FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: TAYLOR AND POSTMAN ON THE POWER OF STORY

It’s been a long time since I shared something from my commonplace book, so I thought I would pass along three extended quotes that I recorded just last week. For you new readers, a commonplace book is essentially a quote journal, and in keeping one I am following a practice that was common in the 17th-19th centuries. Mark Edmondson calls it a “life thickener.” I keep one in order to be more intentional about living an examined life. In its pages I write out the concepts and ideas, arguments and assertions that I want to reflect on regularly as I live out my vocation.

The quotes below all have to do with the power of story. You may find their assertions obvious, but I’ve come to them slowly. If I’m ever asked to write the history of my life, I’ve already picked out a title. It’s going to be “Well Duh: The Autobiography of a Slow Learner.” I can’t even begin to list all the ways that this applies to me. But when it comes to my failure to appreciate the power of story, I know my thick-headedness isn’t unique within the Academy. The Academy was where I learned it.

For most of the time since Herodotus took up his pen, historians have been story tellers. Even as history evolved into an academic discipline in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of the most respected academic historians were still masters of narrative. In the archives they were meticulous scholars, painstakingly poring over ancient manuscripts, but when they returned to their offices they became writers, aspiring to craft true stories that would make the past “come alive” for their readers.

This ideal did not fare well in the twentieth-century Academy, however. The reasons for this are complicated and debatable, so I’m not going to pretend to tackle them here. Suffice it to say that narrative history gradually fell out of favor. When I began graduate school in the early 1980s, I quickly learned that it was viewed as naïve, outdated, and amateurish. It’s taken me nearly three decades to unlearn that lesson.

Wheaton College’s fall semester began this morning, and in the first meeting of my U. S. history class, I tried to alert my students to the power of story. We’ll return to that idea in our next class meeting, and my plan is to begin our time together with the first passage below. It comes from an essay by retired Bethel College English professor Daniel Taylor titled “In Praise of Stories.” (If you’d like to read it yourself, you can find it in The Christian Imagination, an anthology edited by my Wheaton College colleague Leland Ryken.) Over the coming weeks I’ll bring in the two quotes that follow. Both are from a short review essay in the Atlantic by the late Neil Postman titled “Learning by Story.” See what you think of them.

“We are drawn to a story because our own life is a story and we are looking for help. Stories give us help in many ways. They tell us we are not alone, and that what has happened to us has happened first to others and that they made it through. They also help us see, however, that our own story is not big enough, that the world is larger and more varied than our limited experience. They help us be more fully human by stimulating and appealing to all that we are—mind, body, spirit. They help by calling us into relationship—with other people, with other places and times, with creation, and with God. They help by giving us courage to be the kinds of characters we should be in our own stories, and by making us laugh, empathize, and exercise judgment. But most of all, stories help us by telling us the truth, without which we cannot live.”—Daniel Taylor

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“Human beings require stories to give meaning to the facts of their existence. For example, ever since we can remember, all of us have been telling ourselves stories about ourselves, composing life-giving autobiographies of which we are the heroes and heroines. If our stories are coherent and plausible and have continuity, they will help us to understand why we are here, and what we need to pay attention to and what we may ignore. A story provides a structure for our perceptions; only through stories do facts assume any meaning whatsoever. . . . Without air, our cells die. Without a story, our selves die.”—Neil Postman

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“Nations need stories, just as people do, to provide themselves with a sense of continuity, or identity. But a story does even more than that. Without stories as organizing frameworks we are swamped by the volume of our own experience, adrift in a sea of facts. Merely listing them cannot help us, because without some tale to guide us there is no limit to the list. A story gives us direction by providing a kind of theory about how the world works—and how it needs to work if we are to survive. Without such a theory, such a tale, people have no idea what to do with information. They cannot even tell what is information and what is not.”—Neil Postman

PRAGER UNIVERSITY: RAY BRADBURY’S NIGHTMARE

One of my  favorite sayings comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  Reflecting on his 1831 visit to the United States, the Frenchman observed, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”   Tocqueville’s adage doesn’t always holds true, but it often does, which is why I regularly share it with my students.  Across the generations, Tocqueville reminds us to be wary of our fondness for simplistic answers to complicated questions.

