Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Five

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter Five: Demography as a Tool for Genealogists by Kathryn M. Daynes, Ph.D., AG.

This chapter of the book has one of the best quotes yet. Just at the end Kathryn says:
Family Historians neglect history at their peril of failure; history may not remove every roadblock, but it is an essential tool for every astute genealogist. 
What does it mean to be astute? Well, being astute means that you can accurately assess situations and use them to your own advantage. My personal experience in teaching hundreds of classes about genealogy is that very few genealogical aspirants have even a moderate understanding of the history of the places where their ancestors lived. They are not astute in the area of history.

In the United States, this is not too surprising. History, as such, is hardly taught in our public schools. Throughout the United States, students learn about "social studies." Social studies includes the following subjects for students during secondary school (9-12) as selected at random from the Tennessee Department of Education:
  • Ancient History
  • African American History
  • Contemporary Issues
  • Economics
  • Modern History
  • Personal Finance
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • United States Government
  • United States History
  • World Geography
  • World History

In that same state of Tennessee, there are the following "advanced placement" courses:

  • Bible Curriculum Guide
  • Comparative Government and Politics
  • European History
  • Micro-Economics
  • Macro Economics
  • Psychology
  • U.S. Government and Politics
  • United States History
  • World Geography
  • World History

OK, before you get all excited and say that see, they do teach history, here is the Tennessee description of what the students are supposed to learn when they take World History:
Learning Expectations:
The student will
 1.1 understand the multi-cultural components to world culture.
 1.2 understand the development and migration of art, architecture, language,
religion, music and theater.
 1.3 understand the ways in which individuals and groups contributed to changes
in social conditions.
 1.4 examine how various individuals and groups use methods to diminish cultural
elements and eradicate entire groups. 
This isn't history, it is propaganda. (Propaganda is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view). I am not picking on Tennessee, I expect that they are merely typical of the type of course descriptions current in American schools. 

This is nothing new. When I took history in high school we never got past the U.S. Civil War. 

Now back to becoming an excellent genealogist. If this lack of knowledge or even awareness about history is common, it is no wonder that so many genealogist get stuck doing simple research tasks. Let's suppose that you are researching a family in a Pennsylvania county. How many of the following questions could you answer off the top of your head:
  • When was the county first settled?
  • Where did the first settlers come from?
  • Why did the first settlers come to the county?
  • What was the dominant occupation of the settlers?
  • When did your ancestors first arrive in the county?
  • Were they rich or poor?
  • Did they purchase land or did the rent?
Do you see a pattern here? Now in her chapter of the book, Kathryn focuses on demographics. This type of study involves births, deaths and migration, all of which play out against a historical background. This type of investigation goes beyond just the history of the area, to look at the details of the population's composition and origin. In addition to knowing about the the sequence of historical events and the people who were involved, demographic investigation would include asking these types of questions:
  • At what age did the people in the area get married?
  • When were the first children born?
  • How many children did couples have on the average?
  • What was the mortality rate for different ages of the population?
  • Why did people leave the area?
This may seem overkill to some, but investigating these topics is really absolutely essential to an understanding of your ancestors' circumstances. If you do not understand both the history and the demographics of the area where your ancestors lived, you cannot claim to have a real brick wall. 

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