A Conversation with a Historian

A Conversation with a Historian

I have been working with Carlos Lázaro for two years now, as an assistant in his history lessons. His class is inevitably enjoyable. Students who, in other classes, are noisy and disruptive act respectfully and dutifully in Carlos’s classroom. Indeed, the students are so assiduous about taking notes that it can be hard to get them to stop.

The high school in which I work is “bilingual,” which means that some subjects, such as history, are taught in English. Carlos is the head of the school’s history department. Together we work with students in 2º ESO, which is equivalent to America’s eighth grade. The curriculum we follow is, in many ways, strikingly different from the sorts of stuff we learned in my high school in New York. Most notably (for me at least) are the lengthy units on art history—architecture, sculpture, painting. Our textbooks in the states mainly focused on social, economic, and political history.

In addition to his job as a teacher, Carlos is an accomplished academic and author, having written several books. I sat down with him one day to ask him about his work and life.


ROY: Have you ever done an interview before?

CARLOS: No.

R: Really?

C: No, no, not in English. Though I was interviewed on Spanish television, TVE1.

R: Tell me about your education. What subjects did you study?

C: I grew up in a working class neighborhood in the southwest of Madrid. A very violent neighborhood with a lot of drugs. Carabanchel Alto, it’s called. It had one of the biggest prisons in Spain. I went to a religious school for my whole primary and secondary education. But as early as middle school I was interested in history. When I was a kid I learned to read and write through history books that I got from my older schoolmates. Yes, I love history and this is the reason I was interested.

Originally, I was more interested in ancient history—Rome, Greece, Ancient Egypt. But when I got to university I changed my interest to Native American anthropology. In fact I got a PhD in this subject. My thesis was related to the tribes that refused or expelled the Spanish conquerors. I was specialized in the Chilean Mapuche. But my final book in anthropology was related with the treaties that the Spanish Crown signed with Native American tribes, covering about 200 signed agreements. I saw the original documents in the archives, both here in Spain and in the Americas.

R: How did you get interested in aviation history?

C: In the university I met former Republican fighter pilots, and it was an overwhelming experience for me. But I had been interested in aviation long before that. For 24 years I had lived near a military airfield, watching the planes take off and land. So when I met these pilots I got so excited about the histories of their lives. They had fought in the Spanish Civil War and they explained what they did afterwards. For example, some of them fled to the Soviet Union after the war. Some went to the United States or to Mexico, and also, in some cases, were in prison. It was, as I said, overwhelming for me, so from this moment onwards I began to do research about them.

R: Tell me about some of your books. What are they about? Why did you choose those topics?

Herreraspacesuit
The space suit designed by Emilio Herrerra

C: The book I’m working on now is a collection of memoirs of pilots—foreign and Spanish—who fought in the Civil War. But with one main goal. Our main problem in teaching history, not only aviation history but in general, is that we don’t have titles like “A Brief History of the Spanish Civil War” or “A Brief History of Aerial Warfare in the Spanish Civil War.” So I’m trying to provide people with these memoirs in order to be able to hook the public’s interest. This is the same thing I do with my teaching, to try to hook my students on history.

I have written 10 books. Three of them were about anthropology and the rest are about aviation history. My most beloved book is a biography of Emilio Herrera, a Spanish engineer who designed, in 1934, the first space suit in history, designed for a high altitude balloon flight. He was both a pilot and a scientist, and was in contact with Einstein and von Braun. I also wrote a book about a pilot, a Republican pilot. My personal goal, as I said, is to popularize aviation history and also to make it available in both Spanish and English, a bilingual version, for the many English and Americans who are interested in this history. As you know we are sitting near the battleground of the Battle of Jarama (a battle in the Spanish Civil War), and not every American knows that there were American pilots fighting in this battle.

R: What brought you to teaching?

