Academic Skills, history, Pedagogy, teaching

“Best of…” Lists and Historical Thinking

As part of my standard morning website-browsing routine I always make my way to Pitchfork for a daily dose of erudite condescension and to learn what new music might be out there that will further burnish my hipster street cred. While the issue of whether I had any hipster street cred to burnish in the first place is a moot point for this post, I did find myself particularly intrigued by Pitchfork’s feature this past week, which focused on the Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s. I’ve always found “Best of,” “Top X,” or “The Quintessential _____ of ______”-type lists intriguing. In fact, it was reading (the now seemingly-defunct) Nude as the News‘ list of the 100 Most Compelling Albums of the 1990s that first got me really interested in indie music and reading cultural criticism. However, for some reason it was only this past week when I began to consider how these types of distillations of decades reflect an interesting strain of historical thinking.

As I read through the list I took note of how the various authors made analytical statements that reflected an awareness of the historical judgments that they used to rank albums. For instance, here’s what they had to say about what many consider the most transformative song of the 1990s:

More than any single song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” altered the face of the 90s. You’ll hear people push revisionist history saying otherwise, but it did.

Interestingly, they rank this song at #13 overall, likely cognizant of the criticism for “easy choices” that so vanguard a publication would suffer if they were to place it at #1. Nevertheless, in discussing the “revisionist history” surrounding the album, they do recognize that assessing its place in the pantheon of modern rock albums is a topic still very much under debate. Similarly, here’s what they wrote about Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So” — a comment reflective of the revised (post-emo) interpretation of the Weezer’s greatest album:

History has rewritten itself as Cuomo has incrementally received more acclaim for the gut-wrenching diarism of his band’s second album, Pinkerton. The Blue Album, once the massive-selling behemoth, has lost some of its luster to Pinkerton‘s hidden gem authority.

Finally, in closing the entire list, Mark Richardson writes:

There are a lot of ways to think about the music of a decade. Sometimes when you sit down to make a list like this, you think about songs that seemed important– maybe they changed music or were emblematic of prevailing trends in culture. And then sometimes you think about songs that make you feel good whenever they come on. You hear the first few notes, remember how much the song does for you, the excitement builds, you want to sing along, and hey– they’re coming to the chorus now…

Ultimately, this conclusion is very telling about historical thinking in general, as Richardson emphasizes the very centrality of the present in understanding and reacting to the past. For something so overtly subjective as music criticism, it is somehow much easier for us to accept these judgments on the the Best Tracks of the 1990s to be shaped by current perception and trends in music. Ironically, (or perhaps not ironically, given how much import people place on history’s role in defining tenuous, ephemeral concepts like national identity), people have a lot more trouble accepting the inherent subjectivity of judgments about the past. I probably shouldn’t be surprised by the presence of historical reasoning and thinking present in this list, as my impression is that much of the staff at Pitchfork likely holds degrees in history or at least is so over-educated as to be comfortable engaging in it when writing about music.

Perhaps because creating a “Best of…” list is so accessible (e.g. anyone is able to rank and decide what is the best), creating these types of lists doesn’t initially strike most people as an act of historical thinking. Moreover, these lists are created about all sorts of banal things that are seemingly trivial and don’t carry the “heft” of what one would consider “historical.” In particular, the constant debates over the “Top 5 ____” that the characters in High Fidelity constantly engaged in captures the possible silliness (but also the contentiousness) that these types of debates can create.

However, the process of deciding how to evaluate and prioritize significance is in fact one of the most crucial components of historical argumentation. In creating these rankings one is forced to grapple with various events, develop and articulate the criteria for evaluation, and ultimately develop an argument that clearly asserts that something was the most significant or formative factor. Thinking back on my own history education in high school I distinctly remember that creating ID Terms — consisting of (any other teachers able to predict what I’m about to say?) an explanation of what the term is/means, and more importantly why that term is significant — played the central part in my studying and ultimately influenced my subsequent approach to learning and understanding history. In fact, I still pretty much adhere to this approach with my own students and emphasize that these two aspects of an ID term must be present in order to really show an understanding of the concept and how to make an argumentative claim about the past.

