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"1493" and How We Teach History
September 18, 2011 - 8:30pm

Before I jump into an argument about how we teach history, I want to make we don't lose the point that Charles Mann's 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created is a wonderful book.

A modern updating of Crosby's classic The Columbian Exchange, Mann traces the biological, epidemiological, and agricultural impact of trade between Europe, Asia and the America's after 1493.

1493 is a book for fans of Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and Morris' Why the West Rules -- for Now.

If you like your history to be big, the scope to be wide, but to be tied into how you eat and pay your way in the world, then 1493 is probably perfect.

The last time I learned about the Columbian Exchange was in high school. Learning dates and the sequence of events, and getting familiar with maps and geography, was central to my high school history experience. As a history major in college the emphasis on maps, dates, and events diminished, as the work in primary sources came to the forefront.

I can't imagine 1493 will be much required in college history courses, as this type of historical narrative for a popular audience (written by a journalist and not a historian) probably does not conform to how postsecondary history is taught. This is perhaps too bad, as I just did not know most of the history of Columbian Exchange described in 1493.

Learning how to "do history", to work like historians, is probably not a bad thing. But most history undergraduate students will not go on to graduate school. A book like 1493, a book with strong opinions and lots of dates, geography, people and events, might be an example of the kind of works we should make room for in our history courses.

What are you reading?



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