C: Well, I like explaining and summarizing historical events—and I like history, of course—so, this is the reason that I got my PhD and also took the oposiciones (the required state exam that all public servants must take) in order to get my teaching position. My teaching definitely helps my writing, and vice versa. Every day I try to improve what I’m doing, reviewing my classes in order see what works and what doesn’t. Presenting information accessibly in my books helps me do the same in class; and my students’ reactions help me decide how to present information in my books.

R: What are some challenges of teaching history? How do you deal with them?

C: I think the most difficult challenge of teaching history is providing students with accessible information. Making it accessible. I think that history couldn’t be “unverbal,” and thus couldn’t be, in a sense, boring. You need to be patient, giving them tips, clearly organized topics. Summarize as much as possible: don’t try to fill their brains with data because they are going to erase everything when they leave the classroom. I’m trying to get my students to love something about their past.

R: What are some tips you have for history teachers?

C: Define your goals. Strive towards these goals. Provide your students with accessible information—and most of all, information that is useful in their daily lives. Old pupils have gotten in contact with me, and say they love history because it has been so useful for them—reading books, traveling, visiting museums, something like that. When I was teaching in a village in Toledo we made a trip to an old airfield that was nearby, and I explained how it was used during the war. It was an extraordinary experience for them. They had no idea it was there.

Besides giving lectures, it’s great to have the students do research and give presentations. Also different media are useful. For example today I showed them a short documentary about the Renaissance. Jokes, anecdotes, and open-ended questions are good for engaging their attention. Try not to be monotonous.

R: How do you get your students to work so well?

C: It’s a mixture of mastering them, being tough in some cases, and in other cases giving them self-confidence. Some students are not self-confident, and you need to show them that they have a lot of interesting things to work with. In the beginning of the year it’s important to go over classroom rules—sitting properly, raising your hand, taking notes. Establish very clear rules from the very beginning.

R: How is teaching history important for society in general?

C: Someone* once said, “People who forget their past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a good way to learn about our mistakes, to think about what happened in the past, to try to avoid the same problems and avoid risks in the future.

R: Why do you think many people find history boring?

C: I think because, for them, history is repeating facts and not thinking. And of course in some cases you need to learn the names of battles and so on. But history is, fundamentally, a way of thinking, a way of organizing your brain, so that you can understand what happened in the past.

But for many students history is just a pile of dates, names, battles, events, nothing useful for their lives. I’m trying to provide them with another face of history. How could history help them? What does history teach us? Why did our ancestors face these problems? And what solutions did they find? What lessons do these have for the new problems we will face in the future?

To hook their interest it helps to explain something to do with their behavior or their language that they use in their daily lives. For example there is a Spanish word “flipado” that is like “dizzy,” which comes from the English word “flip.” This was a drink that buccaneers drank, a kind of alcoholic mixture. So this common Spanish words has this English origin, and most of my students have no idea. This is a small example of how history can explain our daily reality.


*George Santayana is the originator of the English quote, “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” The nearly identical Spanish phrase “Los pueblos que olvidan su historia están condenado a repetirla,” is attributed to Nicholás Avellaneda, who is said to have taken it from Cicero.

Review: Selected Writing (Ruskin)

Review: Selected Writing (Ruskin)

Selected WritingsSelected Writings by John Ruskin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Taste is not only a part and an index of morality;—it is the ONLY morality.

John Ruskin can be said to be the John the Baptist of the religion of art, a herald of things to come. He was shortly followed by the great aesthetes, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust—who all read and were deeply influenced by his work. But Ruskin himself cannot be called an aesthete—at least, not in the sense that he considered aesthetic appreciate the central goal of life. For Ruskin, art provided not only aesthetic pleasure but genuine moral instruction; great paintings could be read like psalms, and great buildings were sermons in stone.

In this, as in so many other ways, Ruskin can be jarring for the modern reader. Indeed, his ideas were jarring even back then. He made a profession of insistently, dogmatically, and unequivocally asserting opinions that, to most people, seem manifestly untrue. The most notorious of these opinions is thus summed up by him: “You can have noble art only from noble persons, associated under laws fitted to their time and circumstances.” Unethical people, therefore, could produce only base art. And if an entire age habitually produced shoddy paintings and buildings—as Ruskin believed of his own age—then there must obviously be something deeply wrong with that society.

