This post is on last year’s University of Chicago prompts. If you want to write an essay about history for a college app that would allow a response on this basic topic, go ahead and read the post below. If not, this post is totally history . . . but for this year’s University of Chicago prompts, you can go here:
These new posts are history in the making, which is where you should be.
Overview of this Post: I will address the history prompt of the University of Chicago in this post and describe three basic approaches to the prompt, supplemented by a miscellany of ideas and inspirations, supported by numerous informative and inspirational links that range from the old Cointelpro program to NSA spying and Edward Snowden to social network “privacy policies” and Jaron Lanier and on to Harry Frankfurt, the philosopher who wrote the book On B********. Not to mention Hannah Arendt, Daniel Goldhagen, and different ways the Holocaust is interpreted, also with links. I conclude with a very strong movie recommendation for a film that examines what it means to live in a state ruled by secrecy–the film alone makes reading to the bottom of the post worth it. The post is broken up into rough subtopics, but within some subtopics on how to approach the prompt, you will find multiple ideas. And while you read, keep in mind what George Orwell wrote in 1984: He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past. Have at it:
I know, I know, it’s a long title for a little four thousand or so word blog post, but we must give the Windy City, the City of the Big Shoulders, Chi-Town, The Chill, The City on the Lake and the City on the Make its due. All of these phrases are or have been used for the City of Chicago, some of them still in use, some of them artifacts of history. Which makes this an apropos intro to a blog post on the University of Chicago’s essay prompt about history, the latest in what is by far the greatest series of college essay prompts.
The Beginning of History
So let’s start with a word about history. It’s worth thinking about what history is before you write about it. We begin, dear readers, with the fact that the man called The Father of History has also been called The Father of Lies. His name was Herodotus, and he wrote a long book relating his inquiry–the Greek word for inquiry is historia–into the origins and conduct of the Persian Wars. It’s pretty much the decline and fall of the Persian empire. He was born in what we now call Turkey, but the area in which he was raised was Greek culturally, and he viewed himself as Greek–which brings up the first thing about histories. What’s in them depends on who writes them. Given the times, Herodotus was pretty fair in his presentation, but one wonders what the Persian Wars would be called by a Persian.
Herodotus discusses in great detail the cultures and leaders involved, with granular detail on specific battles–that movie The 300 was, uh, taken from Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae (I should say, taken from Herodotus, run through a Chippendale’s transmogrification machine and subjected to historical revision injections until, voilà! 300 iron-pumping Trojans fighting in pull-up diapers, without the benefit of armor. Thus we have what movies tell us about history–or really, about what sells tickets. Not a bad topic idea, if I may say so.)
While Herodotus tried to be factual and would only use material he himself had learned directly from a source, this often included quite a bit of, ah, somewhat inflated and apocryphal if not downright fanciful information–such as his accounts of griffins, dragons and his introduction of the phoenix to the western world. (Search the page for “phoenix” to find Herodotus’ account.) Like all of us, his ability to examine the underpinnings of knowledge and opinion in his epoch were limited, and he gave us his best version of the facts as he knew them. Which is pretty much what any history does, but even the best have flaws. So as I said, Herodotus the Father of History is a pretty good place to start with a prompt about history. And before we dive deeper, here is Chicago’s history prompt:
ESSAY OPTION 3.
“This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” — Don DeLillo, Libra.
What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?
Inspired by Amy Estersohn, Class of 2010
Returning to Herodotus for a moment, and to why this man the Greeks called The Father of History was also called The Father of Lies: later scholars took umbrage at his methodology, and condemned him because he took so many apocryphal stories at face value and included them in his book. Like that Phoenix thing. (One also wonders if Xerxes really had his men whip the ocean at the Hellespont to punish it for wrecking his pontoon bridge.) To be fair to Herodotus, living as he did on the edge of the Greek world and rubbing shoulders literally with people the Greeks considered barbarians, he was amazingly open-minded for his time and place. And he did call it an inquiry, an historia, which does connote an open-ended exploration, which is what he literally did by traveling as he conducted his inquiry, seeing at first hand many places he wrote about. Imagine someone in the ancient world, traveling by foot, boat and animal, trying to run down the original source of every tale, or to double-check the veracity of every source in a work as large as Herodotus’ Histories, especially without tools like real libraries, much less the internet. Not gonna happen. Herodotus shows us that, in its origins, history is, indeed, a kind of storytelling, shaped by the tools and knowledge available in his time as well as by his outlook–his personality. So in the shaping of history, one place to look for a “they” and to examine what they aren’t telling us is to look at the writers of history and their circumstances–and there are many who write history who aren’t in fact historians. In our time, pundits seem to have replaced reporters, in a way that changes the ongoing narrative of recent events, substituting beliefs no more real than is the Phoenix while the history of the moment is recorded.
