Most Complex Historical Processes Can’t Be Explained Through a Single Cause

The Washington Post recently wrote an article about an ongoing debate between economic historians and historians of capitalism (the two are not the same) about the role of slavery in the U.S. economy before the Civil War, particularly the relationship between slavery and capitalism. This debate has been taking place for a number of years, from what I can gather, but I find the Post’s handling of this extended conversation to be mildly annoying.

Generally speaking, the historians of capitalism argue that the two were intimately related and that slavery thrived and expanded in the U.S. precisely because of capitalism. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman have recently argued that the sheer number of enslaved people throughout the South, combined with Northern (and British) capital investment in the institution renders “an unclear line of demarcation between a capitalist North and a slave South, with consequences for how we understand North and South as discrete economies—and whether we should do so in the first place.” In the Post article we hear from Edward Baptist, another historian of capitalism, who argues that the torturing of enslaved people was foundational to slavery’s growth and expansion by forcing them to produce at higher and higher rates to account for the increased demand in slave-picked cotton during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Economic historians, on the other hand, generally caution that collapsing the distinctions between Northern and Southern economies runs the risk of complicating our ability to explain how the Civil War came about. If the institution of slavery was so strongly supported in the North, then how do you explain the rise of popular anti-slavery parties in the North during the 1840s and 1850s that campaigned on the argument that slavery was a threat to the value of one’s labor and a less efficient production system than one based on free labor principles? How do you explain the origins of a bloody civil war between the two sections if their economic systems were so intimately connected? Where do discussions over sectional disagreements about economic policies like tariffs, taxes, public land sales, and government involvement in infrastructure projects fit within the capitalist historians’ focus? Furthermore, in responding to Baptist, Alan Olmstead argues that new seed technologies accelerated cotton production and played the most crucial role in fostering slavery’s growth, not slave torture.

I don’t propose to offer any concrete answers to this discussion other than to say that I find the way the Post has framed the issue isn’t really productive. Must historians’ explanation for slavery’s growth in the United States–an incredibly complex topic that could take a lifetime to study–be whittled down to a single cause: torture or seeds? Isn’t it more plausible to suggest that the two ideas (and probably more) of the various camps can coexist and complement each other? I think so. Increased cotton production in the South by enslaved labor before the Civil War was possible because of political and economic policies (national, state, and local), social practices, scientific and religious beliefs, and a strong law enforcement/police state that allowed for this state of affairs to flourish and grow.

I do not mean to suggest that historians must put equal weight to all factors when explaining a particular historical event or topic; weighing out these factors is part of the fun in debating these issues. Whenever possible, I think the quantification of empirical evidence allows historians a chance to put more weight into their claims for one particular factor over another. But historians should always strive for complexity and nuance rather than either-or propositions as the Post would have us understand this topic. When the goal becomes over-simplification and monocausal explanations for complex historical processes, I think we end up doing more harm than good to the historical record.



Why Teacher Evaluations Can’t Be Measured Largely Through Standardized Tests

This isn't going to work.
This isn’t going to work.

Regardless of how any individual Missouri voter feels about the results of the 2014 midterm election, all voters in the Show-Me State have much to celebrate with their collective rejection of Constitutional Amendment 3, a poorly written special interest-funded initiative that would have hurt the state’s schools, teachers, and students. The initiative was largely funded by Rex Sinquefield, a St. Louis philanthropist who has never taught a k-12 class and who put $1.2 million of his own money into a lobbying group called “Teach Great” to promote the measure. Despite these efforts the amendment was rejected by a 3-to-1 margin and not a single county had a majority of its population vote in support of it. In rejecting this amendment, Missouri voters took a principled stand against the elimination of teacher tenure and the implementation of additional standardized testing to measure teacher performance in the state’s public schools. In the essay that follows I will outline why such a program would have never worked in the first place had voters approved this atrocious legislation.


The full text of the proposed amendment can be read at the Missouri Secretary of State’s office here. Key sections of the text include Section 3e, which eliminates teacher tenure by requiring all schools to enter into contracts with teachers for only three years at most, and Section 3f, which stipulates that all schools enter into a “standards based performance evaluation” that “shall be based upon quantifiable student performance data as measured by objective criteria.”

The desire to eliminate teacher tenure largely stems from popular misunderstandings of what tenure entails. Many people think tenure means a lifetime appointment without threat of termination, which in turn will ostensibly breed laziness and incompetence in the classroom. In reality a tenured Missouri teacher can be terminated at any time for one of six clearly listed violations, including incompetence, insubordination, immoral conduct, and felony conviction. All tenure does is ensure that a teacher who works for five years at the same district no longer has to rely on a year-to-year contract to ensure their employment status with that district. Moreover, if a tenured teacher is terminated from their contract, they are entitled to a hearing before the district’s school board, whereas non-tenured teachers can be dismissed without cause or a hearing. That’s it.