Art and society were thus, for Ruskin, deeply intertwined. This is the bridge that connects his art and his social criticism. Art is never just for art’s sake; it has a didactic and a moral purpose. A work of art is great in proportion to the greatness of its ideas; and these ideas are not the products of an eccentric individual, but of a whole culture, evolving and refining itself through generations. Every great work that results from this evolution “is the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History, and Religious Faith of nations.” As such, these works have a vital social purpose; and it is the job of the art critic to explicate their moral significance. We see this most clearly in Ruskin’s major works on architecture, The Stones of Venice and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which are concerned, above all, with the ethical lessons inherent in gothic architecture.

For Ruskin, however, art was not only moral, but truthful. From this conviction came his youthful defense of J.W. Turner in his five-volume Modern Painters. Turner’s works, he thought, revealed a deep insight into the workings of nature; and since Ruskin was himself keenly sensitive to natural beauty, especially mountains, he became Turner’s champion. The job of the landscape painter, like that of the poet, is to record nature as faithfully as possible. Inferior painters and poets allow themselves to be overpowered by emotions, which lead them to personify or to distort nature: Ruskin called this the “pathetic fallacy.” But the truly great painter or poet, the Turners and Dantes, are always in complete control of themselves.

One can see why this was jarring. Most of us naturally distinguish whether something is good, beautiful, or true; but Ruskin insisted that these qualities were inextricable. Art could not be great if it was immoral or if it was untrue. Indeed, for Ruskin, you might say that these qualities were not separable at all; having any of them without having all three was inconceivable. But their existence was not dependent on solitary, virtuous geniuses. To the contrary: the ability to understand nature only exists in developed cultures; moral systems are the products of peoples; and great art can only exist within a school and a tradition. Society was therefore deeply important for Ruskin, being the wellspring of everything he admired and sought.

The later half of his life was, as a result, spent in social reform. Specifically, Ruskin set himself up as the enemy of industrial capitalism. Gothic art was great because each workman was an artist; but in mass-production the workers are reduced to machines. The division of labor is, as he said, really the division of souls, allowing for efficiency but stunting human growth. The ethic of enlightened selfishness could never inspire any great works, since the highest ethical value is selflessness. The environmental destruction wrought by industrialism was not only a crime against future generations but a crime against ourselves, since we were destroying the truth and beauty of nature, which is one of the vital sources of happiness.

This is the quickest summary I can give this selection of Ruskin’s work, whose volumes fill many shells and touch on many different disciplines. There are many reasons to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas. The relationship of beauty to truth and to goodness is obviously more complicated than he insisted. Murderers, rapists, and thieves have been great painters. Honorable men have built ugly houses. And what is the truth of a symphony? But for me it is a relief to find someone who finds beauty so socially vital.

I have spent far too long in concrete landscapes, surrounded by endless rows of identical houses, each one ugly in itself and uglier en masse. The effect that such thoughtless dreariness has on my mood—in contrast with the great enlivening freshness I feel when in a lovely city—has convinced me that architectural beauty is not merely an added frill or an extra perk, but is a positive social good. And it is difficult to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas on architecture, society, and the economy when one goes from a modern suburb to a well-preserved medieval town. How is it that finer houses were built by peasants? How is it that the most wealthy society in history can produce only the most mindless repetition, vast labyrinths of stupidity, destroying whole landscapes in the process?

Ruskin is the prophet of this phenomenon, and thus valuable now more than ever. But apart from this, Ruskin is worth reading just for the quality of his writing. His early style, flowery and involuted, gave way to a clearer strain later in life. But throughout his career his prose is rich with observation and abounding in memorable phrases. Even if one disagrees with all of his conclusions, it is impossible to read him without some stimulating thought.

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