Tag Archives: Hoffmann On History

Between the Liner Notes – Extinguish Lights

Between the Liner Notes is a fantastic podcast on the history of music, with an eye toward storytelling (like 99% Invisible or Radio Lab). In an effort to find the origins of the soundtrack to everyday life, it has followed the origins and stories of acts like Tiny Tim to the song Happy Birthday and the legal implications of it. This story is a good one for many reasons, but first and foremost the idea of this soundtrack of life.

In an almost subliminal way, the bugle calls of the military invoke certain thoughts. If there is a military scene in a movie or show, their absence is more noticeable than their presence. I live near an Air Force base and I can hear the bugle calls on the PA system and they work on me as well as when they were used at scout camp (except that year when the older scouts used a mixture of the songs “Buddy Holly” by Weezer and “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers to wake us).

The ubiquitous “Extinguish Lights” is the bugle call for the end of the day and played as the casket is lowered into ground during a military funeral. Between the Liner Notes tracks it down.

Planet Money – Larry vs. The IRS

As the elections approach and discourse becomes more and more conspiracy oriented, I wanted to post an older podcast from Planet Money. Since the Federal Government started collecting taxes (the beginning) there has been tax protesters, from the Whiskey and Shay’s Rebellions to the modern legal protester. This episode of Planet Money takes us through some of the historical tax tricks and protests, but mainly focuses on current legal precedent by following one story of a tax evader, but also many of the court cases of tax issues from which flag is flying and more.

The Dollop – The Occupation of Alcatraz

There are a lot of important and interesting stories in history that I know exist, but I don’t fully know. Most of my academic studies have been based around large themes, movements of people and a few key events and figures which time them together and catalyze them. This allows me to contextualize events into the bigger picture. However, the value of this in a survey course is sometimes difficult.

As part of the greater Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, other groups became mobilized. Women’s groups, Hispanic groups, Gay Rights groups, Environmental groups, all come together during the era and follow the non-violent protest and legal jurisprudence model that the Civil Rights Movement did. Part of the era is the Red Movement, a movement of Native Americans that were fed up with the alcoholism, drug abuse, and general treatment of the Natives on the Reservations.

This part of the movement I talk about in my survey every year, the tensions between the various classes of the groups in play, the urge of the assimilated to stay in the white middle class and the desire of the politically mobilized to strike, all ending with the triumphant metaphor of being pushed off of the continent all together and seizing Alcatraz.  That, at least, was the story I told my classes. However, once again, the Dollop has taught a better lesson, from economics, to politics, to why hippies ruin everything.


Planet Money – Episode 693: Unpayable

For those of you who don’t know, Planet Money is an amazing podcast on economics that is a spin-off of the juggernaut that is This American Life. For those of you who further don’t know, economists and historians don’t always get along. Generally, this boils down to two things quantification and motivation. In economics, with the possible exception of behavioral economics, people are thought of as homo-economicus. This means that people act via incentive and economic (financial) motivation or given knowledge people will act in their economic self-interest at all times. Historians (again, generalizing) acknowledge more passionate, social, and societal reasons for action. The second issue of quantification is more tricky, Historians like to find stories and movements, but often have to conflate impact. Economists deal in terms (especially in macroeconomics, but in micro as well) in trends and bigger spaces (more generalizations, but not in necessarily a negative way). Finally, historians look to the past and make linkages to the present, economists look at trends and try to predict the future.

I find that I use economics as a tool in my historical tool belt often, student seem to relate to it to an extent. However, I think it is interesting when current events take over. Planet Money is really good at linking past to present and in this case they are quite good. While Congress is waffling (at least upon writing this) and conservatives are digging in, this podcast does a good job explaining why Puerto Rico is in the financial crisis it is in and what comes next.

Commencement Address

Recently, I was asked to give the Commencement Address at the first school I taught, Oak Mountain Academy. Luckily for me, the speech went over well, but printed below is the speech I wrote. Now, those who know me know that this speech is about 85% of what I said, but here it is, enjoy.


My name is Nic Hoffmann and I used to teach here at Oak Mountain. I know that sounds very 12 Step, but you know, I left about two years ago and it’s always wonderful to be back on the Mountain and doing so, I want to make sure that I claimed my credentials. I would like to thank Paula and the Board for welcoming me, the students for inviting me, and Michael for introducing me, that introduction was so kind, it is like I wrote it.