Tocqueville’s words came to me repeatedly over the weekend, as Colonel Ty Seidule’s five-minute explanation of the causes of the Civil War went viral, attracting more than four million views in a matter of days.  (It’s now topped six million.)  In my last post I explained how Colonel Seidule effectively replaced one myth about the Civil War with another one, and there’s no good reason to cover that ground a second time.  But I do want to share a thought abut the venue in which it first appeared: the absurdly misnamed “Prager University.”

“Prager University” is the brainchild of conservative radio personality Dennis Prager.  It is not an accredited educational institution, and no one connected to it claims otherwise.  It offers “free courses for free minds”–professionally produced five-minute videos on a range of topics in economics, political science, philosophy, history, and religion.  I have nothing personal against Dennis Prager, and as a political conservative myself, I suspect that we could probably find several things to agree about.  But I’m offended by anti-intellectualism parading as a commitment to knowledge and wisdom, and that’s what I see in this online travesty.

I hesitate in sharing these strong words, because I’m aware that a number of serious scholars and public intellectuals have lent their names to Prager’s undertaking.  Perhaps they thought they were doing the public a service.  Perhaps they hoped to stimulate informed discussion and raise the level of public debate about important questions.  If so, then they were well intentioned but misguided.

When a ruler of Egypt supposedly asked the Greek mathematician Euclid whether there was an easier way to learn mathematics, Euclid is said to have replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”  He meant that there were no short cuts.  No Cliff’s Notes. It would take time, concentrated effort, and perseverance.  As 19th-century philosopher Charles Peirce put it, “really valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention.”

“Wrong!” says Dennis Prager.  When you visit “Prager University” online, you’re immediately reassured that “there are no fees, no tuition, books, homework assignments, or grueling midterms here – just clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers.”  Who could turn that down?  It’s not just that the student at P.U. can receive “life-changing insights” without forking over a pile of cash.  He can also get them without wasting valuable time reading, studying, or thinking deeply.

There are “no long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures” at P.U., the web site proclaims.  “All our courses are five minutes long,” the spiel continues. “That’s right, five minutes.”  And how is such brevity possible, you ask?  It’s possible because “our faculty get right to the point.”  You’ll find “no fluff” at P.U.  And if five minutes still strains your attention span?  Not to worry.  Each life-changing insight “is supported by cutting edge, visually-compelling, entertaining images and animation.”  Since you’re likely to get tired of looking at world-renowned intellectuals, in other words (and let’s face it–most of them aren’t that photogenic), P. U. will regularly interject cartoon figures to help you concentrate.

P.U.'s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes

P.U.’s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes.

“Just as a shot of espresso boosts your energy,” P.U. promises,

“a shot of Prager University boosts your brain. Because not only will you have more knowledge, you will have more clarity. You’ll get one other thing, a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”

In sum, “Prager University clarifies big ideas.  Five minutes at a time.”

If this were only a parody.

I’m sorry, Dennis, but I’ve got to go with Euclid on this one.  Like the path to geometry, there is no royal road to wisdom, much less a five-minute video, no matter how compelling its animation.  P.U. doesn’t clarify big ideas.  It trivializes them.  Rather than teach its students how to think, it tells them what to think.

The idea of a five-minute video isn’t inescapably awful.  If each video were paired with another that offered a competing answer to the same question, together they might stimulate rather than indoctrinate.  If the “world renowned thinkers” were encouraged to treat competing interpretations seriously, or invited to suggest books or articles that develop the topic further, these videos could (best-case scenario here) be a springboard to further investigation and reflection.

But that would suggest that some questions are complicated and don’t admit of simple answers, and that flies in the face of P.U.’s whole philosophy.  Want to know whether the U. S. should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan?  P.U. will cut the fluff and give you the “clear and unambiguous” judgment of history in five minutes.  Interested in the truth about Vietnam?  Five minutes should be plenty.  Want the straight scoop about the Constitution? the Ten Commandments? capitalism? feminism? racism?  global warming? abortion?  Five minutes a pop or your money back.

In addition to Alexis de Tocqueville, I’ve also kept coming back to Ray Bradbury these past few days.  In his marvelous dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradford eerily anticipated the denigration of the life of the mind that Prager University embodies.  Writing in 1953, Bradbury described a twenty-first century world in which the primary task of firemen was not to put out fires but to burn books.  Intellectual had become a swear word.  Entertainment was life’s primary pursuit.  Happiness was life’s ultimate goal.  Complicated ideas got in the way.

