Welcome to Cutting Edge History, I am Mike Sandstrom and I will be your host and blogger. History can feel confounding, intimidating, and even irrelevant at times. For all its difficulties and complexities, however, it continues to command people’s attention. The reason that I believe many people are drawn to history, especially, as they age, is that they are curious about the world around them.
They begin to question everything. How did my ancestors live? How, despite its humble origins, did the English language spread across the globe? What are the key events, decisions, and critical debates that came before me? Who were the key actors and what ideas did they put forth? How did all these people, events, and ideas affect my twenty-first century world? The questions are endless and almost any honest person would admit their innate curiosity.
The popular perception of history often does not reflect this notion, as it can develop a bad reputation. Young people, especially, at times, do not always appreciate history. When I poll students at the beginning of the year, most claim to “be bad at history.” I work hard to reverse this sentiment, but some adolescents simply lack confidence in their ability. Undoubtedly, outdated and poor teaching approaches can be blamed for some of this, but, on the other hand, ask an adult their view on history and it will be markedly different. Many will admit to despising it in school, while, at the same time lamenting that they did not pay enough attention. Now, they love it, they consume it at every turn. Whether that is through books, video, or podcasts, they cannot get enough. In my view, the culprit for history’s reputation is that people are often intimidated by professional historians. No one is “bad at history.” The only prerequisites for “doing history” are curiosity and an active mind that is willing to engage in discourse with historical material (whether that is a geographic location, a source, or an artifact).
The issue is that historians are academics that write for scholarly audiences. For them, exquisite writing includes detailed footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and a comprehensive index. In fact, to the untrained eye (or ear) these men and women can appear to be speaking another language. Is it academic Klingon? I am not sure, but all that most people need is a conduit or an interpreter in their journey to understand the past. As L.P. Hartley noted in his 1953 book, “the past is a foreign country” and many people are nervous to strike out on their own.
My day job, before I moonlight as a podcaster, is as a history teacher, which can alternatively be broken down into its several roles: authority figure, cheerleader, confidant, advocate, mentor, and many others. I am fortunate to be able to share my love of the subject with hundreds of high school students each year. My classes include U.S. History, World History, Advanced Placement U.S. History, and a dual-credit course on American History through our local college, Chadron State. I apprenticed myself in the historical trade and received a Master’s Degree in History in 2016. I also attempted to quench my academic thirst with graduate courses after completing my degree.
Despite my love for the discipline, I refused to eat the forbidden fruit. The road to a PhD and a tenure-track job at a university appeared wrought with danger and peril. Not to mention moving hundreds or thousands of miles and spending time away from my family. Instead, I read voraciously and consumed history-related podcasts with similar abandon. One day, I came to the realization that podcasting and blogging were the perfect solutions. After all, I became a teacher to enrich people’s lives and promote the notion that history is not only relevant but also captivating. Podcasting and blogging will allow me to reach as many people as my talents will allow. I also feel, as an amateur, that I am perfectly suited to be your Armchair Historian. Often, I have one foot in the academic world, but not so deeply submerged to lose contact with more popular history. I still watch shows or listen to content that is loosely based on historical precedent because, let’s be honest, it is often our imagination and creativity that drew us to history in the first place.
As an American history teacher, I can recognize that our most enduring mark might be teaching and “beating” into students’ heads that the importance of history is to learn from it, so that we do not repeat past mistakes. While this sounds good and helps keep social studies teachers employed, it does not complete the picture. Instead, you need to use your study of the past much like a laboratory. It is very difficult, not to mention unethical, to place human beings in extreme, life-threatening situations. History, however, presents examples from the past where people were pushed to the extremes of the human condition. We can learn from these situations, but we cannot selectively choose our own reality. We must deal in fact (to the best of our knowledge) and our only loyalty must be to the truth.
Context is all of the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea. If you misunderstand the context and why something happened, then you may apply the wrong historical lesson to your current situation. Confirmation bias – focusing on data that supports preconceived notions – is endemic to the human experience. Therefore, it is critical to examine the underlying context and draw lessons and principles that are relevant. For example, people commonly cite the number one lesson of world history: DO NOT INVADE RUSSIA!!! (Unless you are the Mongols). These people also claim that Adolf Hitler forgot that lesson and should have brushed up on his Napoleonic history. In reality, Hitler knew and, in fact, was pre-occupied by Napoleon’s Russian invasion. He simply drew different lessons from most modern commentators.
Modern historians are the best “truth-finding machines” in world history. As history professionalized, these men and women became experts in research and objectivity. Their work, in my view, is the most objective and reliable analysis of the past ever created by the human mind. The challenge for the masses of people, however, is meeting their craving for history with limited time and resources.
That is where I hope to come in. As I ready stated, I am full of questions about the past and want to learn more. I could read the books and think actively about what it all means, but that would not help thousands of people around the world who find themselves in the same boat. So, I developed Cutting Edge History to look into the key questions from the past that pique my interest or the audience’s. Among other topics, I want to examine what drew Americans to Nazi rallies in the 1930s, how past conceptions of manliness and honor led the United States to war, and previous periods of extreme partisanship. Many of the early episodes will relate to American history, yet focus on our position within the global community. Eventually, we will cover topics from world history. I will read the literature, interview the scholars, and present my findings in a convenient and unconventional style. As you listen, you can imagine me performing a similar function as an Armchair Quarterback, without any throwing beer cans at the TV. I hope that you will join me, Mike Sandstrom, on this weekly podcast and blog, as I keep you on the Cutting Edge of History.
In addition to the podcast content, which I will convert into a blog posting each week, I will also cover various areas that interest me including: Travel, Professional Development Opportunities for Educators, and Book Reviews.
Finally, please subscribe and leave a rating to the podcast. Your subscription and rating will help other listeners find this podcast and blog. My goal is to get as many people on the Cutting Edge as possible.
Have an excellent day, you will be hearing from me again in your podcast app.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
**Disclaimer: I am not a historian, nor do I pretend to play one on the Internet. My analysis and interpretations of primary and secondary literature are all my own. I will make every effort to be thorough, however, I am certain that many listeners may disagree with my interpretations. That is alright and I respect our difference of opinion.