Monthly Archives: August 2012

What is the Value of History?—Part I: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past . . .”

In my last post I shared the opinion that most Americans fall into one of three broad categories with regard to their attitudes about history.  The group that I suspect is the largest dismisses the importance of the past and views history as fundamentally irrelevant.  The second group, also large, trivializes the importance of the past and reduces it to a storehouse of quirky facts and amusing anecdotes.  Happily, I have met many Christians over the years—in churches, at Christian school functions, at home-schooling gatherings—who fall into a third category.  If the first and largest sees no value in history, and the second thinks its sole purpose is to entertain us, this third, smaller group believes that history can instruct us in some way, that it is a potential source of valuable insight.  The latter are kindred spirits, and so I mean no disrespect when I say that most of the individuals I have met in this third category have no very clear idea as to how history might enrich their lives.  That it should do so they have no doubt, but this is more an article of faith than a reasoned conviction.

I’d like to share my own thoughts on the benefits of studying history, but I’m going to let the suspense build for a few posts and instead discuss some of the most common misconceptions about history’s value.  For years, I have regularly started each new course that I teach by asking the students on the first day what they might hope to glean from a serious study of the past, and for years in each class at least one brave soul will raise her hand and paraphrase what has to be the single best known quote about the value of history, Georges Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  How this single sentence from a resolutely atheistic Spanish-born philosopher evolved into an unassailable popular truth in America is a mystery.  Compounding the mystery is the fact that we almost always take the sentence out of context and impute a meaning to it miles from what the author intended.  Popularly interpreted, the quote becomes a claim about the value of history: the past is a repository of lessons about what does and doesn’t work in a given situation, and the society that is ignorant of these lessons will unfortunately (and unnecessarily) repeat the mistakes of the past.

In reality, Santayana wasn’t thinking about history at all.  Rather than making an observation about the value of history, he was proffering a philosophical principle about the nature of knowledge.  Writing in his 1905 treatise The Life of Reason, Santayana, almost in passing, shared the unexceptionable observation that the acquisition of knowledge is incremental.  If at the end of every day we were to forget everything that we had ever known, the limits of our knowledge would never move beyond what we could acquire, from scratch, in the span of twenty-four hours.  We would be perpetually like newborn babies, which was precisely Santayana’s point.  “When experience is not retained,” he wrote, “infancy is perpetual.”  His very next sentence—“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—was simply a fanciful way of voicing a mundane observation: intellectual growth is impossible without memory.  This is undeniably true, but it is a truism that doesn’t take us very far in our thinking about history.

Given how ubiquitous it is, it may surprise you to learn that almost no professional historian would agree with Santayana’s statement as it is popularly (mis)understood.  In The Landscape of History, for example, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis dismisses the claim as “fatuous.”  In her book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, British historian Margaret Macmillan describes Santayana’s pronouncement as “one of those overused dicta politicians and others offer up when they want to sound profound.”  At bottom, almost all academic historians take for granted that human behavior is far too complex to be reduced to such a formulaic or mechanistic basis as “condemned to repeat it” seems to imply.  As Christians we can readily concur with them.  Our popular misreading of Santayana makes his dictum an echo of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who hoped that his History of the Peloponnesian Wars would be read by “those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past.”  Although as Christians we believe that there is a fundamental element of continuity in the human condition—namely, the perpetual need of fallen humanity for God’s grace and forgiveness—one of the consequences of the spread of Christianity was to challenge this ancient view of human history as cyclical.  Because we recognize Creation, Fall, and Redemption as central to the human story, we view history not as cyclical but linear.  History is a “story with a divine plot,” as C. S. Lewis put it—an unfolding, meaningful movement toward a divinely appointed culmination.

WARNING: Thinking Deeply about the Past is Countercultural . . . and May Even Be an Act of Worship!

I don’t take your interest in history for granted.  The late Christopher Hitchens was wrong about a lot of things, but he nailed it when he described ours as a “present-tense culture.”  Americans live in a society in which thinking deeply about the past is rare and becoming rarer.  Two generations ago (in 1971), 5 percent of undergraduates across the country majored in history; today about 1 percent do so.  We still pay lip service to the teaching of history in our public schools, but middle-school and high-school students across America have less than a 1/5 chance of learning history from a teacher who actually majored in history in college.  “Anybody” can teach history, after all.