Early in the novel, Bradbury speaks through a Fire Department captain to pinpoint the genesis of the gradual denigration of learning.  It began with the rise of mass culture, Captain Beatty relates to fireman Guy Montag, who has become curious about books.  As late as the Civil War, Beatty says, “books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.”  But then the population began to grow rapidly, and with it came the birth of mass culture.  “Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

Gradually everything became “boiled down,” Beatty explains.

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.  . . . Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.  Do you see?  Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”

Ray Bradbury died shortly after Dennis Prager founded his “university,” and I won’t presume to say what he would have thought of it.  I don’t mind telling you what I think, however.  Following Captain Beatty, I’d say there’s more nursery than university in P.U.

WEST POINT HISTORIAN MIXES TRUTH AND MYTH, GOES VIRAL

A reader called to my attention this short video by a West Point historian addressing the question “Was the Civil War about Slavery?”  Colonel Ty Seidule, head of the History Department at the United States Military Academy, recently answered this question at the invitation of so-called “Prager University.”  You should check it out.

P.U. (an unfortunate acronym when spoken aloud), is the creation of conservative radio host Dennis Prager.  Its website promises “free courses for free minds” capped at five minutes each. At Prager University you will never have to endure “long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures.”  Just click on the play button and enjoy “clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers” who have mastered the art of getting “right to the point.”  Five minutes later you’ll have definitive information, clarity, and “a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”  Quite the bargain.

Since its release five days ago, more than four million of us have given it a look, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  A whiff of scandal may have lured some.  There have been a few critical notices online, calling into question whether a high-ranking officer at West Point should have lent his name to such a high-profile, politically conservative personality.  I’m not sure what to think about that.  The “courses” in P.U.’s catalog are predominantly conservative in their slant, but I noticed nothing overtly partisan in Colonel Seidule’s presentation, and by his own account (to Stars and Stripes), he knew nothing of Prager’s politics when he agreed to make the video.

I suspect a more important factor was the lingering effects of the Confederate battle flag controversy and the sense that Colonel Seidule offers a definitive refutation of the tired claim by the flag’s defenders that the Civil War was a struggle over state rights.  Most of the online sites that have reposted the video have taken that tack.  They preface the link with bold-face proclamations that Seidule “slammed” or “destroyed” the states’ rights argument.  (The prize for subtlety goes to Salon.com: “Was the Civil War fought over slavery?” the online magazine asks.  “Here’s the video to show idiots who think the answer is ‘No.'”)

Col. Ty Seidule of West Point addressing the students of "Prager University"

Col. Ty Seidule of West Point addressing the students of “Prager University”

My guess is that this is a classic example of being deeply impressed by the force of an argument agreeing with what you already believe.  Much of the online acclaim trumpets Colonel Seidule’s role as head of the History Department at West Point, and the fact that he delivered his remarks in full dress uniform surely added to their gravitas.  The unstated assumption seems to be that a historian at West Point, by definition, should be able to speak authoritatively about the causes of the Civil War.  Colonel Seidule’s official bio indicates that he earned a PhD in history from Ohio State University, but his expertise is in the history of the art of war and, again according to his official West Point bio, his area of specialization is the history of West Point itself.  This does not automatically establish him as an expert on the political causes of the Civil War or any other conflict.

Having said that, Colonel Seidule is right in insisting that the neo-Confederate claim that the Civil War was not about slavery is insupportable by the evidence.  There is nothing novel in this.  Academic historians have held to this view almost unanimously for at least three generations.  But in “destroying” the southern myth that the war was all about states’ rights, the colonel falls into the trap of perpetuating the dominant northern myth about the conflict, implying that it was first and foremost a moral struggle over the legitimacy of human bondage.

He does this primarily in the conclusion of his five-minute “course.”  After acknowledging that the North did not initially embrace the liberation of southern slaves as its reason for fighting, he implies that the war gradually morphed into a moral crusade.  He does this by focusing on Abraham Lincoln exclusively, observing that the opportunity to end slavery grew more and more important in Lincoln’s mind as the war progressed.  That is true, but Lincoln also knew that millions of northerners did not share his view, including a significant percentage of soldiers.  This is why Seidule’s conclusion, though stirring, is grossly misleading:

“Slavery is the great shame of America’s history.  No one denies that.  But it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. . . . In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform , almost two hundred thousand of them former slaves, destroyed chattel slavery, freed four million men, women, and children, and saved the United States of America.”

