More Perfect: Podcasts, Pop History, and Historical Thinking

Heather Bennett's picture
Radiolab Presents More Perfect

There are two things I love about Radiolab Presents: More Perfect, the six-episode Radiolab spinoff produced by WNYC and co-hosted by Jad Abumrad. The first is this song - a quirky, catchy, mnemonic device for remembering the names of the eight current Supreme Court justices (plus nominee Merrick Garland):

The second is the way More Perfect communicates historical themes. The series’ hosts explore the cases that arguably made the Supreme Court the political powerhouse it is today and, in doing so, they unravel stories that address change over time, the complexity of agency, the relevance of the past to the present, and the challenges of historical empathy. These are central concerns for historians and history educators, but we (or I at least) often struggle to communicate these themes in compelling, accessible ways in classes and on public platforms. The genius of More Perfect is the hosts’ ability to weave together sophisticated historical thinking and the most engaging elements of podcasts (multiple storytellers, creation of suspense, and, yes, eighties montage music). The resulting narratives make for holistic, sensory-rich, and unusually tangible explorations of the past.

A Word About Historical Thinking

The academic field of historical thinking has existed for at least fifty years, but the terminology remains a bit niche. Definitions of historical thinking vary, but at its core the phrase is shorthand for all the processes and considerations that writers of history engage when assembling evidence and constructing interpretations of past people, events, or ideas. These include attention to context, awareness of change and continuity, exploration of cause and effect, acknowledgment of complex motivations and outcomes, attention to the chronology of events and sources and interrogation of the significance of events. Historical thinking can also mean practical skills like the ability to read, analyze, and evaluate primary and secondary sources and composing narratives about historical events, people, and ideas.

As a grad student/historian/educator, I take the ability to think historically for granted. It's what I do on a daily basis as I prepare and present history through research and in the classroom. By contrast, historical thinking, as Sam Wineburg suggests, is an understandably "unnatural act" for my students. Their methods of analyzing texts and cultural context tend to be conditioned by other disciplines (psychology, business, sociology, economics...) or by more populist presentations of history (think History Channel and Hollywood).

The work of making historical thinking a more “natural” act is a central concern for educators and scholars who teach and study historical thinking. We (because this is my field of study) are invested in making the processes and considerations that go into writing history more discernable and therefore teachable/learnable. I would argue that More Perfect, despite (or perhaps because of) the total absence of historical thinking rhetoric, is a (mostly) laudable model for making obvious the processes, concerns, and importance of historical thinking. By seamlessly embedding historical thinking into the storytelling, the hosts and producers of More Perfect turn historical thinking into a natural act and an exciting, vibrant way of approaching the past.

Historical Thinking in More Perfect

No one involved in the production or narration of the show says the show is about historical thinking. The past is absent even from the description of the show on WNYC's website:

How does an elite group of nine people shape everything from marriage and money, to safety and sex for an entire nation? Radiolab's first ever spin-off series, More Perfect, dives into the rarefied world of the Supreme Court to explain how cases deliberated inside hallowed halls affect lives far away from the bench. (emphasis added)

Those verbs are all presentist and yet each episode centers on a tension between the original context of the Supreme Court, the Constitution, or a specific ruling and the way the law of the land impacts our present context. The premise of the show is, in fact, that the court has changed over time - a thoroughly historical idea.

Change Over Time

The series is especially focused on the transformation of the Court into a politicized entity capable of re-shaping the governance of individual states and, at times, the nation. In "Political Thicket," co-host Jad Abumrad recounts a question raised by an audience member at a recent panel event. She asked, "Could you address what I see as the increasing politicization of the Court... Has the court always been this way, is this just my perception that it's becoming more politicized?" The episode traces this development from the ruling on Baker v. Carr (1962), a relatively unknown case but, as executive producer Suzie Lechtenberg tells us, the one Justice Earl Warren considered the most important ruling of his career. The Baker v. Carr decision gave the Court the power to "correct constitutional violations in matters pertaining to state administration” - including the composition of voting districts (the immediate concern in 1962) and, ultimately, the allocation of a state's electoral votes in a presidential election (Bush v. Gore in 2000).

If "Political Thicket" was a single article, blog post, or monograph, it might be easy to conclude that this individual case was the lynchpin of the court's politicization. The strength of podcasts as a medium, though, is that a specific series or show can attract a steady audience of listeners who stick with it. (At least, this is how I and many podcast listeners I know interact with the medium.) This allows the creators and producers of a series to reinforce big ideas over multiple episodes. More Perfect uses that strength to hammer home the reality of change over time in not only "Political Thicket," but arguably every other episode of the series.

"Kittens Kick The Giggly Blue Robot All Summer" is perhaps the most obvious example, in large part because the episode centers on the Jefferson administration and a case from 1803, Marbury v. Madison; change over time is potentially easier to recognize with greater distance from the events. But "Cruel and Unusual," "The Imperfect Plaintiffs," "Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl," and "Object Anyway" likewise emphasize the changing nature of the interpretation and implementation of the law, albeit through an emphasis on events from the last thirty years.