History as a Shifting Narrative
That would be my first way to look at the question, by looking at all histories as stories, and what is not told is a result of the outlook of the time and of its limitations. Each era is marked by limitations in the knowledge available, and also by limitations in what people seem able to see, by what information is accepted as relevant–behind the stories we know are many more stories untold, and what stories are told, and what they mean, changes with each era. So what is “truth,” what becomes our history, is a result of not just the incidents in time, but the perspective and tools of that place in time, influenced as well by the individual personalities doing the research and writing. The “they” in the prompt can be historians, can be reporters, or pundits or even powerful interests setting up think tanks to shape public opinion, but “they” is also the culture at large, what we as a group are willing to hear and ready to understand. There are pivotal people who do shape perception, who push it one way or another, by being in a certain place at a certain time, or by finding a new cache of overlooked, lost or secret material, or by simply putting all the pieces together. Hannah Arendt, for example, famed for her phrase “the banality of evil, or more recently, Daniel Goldhagen, who dismissed Arendt’s argument.
Speaking of which, one interesting example of how history is a changing narrative is what is usually called the Holocaust. In the period after the war, multiple narratives developed about the holocaust–that it was an act of unspeakable evil committed by inhuman monsters; that the average soldier didn’t participate in the machinery of genocide directly, and that the average German also did not–though they did turn a blind eye; that it was a mixture of conformity, fear and antisemitism that, step by step but without a clear overall plan, eventually led to the Final Solution. But late in the century, continuing into the early part of this century, that narrative has shifted–with books like Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which detailed a very high level of knowledge and mass participation in the events of the Holocaust. Daniel Goldhagen, the author, effectively indicts German culture at large, which is quite a change from many of the earlier historical readings, which tended to see it as caused by a relatively small number of leaders who created the Final Solution piecemeal, over time, and who used a larger group of fanatics from the ranks of the SS and the Gestapo, leaving the rest of the Germans as either ignorant, afraid or “just following orders.” So what is being told–and what is being left out–also changes over time. Goldhagen’ s swing to a broad assignation of guilt to non-Jewish Germans as a whole, is highly controversial, but I think that just reinforces my point about history as a changing narrative–for more on that controversy, see this: Willing Executioners? Be advised that I have merely provided a couple of examples of different readings of this history–scholars have found over forty different frames for Holocaust studies, as shown here: A Survey of Interpretive Paradigms.
Don Delillo and Us: The Sum Total of Being Watched
We are a lot like Herodotus, who recorded so much apocryphal information from supposed witnesses, but instead of receiving our information via interviews that we may not be able to corroborate, we rely on media, and more and more for your generation, dear reader, not so much internet research as information spread through social media. I add here that I am fascinated by the degree of gullibility and cynicism that internet “knowledge” develops, but that would take an entire series of posts to address, so I’ll just move on now to a consideration of Don Delillo and his context. Since he’s the source of the quote, he is definitely worth knowing about.
The quote used in this prompt is from DeLillo’s novel Libra, (about the Kennedy assassination, in this anniversary year of the Event in Dallas, but it’s only a coincidence . . . or maybe not ) but Delillo’s breakout novel is entitled White Noise; it is about a professor at a small university, head of the Department of Hitler Studies (!), a field of his invention–but also an obvious parallel/parody of Holocaust studies–and the good professor’s observations of the effects of a mysterious Airborne Toxic Event, especially on himself and his wife and family. Fear of death is a major subject, as is the use of pharmaceuticals to deal with what ails us, including our fear of death. I love that part, especially given when the book was written years before the idea of mood enhancing drugs became mainstream. In a 1988 review in the New York Review of Books, Robert Powers memorably called him “chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction.”
I love that. Delillo, a man of his Cold War generation, does see conspiracies, if not everywhere, then as pretty frequent features in our social and cultural geography. Dialing the time machine back to Delillo’s salad days, Nixon was definitely not telling us for months that he was bombing the sovereign country of Cambodia as part of his Vietnam strategy; the CIA did not tell us they were spying on Americans in the 1970’s especially antiwar activists and others exercising the 1st amendment rights; the FBI didn’t tell civil rights leaders that their phones were tapped. But the rumors circulated, and the truth finally did out. Or what we now about now came out . . . .Who knows what we don’t know? For more on this era, start here: Cointelpro.
So Delillo has good reason to view history as being untold, as shaped by conspiracies. And after the black sites of the CIA and “rendition” programs were revealed back in the “oughts”, it became clear that the same hidden machinery working away in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s had not gone anywhere. Then came Mr. Snowden and his, ah, communications team, Glen Greenwold and Laura Poitras, and we learned we have all been spied upon, excuse me, have had our metadata analyzed and our communications mapped, with times and places. Oh, and the topics we discussed noted. Oh, and the discussions themselves recorded. Oh, and our skype calls monitored and. . . never mind.
