Counterfactuals and Teaching

Wo ho ho ho, a post from Tim?! It cannot be!

Yes, I am once again attempting to maintain the subtle illusion that this blog is a two-man effort, instead of allowing Seth to shoulder all the weight of our page views. Luckily for me, today there occurred an eclipse of two arcane events. The first of these was the weekly rotation of my (currently unfulfilled) posting schedule, positing that Wednesday shall be the day of days in which Historical treatises and doo-dads would be spoken of. Secondly, a historical meme of sorts has shot through my facebook feed which caught my interest while simultaneously offering itself to the aforementioned topic at hand. A dark light glimmers off the dagger in my hand; the incantations have begun.

And thus ends my attempt at emulating Jerry Holkins‘ writing style, which I have been feverishly devouring throughout my playthrough of Precipice of Darkness 3. Nonetheless, I was serious when I said that a historical meme had caught my interest; adapted from a Reddit discussion, blogger (and all-around awesome dude) Geoff Micks attempted to answer the question of who would win (and why) in a massive knife fight between every US President

Counterfactual questions (hereon referred to as ‘counterfactuals’) like the aforementioned ask questions about the past with no bearing on reality. In a more scholarly definition, David Hackett Fisher referred to them as “an attempt to demonstrate by an empirical method what might have happened in history, as if in fact it had.”* Now, counterfactuals have had an uneasy relationship with most “serious” historians. There is a small group who’ve attempted to use them in order to express the importance of various causes or historical developments, but on the whole counterfactuals are nothing more than a fun diversion for most. The link above, though, suggests to me that Counterfactuals might offer a lot more than either side has realized, especially from an educational perspective.

The most important thing to take away is that counterfactuals, despite their fictional nature, almost always require a good grasp of the factual knowledge in order to be argued over. The jokes about the standard top two contenders, Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, only make sense if you are aware of the biographical knowledge about both men. Some comments to Micks’ post sought to reevaluate Carter’s performance in light of his Naval career and bravery in the Chalk River Meltdown incident, both of which would require a basic reading of his life story, at the very least. If one were to ask a group of students to determine who, of all the Presidents, would be the most likely to do something that strikes them as interesting (like win a knife fight), I would hypothesize that it’d be rather easy to get them scurrying for the encyclopedias, the internet, or even (le gasp!) biographies in order to churn out that winning factoid which supports their point. Which brings me to point number two…

…that it can be a great tool for helping students learn how to construct instead of just imitate arguments. Although they are still reliant on historical facts for argumentation purposes, Counterfactuals are inherently fictional. When we ask if Jackson would eviscerate Jefferson in a knife duel, a student’s creativity is the only limit to the answer of that question. If a teacher is there to guide the students and ensure that the arguments are relatively sound and the facts historically accurate, the students stand the chance of learning how to conduct vigorous and directed research, how to soundly debate, and how to construct good questions -all important tools for historians- without being intimidated by the historical record. These are effectively fictional histories constructed by students, so they won’t have any Historian or Authority figure browbeating them with “one damn thing after another.” Instead, the students would -hopefully- come to apply the facts and descriptions found in historical works. There is no regurgitation of someone else’s theory if you ask about the likelihood of Teddy Roosevelt, wearing only a necklace of teeth from his fresh kills, successfully hunting down Bill Clinton in a forest- because no historian would have written on that topic. The students can only come up with their thesis (Yes, he will ; No, he won’t.) and points to support that thesis.

This does make for one of the problematic parts of Counterfactuals, though. If they are to be used successfully, the line between fiction and fact would need to be clearly and rigorously guarded. The skillful use of sources would not be increased if the students didn’t use them, deciding instead to make up their own facts.

“No…No, Timmy. George Washington could not call upon his Beastmaster skills to murder his opponents with a mighty Triceratops.”

This is just a random scamper of my own thoughts on the subject, but now I’m curious- What sort of Counterfactuals do you think would be interesting or entertaining for students to ask?

*David Hackett Fischer “Historians’ Fallacies” pg. 15.


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