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.

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

  1. Pingback: CHRISTIANITY AND THE CONSTITUTION–PART III | Faith and History

  2. Great post. I agree with you that historical ignorance is irresponsible, and there are too many toys out there to distract our attention away from even current events, let alone the past. My current approach to history is simple exploration and to discover connections to the present, but (although I can’t think of an exact example), I know I’ve had the attitude of mining history for ammunition.

  3. In my own teaching, I often ask students what “surprised” them from an assigned reading. I’m surprised that some students are not surprised by what they find–either they already know everything (which is unlikely), or they know so little about the past that they don’t even have preconceived notions about it.
    Great blog!

  4. I have read the works of several people who use history in this way. It is truly unfortunate.

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