Delillo is, indeed, interested in what you might call the secret history behind history, and the past year has revealed a whole lot about the secret war in which we have all been pawns, witting or not. Going further, Delillo has also defined a very specific role for writers as gadflies, as rebels, those whose job it is to question the accepted values and beliefs of their cultures. So history in Delillo is a bit like the proverbial iceberg, with what you can see only part of the story. Why the events really happened and who is responsible lies underwater in an unseen world of unknown events and unknown causes for the events that are known. I might add that documents released by Edward Snowden show that the NSA has, literally underwater, attached probes that extract the contents of various undersea communication cables, sucking up every e-mail, et al, that goes through the conduits of international communication. So the point of view in the Delillo approach to history is that you cannot trust the authorities and you can never be certain that you have the whole story.
This is not a new idea, of course; the legal grounds for the stuff our intel agencies and the Brits are doing go at least back to WWI and the Espionage Act, or the Czar’s secret police or to Lincoln in the Civil War or to the Star Chamber and Queen Elizabeth’s secret police, and you can find examples of clueless authorities all the way back to the Book of Job, but Delillo and his baby boomer ideas of conspiracy, shaped by the Cointelpro revelations from back in the day, take on a new life with Snowden and what we might call the Wikileaks school of history. The they of the prompt, in this case, are not just the visible government, but the increasingly powerful cryptocracy that runs the show behind the scenes and which, like wizards, both protects and amplifies its powers through the circular logic of secrecy,which I might summarize in this way: “We can’t tell you what what we are doing, but trust us, it saved thousands of lives, the details of which we can’t share because they are secret. By the way, why aren’t you buying the geriatric brand of dogfood for your aging dog instead of that higher fat dogfood showing up on your charge card, and is that an illegal download of music we see on your hard drive?”
And this leaves aside the issue of the privatizing of war making and spying–Snowden himself was a contractor for the NSA, in effect a mercenary who didn’t like the principles under which his employer operated, and blew the whistle.
This second way to look at history as what we aren’t being told also introduces the digital world as perhaps the major factor in what is told and not told, what is known and by whom–which is quite an irony, if you consider the early promise of the personal computer revolution, which was going to create a libertarian wonderland of freedom, at least according to the first generation of Silicon Valley moguls. Many of them still seem to think this way (and notice how Google, Facebook, etc, are Shocked, shocked! To find spying going on!).
Clearly the advent of e-mail and then of social networks are providing a vast temptation to spy, and those who are spying–the They who aren’t telling us things–includes both private companies taking personal data in exchange for “free” services but not making any promises about what they may eventually do with our information, and government agencies who have clearly escaped the leashes of their supposed political masters. These are huge forces shaping what is known, what is told, and what will be known and told in the future.
Spying always has to do with controlling human behavior and winning conflicts–notice the targeted ads, aimed at getting you to buy stuff, as well as the intelligence spooks looking to see if you are a “person of interest,” which includes gathering intel on environmentalists, but of course it’s been clear for years now that all kinds of peaceful domestic groups have been spied on–as here: 2005. This kind of stuff is always problematic, but especially at a time when it’s being shown that corporations are effectively writing some of our legislation and that much of the domestic spying seems aligned with particular corporate as well as intelligence interests, this seems, well, to justify the view that we are being conspired against. Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean my e-mail isn’t being scanned. And it’s not just the FBI, CIA and NSA that is spying on environmentalists–check out the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security’s activities for what I’d like to call Orwell light.
So it’s not just the government and its hidden minions (and not just the U.S. government, either) that is fodder for this essay prompt. No, let’s face it, it’s the private sector and all those social networking empires as well–most famously Facebook–that play fast and loose with our privacy, scheming to make a buck on what they know about us. If you’ve been around for a while, you even call it an erosion of privacy–as here: Facebook and the Erosion of Privacy. And don’t get me started on Google, whose accumulation of data is being challenged in Europe. One way to look at Google Glass is to see it as a handy way to record everything all of us is doing, voluntarily or not, through an ugly facial apparatus that our friends may choose to wear to, say, our party. Plug in some facial recognition software and who needs drones to track people? Even the Google model for ad prices, on the sales side, echoes the NSA–this is what our ads are worth because this is our data proving what they are worth. Trust us.
So we appear to have another essay topic here, folks, using the privacy (non) agreements of Google, Facebook, et al, in which the fine print allows them to change their use of whatever information they have on us at some point in the future. As Jaron Lanier has said, these guys could get rich just on their search algorithms, but they have chosen to turn their social networks into private spying agencies. To whom most of us give quite a bit of information, many essentially putting their entire lives online. If history is being shaped by these companies, what has recent history shown us about what they aren’t telling us? You might want to actually pull up the agreement you have signed onto, by clicking agree, and reading it. You might find an essay’s worth of material there, especially when you click on something like the timeline I linked above and look at the change–or what the heck, here it is again: Facebook and privacy, a timeline.