I don’t know about my other teacher friends out there, but I’ve often thought about what I would say if given the opportunity to give a graduation address. It is a challenge each time and it is not one I take on lightly. I am used to speaking in public in lectures and before students, but that is building relationships, this is one shot. Though the students are too excited to pay attention, and the parents are trying to get pictures, I know that my former boss is paying close attention. However, it is a challenge because it is to not just one year I am summing up or words of wisdom I am generically trying to impart. It is years of knowing the students. Lecturing to classes of more than 100 college students, you hardly get to know any students and I will most likely never teach them again. However, at Oak Mountain you get to teach on the same students over and over again and before that, they filter up from the elementary school and middle school where they begin to have a legend of who you actually are. There is a weird amount of pressure that seems to be put on us. Perhaps it’s the intimate setting of the small classes and the proximity of teachers and students that is almost unheard of anywhere else.  Perhaps more than that, it’s also a simple kind of connection that we all have to this this place.

The students, many of which have been together since middle school if not earlier, are attached in a way that’s kind of interesting.  There is a created environment on the Mountain that allows them to do the kind of learning and growing that makes the Oak Mountain experience a unique experience. It seems like students have lived in this world for so long now that this is almost like a family reunion much more than it is a graduation.

While leaving the Mountain presents some challenges, and going to college can be scary, it is important to note that while we protected you here, we have given you the tools needed to succeed. Now, I know that these tools are difficult to quantify; when you think of an English, Science, Math, or Social Studies, you don’t necessarily think of real-world experience. Additionally, even on this faculty I know there were people who knew they wanted to be teachers all along and those that found teaching along the way. In my own CV, which is what pretentious people call their resume, I have teacher, lecturer, and conference speaker, the kind of things you would expect of a teacher, but while doing my graduate work I added consultant podcaster and book reseller dealing with large auctions to that list.

The tools I am referring to are twofold. First, you have to be willing to try things and to adapt. The fact that podcasting didn’t exist really a decade ago may make it seem novel, but now it is a multibillion dollar industry and I am soliciting grant money for it. Several teachers here had other professions first or will leave teach. Similarly, the career that most of you will do in the next five to ten years may not even exist yet and you will most likely change jobs more than once. Even if you are a professional like a doctor, lawyer, professor, or reverend, (one of those careers with letters after their name), you will most likely have a specialty or training that is only in its infancy now.

With all of this, you may wonder why learn all the miscellany anyway. Clearly, the universities have become extremely focused as well, stripping out the liberal arts classes that make the students beg the question “when will I ever use this.” I understand this frustration. However, this should be an opportunity. It is now nearly impossible to learn what you need in your career from university education, it is only to get you started.  If you are an MD, you might be a specialist as a doctor in a field that didn’t exist when you started med school you and will definitely get be using medicines and techniques that were developed after when your textbooks were printed, every case in law could set a precedent that can change how you practice, and your first business might be the kind that your business school professor may have never even have conceived of.

I teach history because I see it as the lynchpin; the thing that holds the world and all knowledge together. However, when I teach it, what I want students to take away, other than Hoffmann is a really bad drawer and watch where you stop to ask for directions, it may start a world war, is that there is rarely a correct answer. History is gray area. When I was an undergrad, I had a microbiology professor who like to say there is no black and white in science, it’s all gray area, a 5 to 4 decision. Which in some ways is terrifying, because this is medicine and he’s the doctor, he’s the one is supposed to be treating me as a patient, I want him sure. However, think about it. You have four symptoms, it could be a common cold or, according to WebMD, it could be cancer. Five to Four. Now I realize that even some of the dates, facts, and figures that textbooks so love are wrong; if anyone states they can give you a precise, black or white, yes or no answer in most real situations, they are most likely not telling you the whole truth.

When I’m lecturing, and it doesn’t matter if it was in high school or in college, the most frustrating thing to me is people are so sure on something, generally, of course, that means that they are sure that I’m wrong. So sure, in fact, that they’re not even willing to look at other evidence. That is the second tool you hopefully learned to take to college, be willing to learn.

One of my favorite classes and, of course least favorite depending on the material, always was literature courses. I loved them and I hated them simultaneously, because you know you could hit me over the head with the Aeneid and that would be the closest I would get to understanding it, but there are those emotional cues and emotional moments that make me have a connection. It doesn’t matter if it’s Huck Finn realizing he can’t turn in Jim, or Biff understanding why Willie had to kill himself in Death of a Salesman, and whether or not Hamlet goes crazy or is just acting, it is these big emotional moments that we were asked to feel and interpret. Most English teachers I ever had hated multiple choice, they wanted us to explain and understand. They may have been the only ones laughing at Candide or Tartuffe, but we were expected to understand why.  It is this tool that we are challenged with the most in everyday life. Yes, math helps me every day, but in English we were encouraged to interpret. I fear that people assume with other things there should not be such interpretation.