The claim that America “fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” is a masterful enunciation of what I have previously labeled the northern myth of the Civil War.  If you want a detailed explanation of why Colonel Seidule’s statement is misleading, please take a few minutes (warning: it might take more than five) to read my post “Exchanging One Myth for Another? Our One-Sided Memories of the Civil War.”

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Without belaboring the details, it is important to remember that emancipation was almost as controversial among Union soldiers as it was among northern civilians.   Some of the most prominent Federal generals in the war openly opposed the policy.  Major General George McClellan, who for sixteen months commanded the largest Union army, is a prime example.  McClellan advised Lincoln that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment” and warned that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was more responsible than any other single officer for Lincoln’s reelection, thanks to his successful campaign for Atlanta, repeatedly resisted orders from Washington to enlist former slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation made that a possibility.  “I would prefer to have this a white man’s war,” he explained in a letter to his wife in April 1863.  And when the Army Chief of Staff pressed the matter in late 1864, Sherman wrote to Henry Halleck to explain why he would not comply.  “I am honest in my belief that it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals,” he began.  But “is not a negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet?” Sherman asked.  His answer: “yes, and a sand bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? . . . Soldiers must do many things without orders from their own sense,” he lectured Halleck.  “Negroes are not equal to this.”

Although some Union generals were genuinely committed both to emancipation and to the enlistment of black soldiers on moral grounds, taken as a whole, the policy of Union commanders in the field with regard to slavery was pragmatic, based first and foremost on military exigencies.  And although exposure to the realities of slavery often converted the men in the ranks to support of emancipation, historian James McPherson–after reading thousands of pages of soldiers’ correspondence–concluded that most supporters of emancipation in the Union army are best understood as “practical abolitionists.”  These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war.

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Colonel Seidule is correct that President Lincoln genuinely embraced the opportunity to strike at slavery as a long-delayed moral obligation, but even Lincoln regularly justified emancipation and black recruitment on the most pragmatic grounds in order to make it more palatable to northern opinion.  “The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property,” the president wrote in a public defense of the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1863.  “Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?”

And when a year later he faced widespread criticism over the use of slaves as soldiers, he again defended his policy on the most pragmatic grounds.  “Any different policy in regard to the colored man deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear,” Lincoln wrote to a Unionist critic in September 1864.  “This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which can be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam power. . . . Keep it and you can save the Union.  Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”

Colonel Seidule’s claim that “it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” misses the mark badly.  And more than just historical accuracy is at stake.  As I have noted before, this kind of caricature unwittingly perpetuates the falsehood that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past.  Southern slavery was the country’s “great shame.”  The North, to its “everlasting credit,” fought to abolish it.  For generations, this northern myth has made the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem.  Just like the southern states’ rights myth, the northern myth has been an obstacle to an honest confrontation with our past.

WHY CHURCH HISTORY MATTERS

Andrew Jones

I started this blog three years ago because I wanted to encourage Christians outside the Academy to value history and to learn to think Christianly about history.   Recently one of my former students at Wheaton posted a thoughtful reflection on the relevance of the history of the church to twenty-first century believers.  Andrew Jones went on from Wheaton to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is now doing doctoral work at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  You can check out his short piece here.  His advice to “learn from our story” is dead on.

 

HISTORY: IT’S HAPPENING

This is the catchy slogan that will be emblazoned on the new Wheaton College History Department t-shirts for 2015-16.  We plan on rolling out the new model at the college’s Academic Fair Saturday after next.  The resulting buzz, we are confident, will lead to a dramatic upsurge in history course enrollments.  That’s the plan, anyhow.

t-shirt - Copy

“History: It’s Happening” won out over several other clever possibilities.  Some preferred “We Put the Stud in Study.”  I liked “It’s Complicated”–which is my standard response to almost every student question–as well as the more profound sounding “Res Implicata Est” (Latin for “It’s Complicated”).

One of my colleagues who specializes in Early Modern Europe suggested a quote from the 1612 book The Anatomy of Melancholy: “We shall have a glut of books! . . . We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.”  Accurate enough, but it didn’t go over well with the focus group brought in by our marketing staff.

In addition to being pithy, “History: It’s Happening” has the virtue of encapsulating what historians refer to as historical consciousness.  Historical consciousness isn’t an easy concept to define, and I think it works best to explain it in conjunction with two other terms.