I haven’t done a scientific survey, but my sense is that the vast majority of Americans fall into one of three categories in their thinking about the past.  The first category, almost certainly the largest, consists of unwitting disciples of the late Henry Ford.  The early-twentieth-century automobile tycoon once famously lectured Congress on the irrelevance of the past.  We sometimes remember his curt dismissal of history as “bunk.”  Ford went on to declare that “the only history worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.”  The second category, also large, is comprised of individuals who think of history first and foremost as a form of entertainment, a vast repository of amusing anecdotes and oddities that come in handy when watching Jeopardy.  Sadly, the history-as-entertainment mindset now even dominates the horribly misnamed “History Channel,” with its ridiculous lineup of “reality shows” such as Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers, interspersed with hard-hitting exposés on UFOs or the paranormal.  (Past programming has included features such as Ghosts in the White House and Zombies: A Living History.)

Here’s the bottom line: our society wants us to choose between history as fundamentally irrelevant and history as a storehouse of trivia; the latter is still fundamentally irrelevant, but it has the capacity to amuse us whenever nothing better is on TV.

As Christians, we must wage war against either dismissive approach to the past.  I’ll come back to the following reasons in the weeks ahead, so for now I will do little more than list them.  For starters, we must remember that Christianity is a religion grounded in history.  The most fundamental tenets of the faith rest on theological interpretations of real-time, historical occurrences.  Beyond this, if we sincerely believe that God reigns sovereignly over the unfolding of human history, then we ought to think of the past as a sphere that God has ordained; this makes taking the past seriously analogous to appreciating any other aspect of the divine creation.  In this sense, studying history is one expression of obedience to the divine command to love God with our mind—as well as with our heart, soul, and strength.  Paying attention to the past also enables us to glean wisdom from our ancestors, and in this respect it is a logical extension of the biblical precept to honor age.  Because appeals to the past are so common in the public square, furthermore, cultivating historical discernment is also crucial to our broader responsibility to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:3).  Finally, knowledge of the past provides us with much needed perspective.  James tells us that our lives are like puffs of smoke that appear for a short while and then vanish (James 4:14).  With this brevity of life comes lack of perspective and narrowness of vision.  As Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite put it, “we were born yesterday and know nothing” (Job 8:9a).  History gives us a memory before birth, enabling us to see our own day with new eyes and providing perspectives that transcend the brevity of our own brief sojourn on earth.  In sum, when we pay attention to the past for the glory of God, in response to Biblical dictates and principles, the study of history can become both an act of obedience and an expression of worship.  May it be so with us!

Why I Am Writing

God calls us, the late Frederick Buechner observed, to a life of service at the intersection of our heart’s passion and society’s need.  “The place God calls you to,” as he put it so eloquently, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.”  If Buechner’s definition is correct, then it would be accurate to say that I am starting this blog out of a sense of God’s calling.  I am a Christian by faith and an academic historian by vocation, and my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with other Christians about the interrelationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.

This has not always been the case.  When I began graduate study at Vanderbilt University some three decades ago, I genuinely felt “called” to be a Christian historian, but my vision of what that might look like was limited and self-serving.  I intended to teach a college Sunday School class, be open about my faith, and even witness to unbelieving students occasionally.  Beyond that, I would simply strive to be the most successful historian that I could be—as the secular Academy defined success.  This meant letting the Academy define the questions that would be important to me and dictate the audience that would matter.  I’m chagrined to say that I accepted this direction uncritically, almost unconsciously, for I loved what I was doing and I initially reaped great satisfaction and fulfillment from it.  It might have been different had the path not been so easy, but God blessed me with a wonderful job at an outstanding university in a beautiful city.  In addition to the privilege of working with great colleagues and able students at the University of Washington, during my time there I reaped most of the tangible rewards that the secular Academy can offer: tenure, promotion, awards for teaching and scholarship, even an endowed chair.  But at the same time, God was gradually reorienting my thinking.  I’ll save the details for later, but for now I will simply say that, over time, I arrived at the conclusion that part of the calling of the Christian historian was to be a historian for other Christians, not just for the Academy.

It was because of this evolving sense of calling that I left the University of Washington after twenty-two years in order to join the faculty at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts institution just west of Chicago.  It’s entirely possible to be a faithful Christian scholar at a secular university, but I was convinced that a school like Wheaton would open more doors for conversation with Christians outside the Academy than my current post.  The same burden and vision has also redirected my scholarship and led me to try to write for the first time for a broader audience—only last month I received a contract from Intervarsity Press for a book aimed at non-academic readers.  Finally, this same sense of calling—along with the encouragement of my technologically savvy daughters—has prompted me to try my hand at a blog.  This autumn semester I will be teaching a course on the foundations of U. S. History, and I thought I would blog in conjunction with the course, effectively thinking out loud with you about what it might look like to think Christianly about the American founding.  Between now and the start of the semester, I’ll share a few preliminary thoughts about the nature of history and why Christians should value the study of the past.

God has given me a passion to be in conversation with other Christians outside the Academy, so perhaps this is one way to further that aim.  God knows, and time will tell.  Thanks for reading.