In a series of classic science fiction stories, Isaac Asimov imagined a scientific discipline called “psychohistory”: a way to predict the future of an interstellar empire. Psychohistory could not foresee individual choices, but it could supposedly predict collective behavior over the course of millennia. At one point in the Foundation series, however, a charismatic figure named the Mule threatened to upend psychohistory’s predictions: he was a mutant, acting in ways the original model could not anticipate. In the universe Asimov imagined, the Mule alone seemed to possess true individual agency. Resisting a powerful model of human behavior, he offered instead a story about a person.
One of the key difficulties of teaching the American Revolution is the seeming inevitability of it all. Why did Britain even bother pursuing its bothersome colonists? After all, the patriot cause was so noble and glorious that there was surely no way that such perfidious villains as the redcoats could possibly have triumphed. And yet within that myth, there is a persistent paradox: the patriot cause is often “proven” by the victory of such an inferior force against the strongest military power in the world in the late 18th century. But for this narrative to make any sense at all, there must have been a real risk of defeat; unless Britain could realistically have defeated their colonists, why would the morality of the patriots be of any consequence whatsoever? Continue reading