve as inspiration when they present human beings as they could and ought to be: Michelangelo’s courageous David facing off against Goliath, the swashbuckling poet Cyrano de Bergerac questing for love, or Terrence Rattigan’s Arthur Winslow seeking justice for his son in the Winslow Boy. Although, due to the failing of modern historians, history is usually viewed as dry and devoid of such emotional fuel, one of the crucial functions of history is in fact to inspire, and to do so in a way that only it can.

The unique source of inspiration that a proper study of history can provide is the sight of man as he actually has been and can be again.

The incomparable heroism of King Leonidas of Sparta, defending Greece to the death at Thermopylae, the unbending integrity of Galileo in his pursuing of scientific truth in defiance of the nearly monolithic power of the Catholic Church, the genius and poise of Washington crossing the Delaware to victory against the Hessians at Trenton; these examples are not invention. They are the truth of human beings at their greatest. It’s no wonder that a young history student of mine from Norway once exclaimed, history “…keeps me more thrilled than any movie.”

HISTORY THROUGH ARTHistory can inspire in many ways.  In its basic narrative form, it can mimic literature.  But its power to inspire can also arise in other forms, including film and painting.  One of the unique features of the Powell History pedagogical approach is the use of visual art to both facilitate students’ grasp of history and to help students draw inspiration from the past.

The benefits of this approach are manifold.  From an instructional perspective, visual art concretizes the abstract narrative of the past, providing us with a past that can be seen.  By means of the compositional or thematic integration of the art itself, it also helps to integrate the meaning of the past.  (For instance, in the painting below, the symbolic inscriptions in the bottom left tie the events of Napoleonic history to an ancient past, evoking crucial comparisons and themes.)  Looking at great art, as in the images below, one need hardly elaborate on its power to inspire as well.  Challenges sometimes arise about the objectivity of the inspirational themes involved, but when instruction and inspiration are connected to genuine values, the final product is invaluable.  This will be a theme that we aggressively pursue in the new PHR!

Great historical art can inspire and instruct at the same time. Look for a complete analysis of David's Bonaparte Crossing the Alps in an upcoming issue of PHR.

The unique ability of visual art to instruct and inspire will be regularly featured in upcoming issues of PHR, including Jacques-Louis David's amazing Death of Socrates.

The ultimate example of thematic historical visualization: Emmanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware (closeup by Lee Sandstead). More on this painting coming up in PHR!

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