Every Man Is An Island Or, The Problem Is Us As Well As “Them”
A final thing to consider, and I’ll keep it brief, is the way in which media today is creating a fragmented polity. Back in the day, say 1984, most people got their news from a daily paper, local radio, and one of the big three television networks. Public radio and television were on the rise, but that’s about it. A lot of local news had a particular flavor–conservative in conservative parts of the country, not so much on the coasts, but the overall mix was influenced by journalism done in major cities, from which the major networks broadcast–I mean ABC, CBS and NBC–maybe you’ve heard of them.
Now you have many more sources, but there is no longer as clear a mainstream narrative, driven by these major news organizations, who got many things wrong, but who also but tended to work toward the truth. So a now vs. then comparison is also a fruitful way to look at how the news of the day, which is what becomes history, is being told. Clearly journalism has changed, with advocacy becoming the dominant mode of journalism, while the major source of more objective reporting, the newspapers, is in serious decline and long-form journalism is looking like an endangered species. (This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was the newspapers that drove all other news, in the old model; television took their cues, and most of their story ideas that mattered, from the newspapers. This is still often true, and most internet news sources are actually parasites on other sources, especially newspapers. Seriously, who came up with or wrote out the stories first? By the way, I am still encouraging clients to pursue their journalism dreams–but as a Journalism major, be ready to be entrepreneurial, looking for new ways to be paid for content. Somebody is going to have to produce news, and you know what market economics says about supply and demand . . . eventually content will be worth something again . . . maybe a lot, if you are lucky and smart enough to come up with the right venue or model . . . ).
As for what is wrong with the they in media, telling us what is happening today, just look at the kind of speculation about who’s going to run for president in the next election–it’s not reporting, it’s what I can only call bullshitting, no more real or relevant than sports fans talking about the chances of various teams next year. (For more on the phenomenon of bullshit, I recommend philosopher Harry Frankfurt–you might start with this: On Bullshit–a discussion. You could also try Frankfurt writing on the topic here, a great source of inspiration for who “they” is, what isn’t being (honestly) told, and why.)
So in my last suggestions on topics, the “Them” in the question can be the media, especially the partisan media, but of course “them” also can mean us, as participants who buy the product and the b.s. And no, I don’t think a U Chicago reader will object to this term, especially if you name drop Dr. Frankfurt, analytical philosopher.
The result of all these influences is a real decline in the ideal of objectivity, and it’s increasingly apparent that many people know what they want to know, and go to the outlets that tell them what they want to hear. Don’t believe in global warming? Spend your time on Fox and websites like The Heartland Institute. Believe that global warming is simply a finding of science and is happening? Go to CNBC (with some caveats) or to Realclimate.org. (I need to add here, having read a lot of science, from science sources, like GISS, NSIDC, The Royal Society, et al, that it is clear that this climate argument does have a correct answer, which is that it is happening and that it is human driven, and that venues like Fox and Heartland produce smogscreens and misinformation on this matter, both bullshit and lies, not scientifically validated information.)
But back to my main subject: the “they” in this final approach to the prompt is really, in the end, us–or many of us–who don’t want to know what we don’t want to know, and who don’t examine what we are getting–and not getting–from our trusted sources, or at least don’t test the stories by looking at other sources closely enough. This is more true on the conservative side largely because of, in this order, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News–they have simply done a better job of establishing themselves and dominating the arena. See this analysis of Fox, Wingnut Commander, for more. And consider, as you think about this approach to the topic, where you get your own news–we usually don’t see our own blind spots, you know . . . it takes a lot of reading, listening and cross-checking over time, these days.
To return to the Greeks one more time before I wrap up, historia is not so much like Herodotus’ inquiry these days; it’s more like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with a babbling mass of prisoners chained down in darkness, staring at the shadows cast by a bluish screens, shadows which they think are real, and exchanging bad information as gospel truth. Or maybe not–scholars studying this matter disagree.
But speaking of bleak fictional worlds, just think of the possibilities of the future! When your car, driven by Google, might lock the doors and take you right to the police station after somebody decides what you are e-mailing while the car speeds along is suspect. Or maybe takes you to a CIA black site. Keep in mind that I am writing in the best spirit of the Chicago prompts and am kidding. Maybe.
And to End: A Movie
And now I’d like to suggest, with my highest possible rating, a movie that will convince you that you don’t want to live in a surveillance state: The Lives of Others. Get it and watch it as soon as possible. Then write a great essay. I wish you all the best as you assess history in our times.
Good luck on your essay and let me know if you need editing help, by contacting me at
Yep, I use google mail, but I don’t use Google Docs–given the information available, I assume that they are all spying, after all . . .