In my mind, academic history is this nebulous thing with tweed and suede patches. They studied ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia. My studying of American History comparably is civics. Why things a century ago affect the current election, why the poor stay poor, and what does it mean to be a Democrat or a Republican. If these were documents in an English class there would be discussion and debate, but in real life people treat such things as black and white. Further, there are probably books that you have read and reread, each time getting something new out of them. In high school and college, there seemed to be some books I never could get away from. However, for some reason, if someone learned a simplified fact in an elementary or middle school textbook, they seem to think such things never change. I sometimes wish my dissertation could be translating a wallet sized piece of parchment and call it a day, because everything in American history becomes political and people seem to not like challenges. I know that if I construct my narrative out of thousands of pages of Civil War letters, diaries and orders, someone else can look at the same materials and come up with a completely different conclusion and I would have to engage them and I accept the challenge. So my call to you, of course, is to challenge as well.

I know that generally, people get told to follow your passions. Which is fine advice and necessary to fulfill the ever important 10,000 hours of deliberate practice so important to Malcolm Gladwell and Anders Ericsson’s idea of expertise. However, more important than that is be willing to learn and apply that learning. Going to most universities, you will need to take you basic 101s again, the same liberal art classes you took in high school; a math or two, a science here, a social studies course there, and an English. This is to replace the classical education we no longer deem super necessary, but for whom the term Academy is named (after Plato’s famous one).

The idea of taking these classes was always to teach people to question, to learn by surrounding them with the all-important knowledge that would allow them to be the critical thinkers that lead the world. When you leave here and even when you leave college, I will acknowledge that it may never come up that Chester Arthur became president after James Garfield (who hated Mondays), was assassinated, that his doctors most likely killed him, or that his assassin Charles Guiteau was kicked out of a sex cult three times. However, it does matter you will now look up that fact.

We are surrounded by people who state things as though they are facts that aren’t fact, opinions like they are facts that are also not facts, and call the people who fact check them liars. This is not discourse. It doesn’t matter whether you love or hate Ronald Reagan, think that Andrew Jackson or Harriet Tubman belongs on the front of the $20 bill, or politically identify as Democrat or Republican. Your job is to actually learn what that means.

Throughout this nation’s long and often delicate history, the most important question was who is American. The answer has changed over time, with racial components, gender components, and class components all boiling down to who deserves to call themselves one of us. In the end, we decided that the best way to make people we deem Americans, Americans was with education. Slowly, over time, we decided what was needed to learn to be a good citizen. This may seem either archaic or conspiratorial, but you can see it when you look at the news and apply for college. SAT, ACT, AP Exams, Graduation Exams, Common Core, none of which are designed to make you think, they are designed to make you memorize. Teaching to the test has become a mantra. In fact, as a state Georgia was doing so bad on the exams, we stopped taking them, but there are still end of course exams in eight fields. The idea was to guarantee you had the knowledge to become a good citizen in black and white. Your parents, at this point, may be the ones nodding. The world of graduation exams is one most of you never really knew. They put you in a place like Oak Mountain to avoid such things, that is your special advantage.

You are now entering a world where your ability to think critically is key and it is what will make you a star. You will be celebrated for challenging and seeking. You have the opportunity to be an expert learner and put in your 10,000 hours of study and learning. It is not just for those in liberal art fields; it is in engineering and law, medicine and business, science and math, all people who challenge and think creatively and critically of results. Even the sciences need more of a critical eye and meta-analysis.  If you can tell me if dark chocolate and red wine are good or bad for me, I will give you tenure. It is not just media reporting on science that is contradictory, it is textbooks that are decades out of date before they print, politicians and economists saying things they believe, with numbers to prove it that are utterly out of sync, and people expecting what they tell you never to be questioned. However, that is their job. It is up to you to educate yourselves. It doesn’t matter if you learned your history from me, Mr. Louttit, Mr. Tuttle, a lecture hall professor or John Green on Crash Course; you have to be willing to think critically about all of it.

In the end, it is important that all of us are willing to do this. As students, your job is to learn as much as possible, to engage and grow. Even as academics, we learn and we listen. I recently took my PhD exams. After reading 200 books, writing 53 pages over three eight hour days, the first thing said in my two hours long oral defense was, “now, Mr. Hoffmann, that is not how I would have interpreted it.” Don’t worry, I passed, but the struggle is what made it feel worth it. As you go forward, make sure you are willing to challenge and to learn so that you feel like you have earned it too. Thank you.


