I was an excellent student in high school, but my first history course at Harding University — Western Civ, Dr. Fred Jewell presiding — was a revelation. History was more than just memorizing names and dates. History could explain the present. History could be as fascinating as literature.
Dr. Jewell’s lectures were not like any history lesson I had ever had in the North Little Rock public schools. The end of his class was like the end of a movie; it took a few seconds for me to readjust to my physical surroundings. When he told the story of Grigori Rasputin, the mad Russian monk who just wouldn’t die, I was slack-jawed.
This is an Opinion
Dr. Jewell has crossed my mind with some regularity over the past 40 years, as all good teachers do. My current thoughts of him were inspired by a couple of podcasts I’ve been listening to: “WeCrashed,” the story of WeWork, and the current season of “American Scandal” recounting Volkswagen’s diesel emissions fraud. Both are produced by the Wondery podcast studio, and hosts David Brown and Lindsey Graham (not the South Carolina senator) make this recent history come alive in ways that my perfunctory attention to the daily news reports did not.
Confession: I paid no attention at all to WeWork until the New York office-sharing company announced last April that it would open 200,000 SF in Bentonville. By September, its IPO had been canceled and founder Adam Neumann had resigned as chief executive officer, adding yet another data point to my theory that Arkansas is where every trend goes to die.
But thanks to the power of the spoken word — well-crafted narration and well-chosen interviews with firsthand witnesses — I feel like I understand not just what happened to WeWork but why it happened. Neumann might not be a straight-up fraud like, say, Eilzabeth Holmes of Theranos, but in the annals of charismatic visionary businessmen, he seems to have been more charismatic than visionary, and more visionary than businessman. (There’s also a good podcast series on Holmes, by ABC, called “The Dropout.”)
I’m in the business of the written word, and I still firmly believe in the power of ink on paper. So I’ve been asking myself why some true stories seem so much more engaging as podcasts than as news articles, “the first rough draft of history.” With the benefit of hindsight, a storyteller can focus on the developments that proved to be most crucial to the events to come and the telling details that bring the characters to life — but that’s true in a history book as well. And a good book will always be better than a bad podcast, of which there are many.
Still, in a well-written, well-produced podcast, the emotion and nuance of the human voice underscore the humanity of the characters, without the misleading theatrics of an actor’s face or mannerisms. As Dr. Jewell taught me, it is the humanity of the characters, not the names, locations and dates to be memorized for a multiple-choice test, that make history real. And it is that humanity — the egos and emotions behind decisions and actions — that can be most instructive as we write our own personal and professional histories.
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher and social commentator, famously observed that “The medium is the message.” I’m not sure I’ll ever grasp that entirely, or maybe I just don’t agree entirely, but some content (“the message”) is certainly better suited to one medium than another. For example: Would you rather read the instructions for installing a replacement part or watch a video on YouTube?
When McLuhan made his observations in 1964, the vast majority of American families did not yet have a color television. (And he is credited with predicting the internet a couple of years earlier than that, complete with a warning about “surrender[ing] our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves …”) When I was a kid, filmstrips were the height of educational technology; some of my young coworkers have never heard that word.
I wish everyone had a teacher like Fred Jewell for every history class, but it seems to me that the podcast technology could transform the study of history for students who aren’t that lucky.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.