Crash Course Sucks
A few years ago I became interested in history. So I fell into a trap as many people do, and started watching the Crash Course World History series on YouTube. By episode 8 I realized I had made a mistake. I continued watching a few more episodes after that, wondering if I was missing something. Where were the videos that I kept seeing praise for in the comments? Instead what I was seeing was dry, surface-level, and even misleading.
Crash Course World History was a collaboration between the young adult novelist John Green and his high school history teacher. This is off to a bad start already, since I can count the number of high school teachers who were qualified to teach history on... no fingers.
The problem underlying all of these videos is this: Crash Course's history videos lack so much detail that Green can summarize complicated history into whatever interpretation he wants. He can get away with it because his audience doesn't know better.
By excluding 99% of details he can mislead you, accidentally or on purpose. History is very, very complicated and doesn't tend to fit any broad narrative, without ignoring a ton of inconvenient details that contradict said narrative. "But at least he's not lying," if he was, could you tell? In order to find out you'd have to start over your learning from scratch, find a different source with enough detail allowing for you to think critically. Crash Course is a trap that wastes people's time, and leaves people misinformed.
When history is taught in a way that's too vague to be written down in my notes, that's a red flag to me. More on that later.
"Over the next forty weeks you will frequently hear generalizations"
The first episode introduces us to Green's "how do you do fellow kids" brand of humor. No that quote wasn't him trying to be funny, but it is accurate.
The history of Mesopotamia is brushed over without even a mention of Akkad, the first ever empire. How interesting is that? I still wish I knew more about Akkad, Greene manages to make it all sound boring. Assyria is described as "brutal bullies."
Here's an actual quote from Ashurnasirpal II:
"I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes and others I bound to stakes round the pillar. I cut the limbs off the officers who had rebelled. Many captives I burned with fire and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I consumed with fire. The rest of their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates."
"Brutal bullies." Sure.
Assyria's fall is glossed over, which is a shame, because it's interesting. Green forgets to mention the Late Bronze Age Collapse. No history of writing, but I'd be here a long time describing everything he fails to mention.
Green jokes about hobbits making Egyptian history more interesting. Is Egyptian history not interesting enough on it's own for him? He comments on Egyptian history tending to blend together when we imagine it. Probably because Green doesn't bother to teach it. He later says the same thing about China:
"[China] lasted in pretty much the same form, from 150 BCE until 1911 CE"
Oh, sounds boring. But then he then goes on to mention the different dynasties and warring states periods where, presumably, things changed quite a bit.
A portion of the episode on Persians and Greeks is devoted to selling the idea that the world would be better off if the Greeks had failed to defend themselves. Green calls this a "non-rhetorical question" however I will decline to answer such a stupid statement.
The issue here isn't speculation - I have nothing against good alternate history - it's that Green fails to inform his audience about the Greeks and the Persians in the first place. Instead he devotes the episode's meager run time to this attempt to deconstruct what he perceives to be a "wrong" telling of history, one that his target audience wouldn't even know about! I suppose that dumb 300 movie was still living in his or his writer's head when they came up with this.
An interesting note - Herodotus was apparently unbiased enough by the standards of his own time to be accused of having a Persian bias by some of his fellow Greeks ("On the Malice of Herodotus"). Green is light on details about this interesting source, often called the "father of history," (or lies if you prefer. Look it up, it's interesting, promise.)
The episode on Alexander the Great is spent on an attempt to criticize the naming of historical figures "the Great." This word offends Green so much, he completely forgets to teach his audience anything about Alexander, his life, his country, the interesting battles he fought, or the changed world he left behind after his death.
Why did people decide one day to start calling Alexander III, "the Great?" That seems unusual, and interesting. Does Green, or anyone writing this series, even know? If so, they aren't teaching it. Why not bring up the Persian side of the war for a balanced take? Or explain anthropology in any detail whatsoever if the idea of "great men" getting all the coverage bothers him so much?
(Later he will compliment Justinian for conquering Italy. At least he acknowledges that they were Romans, despite continuing to call them Byzantines.)
Green then peddles a conspiracy theory that Julius Caesar burned the Library of Alexandria on purpose. No historian takes this idea seriously. He caps this all off by comparing Alexander the Great with Kim Kardashian. I'm not joking.
In a later episode Green correctly point out that Marius destabilized the Roman Republic long before Julius Caesar. But why is history being taught as these "gotchas" instead of in a logical way? Everything is out of order and impossible for a beginner to get anything out of. He tries to correct misconceptions about history without actually teaching any history in the first place.
Finally, a pet peeve of mine: "The not-holy, not-roman, and not-imperial Holy Roman Empire"
People love to quote this bit. Green jokes about the Holy Roman Empire's name... instead of teaching any of the history of why it's called that. Not to mention that it's a quote taken centuries out of it's own time. The whole idea of the Holy Roman Empire makes more sense when you realize that the idea that Rome fell in 476 didn't exist until later. (The same goes for the Mongol joke, it's a disservice to anyone curious who might be listening.)
I can't stomach any more of this.
What to do instead?
So that was going to be the end, but then I wondered if anyone would read this who was in the same position I was.
If you want my advice for what you can do instead, here it is: start by picking a time and place you're actually interested in. "World history" is high school-tier. Then look for sources that aren't in a rush to cover everything within 5 minutes. (Documentaries have the same problem, lack of detail and glossing things over into a pretty narrative.)
My first interest was Roman history and the first decent source I found was a podcast called The History of Rome. I'm not saying it's as good as a stack of primary sources or a textbook half-covered in footnotes, but it does cover everything from Romulus and Remus to Romulus Augustulus in a reasonable amout of detail.
If you're serious about learning history, you should write things down. I use a basic text file (currently 800kb) which I open in Notepad++ for it's indent folding feature. I format it as a timeline, because I want to have accurate dates instead of vauge hand-waving, "in the 20th century," or "in the early 80s." (Sometimes I have to use more general ranges for things like culture.) Different countries or regions get their own sections.
The rule for inclusion is that I have to find something interesting, which I think history frequently is. Even fashion can be interesting. The idea is to start small with something you actually care about.
- Beware oversimplification. A biased yet detailed source can have value. When no details are given, the bias is all that's left.
- Many detailed sources on the Internet exist only in archived form. The information of the world is less accessible than you may have been led to believe.
- For history concerning non-English speaking countries, native language sources tend to be more detailed.
- If you find primary sources that contradict each other or archaeology, these things happen which digestible secondary sources forgot to tell you about. I may write a whole page about this.
- If anything on Wikipedia sounds contradictory or unlikely to you, check the citation, chances are there is none.
- Things do not happen simultaneously around the whole world. The printing press took decades to be adopted across Europe after it's invention for example. "What were the middle ages like" will get you a completely different answer depending on what part of Europe you mean. Ignoring this is one of the problems with sources teaching world history.