In every course that I teach I set at least three broad learning goals for my students:

The least important, though not unimportant, objective is historical knowledge—information that enhances our understanding of the time and place we are studying. Historical knowledge is our least important objective in part because we retain so little of it, in part because even when we remember it, it does little to change who we are.

More important is the development of historical thinking skills. We hone these skills not by memorizing historical facts but by analyzing historical evidence and constructing historical arguments. In the process we sharpen our capacity to read perceptively, reason logically, and communicate persuasively, skills that are critical to success in any number of vocations.

But our most important goal is to develop historical consciousness.  Historical  consciousness isn’t information we possess or a skill that we practice.  It’s a mindset that transforms the way we view the world. Individuals with historical consciousness feel the weight of the simple truth that each of us lives in time.  They recognize that our lives are profoundly influenced by historical forces–large and small, personal and impersonal–and they are keenly aware of the particular historical contexts that frame their own lives and the society in which they live.

History: it’s happening.

 

LEARNING ABOUT HISTORY FROM AN IMAGINED FUTURE

I’m always on the outlook for metaphors that help us think more deeply about what history is and what historians do. But my quest is hardly systematic. There’s not enough time—not enough lifetimes—for that. I follow up leads that I stumble across and tips that my students give me. The latter can lead me into corners of the world of literature that I would never otherwise explore.

Science fiction is a case in point. I’ve never liked it, not even C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy, although at Wheaton we’re supposed to adore everything the man wrote. (I’m being facetious, although we do claim to own the wardrobe that inspired  The Chronicles of Narnia.) But recently one of my students recommended that I check out Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, and it was a good tip. The novel centers on a marvelous metaphor for a crucial role that historians can play.

speaker_for_dead

I actually had to read two of Card’s novels. Before I could understand Speaker for the Dead, which contains the metaphor, I had to read its predecessor, Ender’s Game, for context. You may have seen the 2013 movie by the same name. It earned mixed reviews and bombed at the box office, but it follows the plot of the book reasonably well.

Here’s my two-minute synopsis of Ender’s Game, in case you need it. I promise I am not trying to make it sound sillier than it actually is: The setting is a century or so in the future, at a time when the world is still reeling from the attack of a race of insect-like beings called Buggers. (They’re called Formics in the movie). Although the Bugger invasion failed (after killing millions of humans), Earth’s leaders fear that these insect people will eventually come again and succeed. Enter Ender Wiggin, a child genius recruited by the military to save the human race.

After extensive training with other child prodigies, Ender is selected to travel to a distant planet for additional training on an especially sophisticated battle simulator, and he excels. He then learns to his horror (spoiler alert!) that his mentors have been manipulating him. Rather than taking part in a simulation, he has actually been engaged in a live battle. In fact, he has unwittingly orchestrated a preemptive counterstrike against the Bugger home planet that has apparently wiped out the only other known sentient race in the galaxy. The novel ends with Ender discovering one surviving Bugger queen pupa, who telepathically relates to him that the Buggers regretted their earlier attack of earth and posed no threat to humanity. Devastated by guilt, Ender resolves to devote his life to finding a new home where the Buggers can flourish again.

No, it’s not War and Peace, and if not for my student’s solemn assurance that it was worth it, I would never have continued on to Speaker for the Dead. But I did, and I am glad that I did. Early in the novel, set three thousand years in the future, we learn that after the Second Bugger War Ender abandoned the military for a different role. Adopting the pseudonym “Speaker for the Dead,” he used his conversations with the Bugger queen to tell the Buggers’ story and reveal the misunderstanding that led to their (apparent) extermination. Made a pariah on earth because of the part that he played in the genocide, Ender embraced his new identity as “Speaker for the Dead,” and for the past three millennia (I’m not even going to try to explain how this is supposedly possible) he has wandered across the galaxy at near light speed, going wherever someone requests his services.

As Card portrays him, the Speaker for the Dead is part funeral orator, part investigative reporter, but first and foremost, he is a historian. I don’t think Card ever uses the word, but that is Ender’s primary role. A character named Novinha explains that the job of the Speaker is to “discover the true causes and motives of the things that people did, and declare the truth of their lives after they were dead.” That’s not the only thing that a historian aspires to do, but surely it’s an important part.

Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” metaphor immediately struck me. It resonates with some of my favorite quotes regarding our obligation to the past: G. K. Chesterton’s plea that we listen to our ancestors and practice “the democracy of the dead.” Beth Schweiger’s observation that the goal of the historian is to “make a relationship with the dead.” David Harlan’s insistence that history should be “a conversation with the dead.”

It also evokes Wendell Berry’s lament that we often abuse our responsibility to the dead. “I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say,” the title character in Hannah Coulter tells us, thinking of her late husband who had died in WWII. “The dead are helpless,” she says. “The living must protect the dead.”

In his introduction to Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card reveals that he shares Hannah’s concern. “I grew dissatisfied with the way that we . . . revise the life of the dead,” he writes,” giving the dead “a story so different from their actual life that, in effect, we kill them all over again.” Card continues,

To understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story—what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know.

Unless you’re Ender Wiggins.

It’s not necessary to know all the plot details of Speaker for the Dead to follow Card’s metaphor. It’s enough to know that the novel centers on a call for Ender to Lusitania, not the WWI-era British passenger liner but a sparsely populated planet in a remote corner of the galaxy. There’s a small colony of Earth recently established there, as well as a tribe of another alien race that the humans call porquinhos—the first sentient beings that humans have encountered in three thousand years of space travel. (Humans are not alone in Card’s imagined universe, but it’s also not very crowded.) The plot follows two intertwined threads: Ender’s preparations to speak for one of the deceased colonists, and his efforts to help the colonists bridge the cultural chasm that divides them from their alien neighbors.

So here are four features that make the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” a useful metaphor for thinking about history and the historian. First, in his role as Speaker, Ender recognizes that his audience harbors a range of agendas. Some are merely curious or in search of entertainment. Some seek vindication or revenge. A few seek understanding. The metaphor calls us to consider what we really want when we consume history.

Second, Ender knows that truth about the past is complex. He hopes that his words will be a blessing; he is certain they will be controversial. As he shares his findings, some among his audience are thankful, some offended, some uncomfortable, some embarrassed. Because his role is to speak truth about the dead, he will challenge and convict as well as comfort.

Third, the Speaker’s ability to know the dead is the same aptitude that allows him to understand the porquinhos in the present. Card tells us that Ender is a successful Speaker because of “his ability to see events as someone else saw them.” This is why learning to think historically is one of the best ways to equip ourselves to transcend the cultural fault lines that divide our world today. Both require Ender’s gift of seeing the world through others’ eyes.

Fourth, Card makes clear that exercising that gift is impossible without love. “In history,” Beth Schweiger writes, “the call to love one’s neighbor is extended to the dead.” When Ender offends some of the Lusitanians in how he speaks for the dead, they have a ready explanation: he doesn’t respect them. Even those who concede the truth of what he says about the past question his motive. “It’s easy to tell the truth,” Novinha tells her daughter, “when you don’t love anybody.” But Card gives the last word to Novinha’s daughter, Ela, who insists that the Speaker loved the dead he has spoken for. “I think I know something, Mother,” she explains. “I think you can’t possibly know the truth about somebody unless you love them.”

No single metaphor can capture all that is involved when we try to understand, love, and learn from the past, but I think the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” can carry us a long ways. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, as well as any tips you might share about other metaphors you find useful.

Back with more soon.

IS THE PAST REALLY DEAD AND GONE?

In my last post I shared the plot of one of Stephen King’s lesser known works and asked whether it might contain a helpful metaphor for thinking about the concept of the past. King’s 1990 novella The Langoliers actually contains not one but two extended metaphors for the past. The first—we can call it Metaphor A—emerges when the surviving passengers of a jetliner that has inadvertently passed through a “time rip” arrive at Bangor Airport. Unwittingly having traveled fifteen minutes back in time, they enter a terminal that is still, gray, silent, and lifeless—a place of shadows but no substance.

The second metaphor—Metaphor B—appears soon thereafter, when King has a horde of vicious monsters devour the pale remnants of the past, leaving in their wake only nothingness. As I read them, Metaphor A evokes a past that can be visited with effort (sort of like a foreign country), albeit one that is lifeless and mute until the historian reanimates it and gives it voice. Metaphor B seems to go further. It describes a past that it would be inconceivable to visit because it has simply ceased to exist.

A scene from the 1995 TV miniseries based on King's novella. The Langoliers are consuming the pale remnants of the past, leaving utter nothingness when thy are through.