The Atomic Cafe (1982)

The Atomic Cafe is an amazing documentary like no other. Made by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty, it takes footage from Defense Department propaganda, declassified military footage, news reports, and commercial entertainments/ads to show the scope and terror of the Atomic Age. At the moment, it is up in full on Vimeo. I have shown this to both High School and College Students. It is scary, funny, and overall enjoyable. Watch it while it is still free!


The Atomic Cafe from koba on Vimeo.

Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer’s Face

Like most humanities teachers know, when writing and designing lessons, it is best to relate to the *-shudder-* humanity. Therefore, it is often not a bad idea to introduce culture. While the 1960’s have been the center of such cultural education for years because of incredible music and graphic imagery. Other eras work well too. Having taught at both the high school and university level, I have found that cartoons, especially funny ones stick.

When teaching World War II, I come across a standard conundrum. On one hand, yes, thanks to movies, video games, and other culture (including a fairly consistent historical message from elementary through college of the horrors of the Holocaust) most people know how bad the Nazi’s are. However, like most history, this is myopic. I am not saying that the Nazi’s aren’t evil, they were, but this fails to address some of the complexities of the question.

For example, yes the Nazi’s and Hitler were in charge of Germany at the time, but why the branding of Nazis? Were the Germans on board? How does someone like Hitler come to power and stay there when Mussolini fell and was killed by Italians? A lot of this comes from post-War remembering and rewriting. At the time, though there was an attempt to recreate the War in terms of Race.

While the racial “inferiority” of the Japanese was understood to Americans and the “swarthiness” of Italians was untrustworthy, the Germans had been accepted into culture with the notable exception of World War I. Therefore, when World War II came, racial epithets about the Japanese can be seen in highly racialized cartoons like the Warner Brothers Looney Toons short Tokio Jokio or Tokio Woes. However, the Germans were more difficult. While Warner Brothers slotted a dopey German into an Elmer Fudd role in a Bugs Bunny cartoon in Hare Meets Herr, the real star is Der Fuhrer’s Face. While both play with the cult of personality around Hitler, Der Fuhrer’s Face has it in spades.

Originally called Donald in Nutziland, Donald Duck wakes up in Nazi Germany in this hilarious and Academy Award winning short in 1943. Leonard Maltin introduces Der Fuhrer’s Face.


iTunes U Course – The Hebrew Bible

A Harvard University Course by Shaye J. D. Cohen

Much like my last post on Dale Martins course on the New Testament, this is a course that I got into because of my interest in ancient scriptures and while it would make sense to post these in reverse order however, this is the version I listened to them in.

Shaye J. D. Cohen is a professor in the Hebrew Scriptures at Harvard University. Like mentioned in my last post, I do have a fairly good understanding, at least in introductory understanding, (better than most gentiles) of the Hebrew texts. I took a few courses on them, but again these were years ago and in high school setting. Therefore, I was intrigued to listen to a historical criticism of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is worth note the complexity of these documents. While that is not to say that there isn’t in the New Testament, the scope and scale of time is important here. Like Martin, Cohen makes an effort to start the course with some basics including maps and a timeline chronology.

As a Gentile growing up, I learned that the Scriptures of the Old Testament are divided into four parts the Torah, the historical books, the wisdom books, and the prophetic books. Cohen does a good job at the beginning of describing the differences between the Protestant books and Catholic books, and then comparing these the Jewish books. Even going into why the Catholics have seven more books in the Old Testament then either Jews or Protestants. (For those interested, this has to do with what language the books were originally written. If the book was originally written in Greek, despite the importance to the Jewish faith, it is not included in the Hebrew Scriptures, but often kept alive in the rabbinic tradition of people named Cohen (Coen) and the Levites. This means that the Catholics have the Song of Songs and the books about the Maccabean revolt (ie The story of Chanukah) while the Protestant and Jewish scriptures to not do not).

However, Cohen plays devil’s advocate much more. He admits that oftentimes we just don’t know certain things. Now, he does this playfully. What this means is that he looks at say rules in numbers, talks about the fact that the 10 Commandments in Exodus is different than the one that shows up later in Deuteronomy, or that certain kosher laws are explained, but then not really explained. He talks about parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that he finds uncomfortable like God’s demand that the Israelites commit genocide on the Canaanites. That being said, he explains this in an interesting way (that the Israelites were most likely Canaanites themselves), but not in a way that is in the text, more of a way that we understand thanks to archaeology. This course does an excellent job of explaining the history of the text and why it is different than the interpretation of the text. Additionally, he makes the arguments about where Judaism actually comes from. Which is very tricky.