Complexity of Agency

It's always tempting to portray change over time as a narrative of progress. More Perfect resists this narrative, however, by exploring the complicated, morally ambiguous, and often unanticipated effects of changes to the politics, power, and rulings of the Supreme Court. Four episodes in the series address the impact of the court on "we the people" who live (or die) with the decisions made by this branch of government.

"Cruel and Unusual," the first episode of the series, grapples with the complexity of perspectives related to the 8th Amendment, which guarantees:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. (emphasis added

Does the death penalty itself constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" or only the ways in which it is carried out? Is a firing squad, ruled legal and acceptable under the 8th Amendment in 1879 (Wilkerson v. Utah), less cruel and unusual than lethal injection (Baze v. Rees in 2008)? Should the Supreme Court uphold the will of "we the people” when a majority supports the continued use of the death penalty? Or should the justices base their judgments only on their (potentially politicized) interpretation of the Constitution - a document remarkably short on details but nonetheless a potent national symbol and legal foundation?

The episode is as much about the actions of individual citizens in the United States, England, and India as it is about the actions of the Supreme Court Justices, which makes a strong argument for the co-agency of citizens and their governments. That shared ability to effect change makes it more difficult to assess changes wrought by specific cases; co-agency necessitates the inclusion of multiple voices to piece together the complicated impact of individuals' actions.

Here again the podcast medium is advantageous. Unlike a class setting where I might try to present varied perspectives by asking students to read multiple primary sources, each episode of More Perfect weaves together diverse opinions expressed by numerous men and women. Differences of opinion don't need to be extracted from the subtext of a written document; each perspective is presented in an audibly different voice as the hosts highlight the perspectives of Maya Foa (whose work aims to abolish the death penalty), Bill Wiseman (the now-deceased legislator who originally proposed the drug cocktail used for lethal injection), and Paul Ray (the Utah state representative who re-introduced the firing squad).

Relevance of the Past to the Present

Three other episodes also address complicated issues, but the cases discussed in the episodes weren't chosen just to demonstrate complexity. The hosts, reporters, and producers of More Perfect chose these cases for the podcast because the cases are timely. The Supreme Court decisions narrated in these episodes address gay rights and the affirmative action policies of universities ("The Imperfect Plaintiffs"), the status of Native American families ("Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl"), and racial bias in jury selection ("Object Anyway"). The cases were selected, at least in part, in response to the prevalence of political and legal discussions about LGBTQ rights, in/equality in education, and race and racism in the United States.

Choosing topics relevant to current concerns makes perfect sense as a journalistic endeavor and for the podcast medium. A podcast audience, even one as faithful as I suspect Radiolab's audience is, will hit the stop button if something isn't interesting. So hosts and producers look for ways to hook their listeners. A reliable way to do this is by appealing to what is familiar to an audience - stories currently in the news, experiences shared by audience members, well-known stories that can be told with a twist, pop culture tropes. Those familiar points of contact allow hosts to flip the story, explore complexity, and introduce unfamiliar and surprising elements that challenge or expand their audience's understanding of a topic.

If I'm honest, I also do this as an educator. I pick key themes and topics for my classes that address questions I believe are relatable to students. I make an effort to include people and ideas they've heard of when I introduce a relatively unfamiliar society. I create assignments that give students the opportunity to explore the personal significance of what we're studying in the course. I try to use these points of connection with students' personal lives to draw them into what David Lowenthal called the "foreign country" of history.

I wonder, though, if this concern for relatability and relevance does a disservice to past peoples - and to learners and listeners. I worry sometimes that presenting history first and foremost as relevant indulges a certain self-centeredness; relevance depends on my perspective at the present time. It makes me and my understanding of the world the center of the narrative.

I wonder if I, as a historian, might serve my audiences better by more consistently challenging listeners and readers to consider the importance of an event (a legal ruling, for instance) in light of its impact on its own time and place. Making an effort to comprehend the importance of an event (or idea or person) to past peoples is, I think, a step towards understanding (though not necessarily agreeing with) people very different from ourselves. This is a radical, historical empathy - a skill that some argue may be history’s most important and transformative offering to students and public audiences.

I don't necessarily think podcasts are the only medium responsible for fostering historical empathy or challenging conceptions of relevance. The hosts of Radiolab have, in fact, failed to fully engage with the perspectives and personal histories of their subjects in the past, as was the case in the 2012 episode, "Yellow Rain."  Robert Krulwich, the lead journalist on the story has since apologized, but at the time the pursuit of a relevant and suprising story, in that instance, created emotional pain that was anything but empathetic. When we encounter similar failings in otherwise admirable models of public historical thinking, I think the challenge for academic historians, history educators, and history podcasters is to intentionally consider how we might use these models in our own efforts to create rich, complex, relevant historical narratives. What can we appropriate and adapt from podcasts like More Perfect - and how can we fill the gaps created by their shortcomings?