A scene from the 1995 TV miniseries based on King’s novella. The Langoliers are consuming the pale remnants of the past, leaving utter nothingness behind them..

I’m still wrestling with both metaphors, still going back and forth about their usefulness, and still interested in any thoughts you might have. In the meantime, I want to respond to a couple of good comments that have come in from readers who appear troubled by Metaphor B, and perhaps even more so by my comment that it correctly “hammers home the truth that the past is dead and gone.”

Pamela and Gary make strikingly similar observations. Pamela notes that the symbols of the past are “still alive within us;” Gary maintains that the past “is well and alive in each one of us.” Pamela writes that the past is “a part of who we are”; Gary alludes to “who we are because of the past.” Implicitly, both Pamela and Gary take their stand with William Faulkner, who once famously declared that “the past is never dead.” (In a lesser known passage that I like even better, Faulkner also wrote that “yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.”)

Boiled down, Metaphor B doesn’t work for Pamela and Gary (as it would not have worked for Faulkner) because the idea of a past that is “dead and gone” evokes a past that is wholly inconsequential to the present, a past that leaves no mark on our lives today. If that’s how the rest of you interpret the metaphor then I’ll abandon it immediately, because that’s the last message I’d ever want to convey.

Our lives are profoundly influenced by what has gone before us; that’s what makes our cultural obsession with the present so debilitating and so frustrating. Perhaps I should have written something like “The past is gone for good,” and left “dead” out of it. (Would that have made a meaningful difference to the message?) But I’m not quite ready to concede that to say the past is “dead and gone” is the same as pronouncing it irrelevant and meaningless.

Consider this example: My grandfather was one of the most significant people in my life as I was growing up. He lived in my home town, I saw him almost every day until I went away to college, and it is but a slight exaggeration to say that he helped raise me. I cherish his memory, I’m fond of telling his story (at age nineteen he began teaching grades 1-8 in a one-room Appalachian schoolhouse), and to this day I carry in my Bible a picture of the two of us on his back porch when I was in graduate school and he was in his late 90s. I also know that his influence on me is undeniable. I inherited his sense of vocation and likely his temperament as well. His positive influence over the first thirty years of my life helps to explain who I am today.

And yet, my grandfather has been dead nearly a quarter-century. Must I deny this in order to acknowledge his continuing influence on my life? Before you say it, I know that one way out of the dilemma is the Hallmark-movie sentiment that my grandfather really isn’t dead as long as he is a part of me and all whose lives he touched. (Digression here: No disrespect to anyone, but I’ve always despised this cliche. I suspect it’s a comforting figure of speech embraced by a culture that no longer really believes in the immortality of the soul but recoils from the implications.)

This expression may be harmless enough at funerals or on a sympathy card, but when we apply it to the past it’s misleading. In particular, by asserting that the past is “alive,” we lose a crucial distinction between the thing itself and our memory of the thing. In so doing, I fear we perpetuate the common misconception that the historian studies the past directly, which leads in turn to the erroneous conclusion that “history” and “the past” are synonymous. History is not the past itself but the remembered past, to quote historian John Lukacs, a distinction that is critical to thinking historically. Whatever its shortcomings, King’s Metaphor B keeps us from forgetting this crucial difference.

I can think of one other possible advantage to Metaphor B: Thinking of the past as dead may also serve to remind us that the people from the past that we are trying to get to know are also (in most instances) dead as well. As Christian historian Beth Schweiger writes, the goal of the historian is “to see and to know the dead,” even to “make a relationship with the dead.” Think for a minute about what this conveys. Faulkner’s sense of the past as “never dead” calls attention to its power; Schweiger’s reminder that the historian works almost exclusively with the dead evokes a past that is vulnerable, even helpless. How could the latter be true? When it comes to historical memory, the dead are always at the mercy of the living. Their ability to define the meaning of their lives ended at the grave. How they are remembered, why they are remembered, whether they are remembered is all up to the living, at least until Judgment Day.

Perhaps in the end we have to hold these two ostensibly contradictory understandings in tension with each other. Part of the historian’s job is to help the present see the powerful influence of the dead upon the living; a different part is to be a speaker for the dead, lest the past fade into oblivion.

Those are my two cents, at least for now. And if you recognized in the last sentence the title of a novel by Orson Scott Card, you know where I’m headed next.

Back soon.