Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Preciousness of the Past, or of Memory and Mirrors:

So I’ve already devoted more than enough time to common misconceptions about the value of history—it’s time to think together about why we should find value in studying the past.  My list is not exhaustive, and it’s far from the last word on the matter, but here is how I typically answer that question at the beginning of the courses I teach.

In our short-sighted pragmatism, we often insist that academic pursuits immediately translate into a higher potential income after graduation, which is another way of saying that we all too commonly equate education and vocational training.  Vocational training is a good thing—we all need to know something about how to make a living—and I do honestly believe that a rigorous study of history has benefits that can help to put bread on the table.  I want all of my students to improve their abilities to read critically, reason logically, and communicate persuasively, and I think that these are skills that are widely transferable to any number of vocations.  And yet these are incidental benefits—as wonderful as they are—and emphatically not the main benefit we seek.  We study history primarily not to earn a better living but to live a better life.

History serves this purpose in several ways.  For the moment let me focus on two, both of which I can best illustrate with metaphors.  First of all, history is a form of memory.  (I like Christian historian John Lukacs’ definition of history as the “remembered past.”)  If we take the analogy seriously, it can teach us a lot about history’s value.  I asked my students recently to list the attributes of memory as an exercise for thinking about the pitfalls and opportunities of studying the past.  Astutely, they noted that memory can be faulty, that it is sometimes selective and self-serving, and that it may change over time—all of which is also true of history.  But they also identified some of memory’s priceless benefits.  “Memory is crucial to our sense of personal identity,” one student noted.  “Without it we would be unable to function,” observed another.  The same could be said for history.  History is crucial to our sense of collective identity.  Just as memory helps in answering the question “who am I?” history helps in answering the question “who are we?”  And because history gives us a memory before birth, it can connect us with the insight and experience of those who have gone before us.  In a figurative sense it actually lengthens our life’s span, broadening our perspective and enabling us, not to predict the future, but to meet it more wisely.

If history is a form of memory—reminding us of who we have been—it can also be a kind of mirror—revealing to us who we are now.   In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul warns us against being conformed to the values of the world.  Unfortunately, many of the cultural values that influence us deeply become invisible to us.  We see them as “natural,” and what we see as natural we eventually cease to see at all.  One of the great benefits of studying history is its potential to remind us that the way things are now is not the way they have always been.  It can be a lot like traveling to a foreign country, except that we are traveling across time instead of space.  As a Christian who focuses on the study of American History, I am struck that we do not have to go back very far in time to encounter individuals who professed the same faith that we do, who lived in the same part of the world that we do, and who nevertheless viewed the world very differently than we do.  When we take such encounters seriously, we become self-conscious of our values in a way that we have not been; they literally become more visible than before.  Thus the study of history helps us to see both ourselves and our world with new clarity, and it is only when we are really see the values that shape us that we can effectively resist the world’s efforts to squeeze us into its mold.

In sum, history’s greatest value is not utilitarian but moral.  At its richest, it furthers our pursuit for a heart of wisdom, the quest at the very center of what it means to love God with our minds.

What is the Value of History?—Part II: “Who Controls the Past . . .”

I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but before giving my own reasons for studying history, I do want to share one other common justification which, in my opinion, is not only misguided but detrimental—what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach. The history-as-ammunition approach views the past as an arsenal, a storehouse of weapons to wield in the culture wars.  If you stop to think about it, many of the most controversial public issues of the past generation have had an important historical component.  To cite but a few examples, arguments about affirmative action, welfare policy, gun control, and foreign relations regularly cite evidence from the past.  Participants on both sides of these debates employ the “lessons of history” as rhetorical devices to strengthen their positions or undermine their opponents’.  It is no surprise, then, that many well-meaning Christians have come to value history as vital to success in the public square.  This is all the more true when, as is increasingly the case, we suspect that secularists are intentionally misrepresenting the past in order to advance agendas we deplore.

As citizens of a free society charged with choosing our governmental representatives, we undoubtedly need to be historically savvy.  You could even say that historical ignorance is downright irresponsible when so many vital public issues involve claims about the past.  And yet, an approach to the past that values historical knowledge mainly for its utility in public debate misses the mark badly.  It reminds me of the role accorded to history in George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, 1984.  Writing shortly after the conclusion of WWII, Orwell portrayed a nightmarish future in which most of the world’s population lived under the domination of rival totalitarian governments.  The novel is particularly interesting to students of history.  The story’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is a historian of a sort.  He works for the “Ministry of Truth,” devoting each dreary day to rewriting history in order to ensure that the remembered past perpetually justifies the government’s present agenda.  This is all in keeping with the maxim of the ruling party, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”  The Christians I know who are interested in history do not consciously want to rewrite the past in the manner of the “Ministry of Truth.”  They would rightly be repulsed at the thought.  They are often convinced, however, that there are secular groups in contemporary America who do wish to rewrite our nation’s history as part of an anti-Christian agenda, and this in turn leads them to turn to history with an agenda of their own.  They do not embrace the second half of the Party’s slogan—which calls for the use of power to invent whatever “past” serves the ruling ideology—but they unwittingly accept the first half, i.e., they seek to shape how the past is remembered as a way of influencing the future.

Studying history in search of ammunition is both natural and understandable, but that doesn’t make it wise.  I’ll come back to this concept in future posts, so for now let me simply summarize why we ought to avoid such an approach: whenever we know in advance what we hope to find in the past, we will almost certainly find what we are looking for.  All sorts of undesirable consequences follow from this.  The history-as-ammunition approach will typically accomplish nothing but to reinforce what we already “know.”  It robs history of its power to surprise and challenge us, even to change who we are, which is surely the litmus test of authentic education.  It tempts us to be unfair to the figures we encounter in the past, luring us into using them rather than treating them as we would want to be treated.  And finally, because it normally affirms our values and vindicates our judgment, the history-as-ammunition approach likely feeds our pride in the process.  Because how we think shapes who we are as much as what we think, this should surely give us pause.