List of Best and Second-Best U.S. Presidents- image courtesy of Leonardo Gerard's page at

Now thinking about the overlapping intellectual processes between creating “Best of…” lists and evaluating historical significance I’m trying to consider the ways in which I could harness this students’ familiarity with ranking in order to help them become more comfortable with historical thinking. Rankings shows up in all parts of students’ lives — college football hierarchies, US News and World Report‘s (absurd, yet very lucrative) list of best colleges and universities, awards ceremonies, and the like. Ultimately, I think they’re familiar with these ideas and (particularly in the case of college football in Texas) enjoy arguing about which whatever is the “best.” Additionally, reading or generating a “Top X” list seems to lend some credibility and objective authority to what is undoubtedly a really subjective process. In this sense, it seems like students’ natural familiarity and comfort with this type of argumentation could be redirected to historical issues. Moreover, with this successful redirection, I’d hope that students could also become more cognizant of how these types of lists are constructed and how many subjective judgments go into creating them.

So, I’m wondering about how successful a question like “Rank the top five achievements of ancient river valley civilizations” would be with sophomores in high school. Is this too inauthentic? Does it not move far enough away from the traditional, history test-style version of this question? Would an exercise in “ranking” hold more appeal for students than simply being asked to “write an argumentative essay assessing the three most significant achievements of the Mesopotamians”? It seems that one historical ranking question, at least, has earned some broad acceptability: the issue of Best and Worst American Presidents. This topic seems like a good one to engage students with as students can position their own ranking against those of others and also begin to think historiographically as they look at how these rankings have changed over time.

Certainly, the major point of emphasis with students when introducing this activity would be to push them to thoroughly explain and engage in an explicit discussion of the criteria they used for evaluation. These aspects often go unmentioned in their recreational debates, but are really essential to identify in historical debates. Moreover, I imagine that asking students to create rankings of “most significant” achievements, developments, etc. would naturally lend itself to discussions about the process of creating criteria for ranking and evaluating the relative importance of various developments. Additionally, given that students will inherently come up with different rankings, I can also see this activity lending itself well to student-driven debates as they would be forced to grapple with one another’s ideas and differences of opinion.

A wind-swept Niall Ferguson sits seriously in front of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Image Courtest Swift Economics.

Thinking about this issue of ranking reminded me of a post that Rob MacDougall wrote about engaging students in debates about “would you rather” and how these types of prompts can encourage very sophisticated, multi-faceted historical thinking and evaluation. He notes that these types of discussion quickly turn into counterfactual-based arguments, which traditional academic history and historians (with the exception of the ever-wind-swept Niall Ferguson) tend to scorn. However, in spite of these methodological problems for academics, grappling with history in, as MacDougall says, a “playful” way, can be very engaging for students and can help them develop the important habits of mind — even if it won’t immediately get them published in the Journal of American History.

What experiences have others had with asking students to rank historical developments, phenomena, or figures? Does this question get students to dig beyond surface-level reactions and list-making to actually dealing with the underlying assumptions and criteria? Are students eager to justify their determinations? What techniques or points of emphasis have others used to make this type of activity intellectually productive? I’ll be interested to hear any and all feedback.


3 thoughts on ““Best of…” Lists and Historical Thinking

  1. Western Dave says:

    I haven’t tried rankings but I have a couple of exercises I call policy recommendations. They students have to pretend they are a policy advisor/expert consulted by the White House for a policy recommendation on a particular topic. The recommendation takes four parts: background, criteria, recommendation, and explanation of why the recommendation fits the criteria. I’ve been most successful with this on the question of reparations for slavery. I do this in the World History class after Atlantic world unit.

  2. Andy says:

    Just curious… What album did nude in the news rank as the most compelling album of the 90s? I can’t seem to find the list anywhere.

    • Nate says:

      I think it was the Dismemberment Plan’s Is Terrified, but I’m also unable to find the list, even through The Wayback Machine.

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