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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] I want to talk about how to avoid some common mistakes when you're writing a historical paper. This could apply to a term paper, to a blue book essay, even really to your Master's thesis if you wanted to. I want to talk about three phrases that you might be tempted to use in a historical essay that actually muddy what you're trying to say and undercut your point more than it helps. So, these three phrases that I want to talk about are: "Throughout history," "It was inevitable," and "And that's why [insert country here] is so great today." So, why are these phrases so problematic? Let's start with "Throughout history." So, this is something that you frequently see in writing, from historical essays to pieces of journalism and it often has the ring of making something seem really strong and adding the weight of eons of history behind a single sentence. History is a very long thing. I mean, for recorded history we're going back maybe five thousand, seven thousand years. And think about the many different cultures and types of people and ideas that existed throughout that time period. If you're sitting down to write an essay about, let's say, The Cold War, and you start: "Throughout history people have feared nuclear attack," well, the first thing your reader is going to think is: "Wait! The nuclear bomb was only developed in 1945. I mean, that's not throughout history, that's only throughout the last seventy years." Or what about: "Throughout history people have gone to war over religion." Your reader might think: "Well, what about when people didn't live close enough to each other to go to war about different beliefs?" And do we really want to send the message that having different religions mean that you necessarily have to go to war? One thing that "Throughout history" does is it makes an assumption about human nature, right?, that the way that people think now is the way that people have always thought throughout history, or the way that people behave now is the way that people have always behaved throughout history. And if there's anything that is one of the core beliefs of the study of history is that people are different over time. It's fun to study the past because people in the past weren't like us. They had different ideas, different beliefs, different cultural values. And so, if you want to be really strong about how you start a historical essay, always start it in a really specific part of time that you're talking about. So, if you're talking about the period from 1945 to 1965, say "In the post-war era" or "In the late 19th century." And you might also add "In the United States." Right? This shows that you have a strong grasp of both the time and the place that you're writing about. And so, you can make an argument that is specific to that time period. Okay, let's move on to "It was inevitable." I think we like to use the word inevitable because it's long and it sounds pretty cool. But think about what inevitable really means. It means "It was unavoidable," there was no other thing that could have happened. Now think of a version of history where everything is inevitable. Everything was just going to happen no matter whether anyone did anything or not. That shows an interpretation of history that says that people's choices don't matter. And if you want to emphasize anything in history, it's how much choices matter. There are very few things that are inevitable in history. Most of them, I would say, are natural disasters, right? There is going to eventually be an earthquake in California is inevitable because there's a fault line. That's something that humans can't control, But for almost everything else in history, humans can control it. And they do decide how to react to certain situations. For example, take the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, right? This is the event that leads to the United States going to war with Spain over Cuba in 1898. And the reason that this happened was because the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. Now, we know and the Spanish suggested at the time that the reason that the USS Maine exploded was due to a spontaneous combustion on-board. There was an equipment malfunction. The United States chose to believe that this ship sinking was the result of a Spanish bomb and declared war. Now, you might have said: "War was inevitable." But it really wasn't. There were many ways that the United States could have chosen differently in that moment, to say: "Maybe we will believe the Spanish and just leave it alone" or "Maybe we'll send some financial aid to Cuba but we don't have to go to war." When you get rid of inevitability in history, you open up new choices, new ways that things could have gone. And that is really the heart of history, it's the possibility for things to be different than they were and different than they are. Okay, let's finish up with "And that's why [insert country here] is so great today." You see this all the time in historical papers. And I think writers are very tempted to finish a historical essay with some expression of patriotism. And maybe in a few rare cases this is true. You could say: "The United States is a better place today than it was in the 1950s thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964." But it's something you want to use very sparingly, because usually the scope of a historical paper - and think about our "Throughout history" here - isn't so huge as to merit the reaction to it being "This is the heart of what makes America great today." I've read historical papers about the Spanish Flu in 1919 that end with "And that's why America is great today." Ask yourself: is this relevant? And even if it is, is it the most relevant way that you could end an essay? For a historical essay you want to keep your conclusions very specific, the same way that you want to keep your period of time specific. So, if you're talking about the post-war era, conclude with something that you can actually substantiate, that you have substantiated in your essay, about the post-war era, say, "The wealth generated by industrialization after World War II was the reason that the Baby Boom happened." Don't say "And that's why America is great today." What do you mean by great? Do you mean economically great? Culturally Great? Politically great? It's a little too vague, and vagueness can really undermine your argument as opposed to supporting it. In a way these are all kind of appeals for human nature, appeals for the natural progress of history, and appeals to patriotism that are less rooted in the fact of what you want to say than they are rooted in ways of trying to get your reader sympathy. Instead what you can do is be specific in your time and your place. Emphasize choices and points where things might have gone differently than they did. And end with a conclusion that is very related to the things that you specifically addressed. Remember, you never want to introduce new information in your conclusion, and saying "And that's why America is great today" is new information, because it might not necessarily be related. Instead think about what it was you proved in this paper and key your conclusion directly to that.
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