I had not been a huge fan of Khan Academy.
Even before I started working with one of its competitors, I generally took a dim view of anyone that thought they could do better than a teacher with just a computer and a voice recorder.
However, Salman Khan’s little creation, originally meant to help his own cousin in math, has been a founding father of today’s explosion in virtual pedagogy. Practically everyone, including my own kin at LearnZillion, has a patch in the virtual quilt—from reading to math and even science and social studies.
When I heard that Khan Academy had ventured into history, again, I was skeptical. His approach seemed to work in math, and somewhat with language. History, however, is a massive, multi-headed monster that can go very wrong very fast if not handled properly.
Its just natural that I had to see if Salman went off the rails in his history videos.
There were quite a few to choose from, but I decided to start on American History overview Part 1, Jamestown to the Civil War. This is a typical spread for the first year of a two-year cycle in US history, and such an intro film made perfect sense.
Let’s start with the video itself.
Virtual production has come a long way since the first Khan videos. Yet here, they still stick with the crude visible cursor and neon handwriting reminiscent of a specials menu in a Chinese takeout restaurant. At least they’re consistent in their design—not thrilling, but consistent.
The voice, while familiar and somewhat relatable, doesn’t give me confidence. He doesn’t sound like he knows what he’s talking about. It feels like grad school when I basically corrected the poor adjunct they threw at me for two hours at a stretch.
Now for the facts. Honestly, Khan is not half bad here, since it is an overview. Just some notes as you use this video:
- The first successful settlement in North America was St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, not Jamestown in 1607.
- Jamestown was not originally settled as a commercial colony. They wanted to find gold like the Spanish in Mexico and Peru. When there was nothing but oysters and rebellious natives, then they decided to make money with tobacco.
- The original Spanish and Portuguese settlements in the Americas are mentioned. Yet the Dutch are absent. Never mind that they founded one of the largest cities in the hemisphere.
- The period between 1620 and 1754 is fast-forwarded. Fair enough, but what happened in between included slave rebellions, wars against natives, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish, the Navigation Acts that tied the knot between colonies and mother country, several popular revolts against colonial government, and religious hysteria not once, but twice.
- 1754 is really the wrong date for the French and Indian Wars (YES, I mean Wars, plural). They really begin in 1689, and continue off and on until 1763. All these wars (between Spain, France, and Britain mostly) were European conflicts that spilled into the colonies. The last war, the “real” French and Indian War, was a colonial war that spilled into Europe, as the Seven Years War.
- Speaking of “Indians”, why does the narrator still use the now-defunct term Indian or American Indian to refer to native people of North America? As a descendant of “real” Indians from the subcontinent, Khan should know better.
- The narrator jumps straight into the Stamp Act without mentioning neither the Navigation Acts nor the 1764 Sugar Act—an act which actually affected the colonial and British economy on a much wider level.
- The company was the British East India Company, not the East India Tea Company. Believe me, tea was only one of their many rackets.
- Revolutionary War coverage – not bad, but should’ve highlighted 1777 Battles of Saratoga (Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights) as an important turning point bringing France into the war.
- Constitution, new government and Louisiana Purchase – not bad. Louisiana mentioned the Haiti problem, which is surprisingly comprehensive.
- The War of 1812 is dismissed entirely too casually. It had major implications for the United States. The last hope for Canada joining the Union died—from then on Canada developed its own identity. The US Navy established itself as a formidable opponent to the great powers. Native Americans would lose their last ally on the western frontier as the British troops withdrew from the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. Lastly, it established American sovereignty to the world once and for all.
- The war did NOT end with the Battle of New Orleans. It ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent months before. New Orleans happened after the fact.
- The Texas Revolution is pretty much spot on, although the first President of the Republic of Texas was Stephen J. Burnet, not Sam Houston.
- The explanation of the Mexican War wasn’t bad either, although the gap from 1848 to 1860 is dismissed a little too casually.
- The slavery issue was summed up well, and it culminated in Lincoln’s election of 1860.
- Lastly, the Emancipation Proclamation was mentioned without the little fact that it only declared those slaves in rebel states to be freed—in actuality not freeing a single slave until the 13th Amendment of 1865.
Apart from that, it’s not a terrible summation of the early years of the republic. I wouldn’t base a final report on this, but it’s a good introduction to the year, provided some of the gaps are covered in better detail.
In coming weeks, especially after my summer break begins, I’ll be looking at other Khan videos—as well as their competitors—to see how useful they can really be to serious history students.
By the way…the constant use of the word “Indian”, by a company named after an actual one, is really inexcusable.