Ultimately, this is an interesting piece because it allows for a new kind of interpretation, while introducing for example the documentary method which is so well understood. In fact my New American Bible, the standard Catholic of edition, includes Joshua, Ruth, Samuel and the histories, because they’re all clearly written by the deuterocanonical author. It is an impressive course and one that should be enjoyed by people interested in the text. It goes much further than the traditional easy criticisms like contradictions in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. I think, unlike Martin, this course ebbs and flows. Overall the course is excellent, and the last lecture specially is incredibly well done, and would have none of the power if you had not listen to his other lectures.

Like last piece, I want to make it clear here that this is a lecture series on the historical interpretations of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). I’m not here trying to change your faith, I just think this is an interesting interpretation. Cohen even seems to struggle at times with parts of what historians are saying, but still makes sure to say it. Overall I think this is an excellent podcast, and I am doing additional research.


iTunes U Course – Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature

An iTunes University course from Yale by Dale Martin

While studying for my PhD comprehensive exams, there reached a point where I was so mentally exhausted from rereading the same arguments over and over again that I needed a break. While many out there of you will not necessarily think of taking an online course as a break, I knew I needed to refocus myself by listening and thinking about something else, but I also wanted to be historical in nature.

Generally, as someone who studies US history, I realize that most of you think of US history as the only history that you need to know. However, as an academic in the field, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. When I think of academic history, I think of tweed jackets and elbow patches maybe a pipe, but when I think of that, I don’t think of them teaching US history. Generally, I think of them teaching Rome, ancient Greece and Persia. When I think of teaching US history, I bang my head against the wall because people don’t seem to relate to the fact that this is almost like civics. Teaching American history is still to explain the current election in context. With this in mind, studying classics of Western Civilization and the books that fundamentally founded in a historical context is right up that alley.

For those of you who have not taken an iTunes U course before, it’s quite simple. A series of audio or videos of lectures, a syllabus and all readings that are not copyrighted. Thus in this case, lists of Bible readings and a recommended textbook for purchase, additionally assignments are given but are not graded either for chose to read this much more like a podcast on a non-fiction topic.

Prof. Martins course is fantastic. As someone who is been interested as a Catholic in both Canon and the history of the church for historical reasons for a long time, this is really a boon. For example, I have read many Bart Ehrman’s books, and took standard Catholic synthesis and new and Old Testament courses, but those were primarily at the high school level and Bart Ehrman’s books are good, but written for a mass audience. Martin here addresses us as undergrads, but with an academically rigorous nature appropriate for Yale.

The course, to Prof. Martins own admittance, starts off rather slow, but interesting as he depicts Rome at the time of the Christian scriptures and Judaism at the time of the Christian scriptures and slowly builds. He starts out tracking the Gospels and following the books in order, but makes the story much more complex than that. Talking about how we know the synoptic Gospels are connected versus the Gospel of John, talking about how we know that Luke is part one and ask is part two of the same story, how we know that Paul wrote seven of his letters for sure, several are we are 50-50 on, and several we are sure our written by others in his name. He goes to great lengths to talk about how the early church looked, and why the Paul in Acts is different from the Paul of the letters. Additionally, he is one of the most interesting explanations of revelations I’ve heard.

While this is in no way to insult my high school education, in fact, for a Catholic high school they were very neutral on the historiography of the Bible impressively enough. I, for example, knew there were contradictions in the New Testament, and that it was assembled over time, with Mark being written first within 30 years of Jesus’s death, Luke and Matthew being based on Mark and a mysterious Q document filled with the quotes of Jesus, then finally John written about 100 years or so after Jesus’s death. However, Martin does an excellent job and creates a very interesting class. Something you should listen to for people who are really interested in the New Testament.

Finally, a caveat. Please note, Prof. Martin and I have no interest or really care about your faith. Martin makes clear that he is a religious man and of himself, but that does not change the canonical point of view versus the historical point of view. This is an iTunes University course on the historical interpretations of the Bible. Historical criticism tries to contextualize and use historical evidence for the Bible you can still look at the work as a solid text without contradictions, and he is not out inherently to disprove anyone’s religious beliefs, but know that if you believe that the Bible is without contradiction or without flaw, you will be frustrated.

iTunes U – The Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature

The Dollop – Disco Demolition Night

For those of you who don’t know, The Dollop is an American History podcast wherein Dave Anthony (stand-up comedian, writer, and actor) tells a story about American History to Gareth Reynolds (also a stand-up and writer) and Gareth improvises, does impressions, and generally is shocked by his lack of knowledge of American History. I will do an full write up on the value of the Dollop in the future, but for the moment I want to share one of the funniest episodes in a long time, the history of Disco Demolition Night

Also if you liked that, you should listen to the episode on Cleveland’s Ten Cent Beer Night.