Pod-Cast Away: Hearing History and the Benefits of the Medium

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Having been on both sides of education, I’ve learned through experience that people have different styles of learning. Some prefer visuals over textual information. On the other hand, some prefer focusing on one task or activity at a time with no divided focus.

To me, as a first time user, podcasts seem to be a method of engaging a very particular sense (hearing, of course) in a way that enables multitasking. I found that to be my experience when I listened to an episode from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast for the first time.

First, the nitty-gritty. Mechanically, the podcast site works well and offers many points of access. Users can subscribe or listen to individual episodes on Google Music, iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher (had to look up that last one). Each episode could also be downloaded from the site. Notably, however, while users can share links to episodes on social media directly on the site, Revisionist History itself does not have a profile on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter–which seems like a lost opportunity for audience outreach.

The podcast episodes use atmospheric music appropriate to their historical period to transition between interviews and scenes. Gladwell, serving as the narrator, helps to gradually introduce events, ideas, and characters with a narrative flow similar to his writing as an author and a contributor to The New Yorker.

Revisionist History
Home page of Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast

 

As the series’ name suggests, Gladwell wants his audience to learn and appreciate past events in ways that complicate our current understanding of history.

The podcast’s mission to reinterpret events or people that are “overlooked” or “misunderstood” is demonstrated by the variety of subjects it tackles. Across three seasons, the series dives into the role of art and politics in 19th century Europe, the close circle surrounding Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the Second World War, and the role of philanthropy in higher education, among many other themes. The characters introduced and interviewed in these stories provide unique perspectives into more obscure historical moments as well as already well-documented events and periods.

The second episode of the series’ first season, titled “Saigon 1965,” is a great example of this.

Saigon 1965
Top of Saigon 1965 Episode page, with social media sharing links, download link, and background information.

In just over half an hour, Gladwell introduces listeners to a military intelligence project conducted by the U.S. military and the Rand Corporation in Vietnam. This initiative, called the Vietcong Motivation and Morale Project, was established to interview thousands of captured or defected Vietcong members in order to gauge the psychological drives of the Communist guerrilla forces of North Vietnam and to determine A. what their motivations were for fighting, and B. whether US forces could ultimately diminish their will to continue fighting and, therefore, win the war.

Saigon 1965 page 2
Bottom of Saigon 1965 episode page with Vietnamese translation of interviews and pdf files of documents from the Vietcong study.

This particular story shines through in the way in which interviews with three members of this project (two American Rand analysts and one Vietnamese field agent) understood the goals and findings of the reports they gathered. The podcast’s deep dive into each of their backgrounds really helped me, as a listener, to understand how each of these figures reached radically different conclusions about the ability of the United States to win the war after examining the very same information. This helped to ground the episode’s main message that the War in Vietnam was a doomed effort in part because the officials in charge chose to consume or accept information that conformed with their own expectations and desired outcomes–a pattern of blind spots that Gladwell implied remains with us in the War against Terror.

Gladwell’s method of “revisionist history” is not without its detractors or faults. In a review for H-Podcast, Douglas Priest has likened the podcast as more of a “meditation on memory in the present” than a history. Furthermore, Priest accused Gladwell of exercising more of an argumentative journalist voice (especially in episodes concerning higher education) and of failing to “truly historicalize and contextualize his narratives.”

While I understand these concerns, Revisionist History still holds the potential to teach history well without sacrificing good storytelling. Gladwell has proven as a journalist and writer that he knows how to write and tell an interesting narrative that makes his audience appreciate the place of small details in the bigger picture–something historians like myself struggle to communicate to readers all the time. While some of the podcast episodes may suffer from less historical analysis, the promise of others like Saigon 1965 show promise in Revisionist History‘s ability to both provide context and to tell old stories from new perspectives.

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