A standards based performance evaluation relying heavily on quantifiable student performance data is fraught with all sorts of evaluative difficulties and uncertainties. To demonstrate this point we can think about how such a system would work for medical doctors. There are many types of doctors out there, but let us specifically consider Dr. Gregory House, my favorite TV doctor.

Dr. House and his team are diagnosticians who care for patients with a range of medical issues. Some are minor, others are life-threatening. To ensure that Dr. House and his team are providing good medical care to their patients, we might say that a “standards based performance evaluation using quantitative data” about patient responses to their medical diagnoses would be most appropriate for assessing these doctors’ performances. This data may give us insights into how long people stayed at the hospital, what sorts of ailments they suffered from, how many people died under the doctors care, etc. On the face of it these suggestions seem like fair, objective measures for analyzing Dr. House’s team, just as a standards based evaluation looks fair to teachers.

Few people, however, would fail to acknowledge that the patients under Dr. House’s care have specific socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds that do not easily fall under a quantitative measure of assessment. How a person takes care of his or her self–diet, exercise, sleep habits–influences their body’s ability to respond to a doctor’s treatment (in addition to genetics, which we are still learning about). Economic inequalities may prevent someone from getting appropriate medical treatment during the early stages of their ailment. Some people simply have a negative perception of doctors and/or medicine and opt out of treatment until it’s too late. All of these factors play a role in the doctor-patient-medicine relationship, and the effectiveness of Dr. House’s diagnostics team cannot be simplified into quantifiable numbers and Excel spreadsheets about the number of people who died under their care. Is it really fair to base Dr. House’s pay on whether or not he can save the life of a person who smoked two packs a day, didn’t have ready access to good healthcare throughout their life, and only sought medical help when it was too late to do anything about an inoperable form of cancer?

Just like Dr. House’s patients, k-12 students come from specific socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds. Those backgrounds can do much to shape how they will perform in a classroom long before a teacher can do anything to help them out. Poor parenting, broken homes, abusive families, a parental disinterest in education, poor nutrition, crumbling neighborhoods, and a lack of social services or extracurricular activities for kids all act as potential barriers to success in the classroom. Indeed, a teacher’s influence in shaping his or her students’ education is probably overstated in most cases because it takes a community to raise a child and overcome these problems. Grades, standardized tests, and quantifiable data don’t account for these contingencies. A group of students who get ‘C’s on their standardized tests may have received those grades after a teacher spent long hours helping them overcome years of perpetual ‘D’s and ‘F’s. Yet Mr. Sinquefield’s pet legislation would base that teacher’s future salary, retention, promotion, demotion, or dismissal on the fact that her students got ‘C’s. Is that really fair?

When devising an evaluation it is absolutely essential to first develop your research questions before determining the sorts of tools and methods you plan to implement in the evaluation. There is room for both qualitative and quantitative methods in teacher evaluations, but school administrators must first ask themselves what, exactly, they want to learn about their teachers and students. Public school districts throughout Missouri undoubtedly face different economic, cultural, and political challenges within their local communities, and the process of evaluating teachers should be largely shaped by individual districts, their school boards, and local residents who are must attuned to these circumstances. Limited assistance from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education can be helpful as well. And we must always fight to ensure that children from impoverished and/or abusive backgrounds are getting they help they need outside the classroom so that they can succeed in the classroom. Amendment 3 doesn’t address these issues, and Missouri voters threw it in the trash where it rightfully belongs.


Check out the full post at the IUPUI Digital History Blog!

Digital Public History

Researchers interested in British law have greatly benefitted from the digitization of the Old Bailey Proceedings, 1674-1913. This collection of court cases from London’s central court is one of the strongest digital repositories in existence and holds the potential to advance the user’s experience in many ways, whether helping them to ask new questions about the history of British law, conduct genealogical research, or–thanks to Old Bailey’s open access to its encoding practices–help educate a person looking to create web code for their own website. With a collection of 197,000 trials composed of roughly 120-127 million words, the Old Bailey Proceedings are one of several new digital projects that have attempted to make the process of conducting textual and quantitative analysis easier for all types of researchers.[1] In this essay, I will attempt to address some of the advantages and disadvantages of conducting textual and quantitative analysis online.

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