Tag Archives: Henry Ford

WHY STUDY HISTORY? (American Revolution #3)

So why study history at all? I ended my last post with this most basic of questions that I want my students of the American Revolution to grapple with. Notice I’m not asking specifically why we should study the American Revolution per se. We’ll get to that soon enough. The question is why pay attention to any part of the past? It’s a question that 21st-century Americans don’t have a ready answer for. As the late Christopher Hitchens put it, we live in a “present-tense society.”

In their thoughts on the value of history, I think most Americans fall into one of three basic groups. The first group (I can’t tell you how large it is, but it’s too large), sees no value in history at all. These are the disciples of Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual automobile tycoon who famously lectured a reporter that “History is tradition. We don’t want tradition. The only history worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

"History is bunk."

“History is bunk.”

The second group thinks of history as a form of entertainment. This is the audience that the so-called History Channel targets with documentaries on Bigfoot, “Ghosts in the White House,” and “Ancient Aliens.” Pawn Stars, anyone? Ice Road Truckers? Let me know if you can figure out what these programs are doing on the History Channel. If forced to choose, I’ll take Henry Ford over the History Channel any day—it’s better to dismiss history entirely than to trivialize it so grotesquely.

The third group believes that history is important but for the wrong reasons. Some of the attitudes in this category are innocent enough. Here I have in mind those who look to the past as a stockpile of simple lessons. I can never think of this group without calling to mind one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. If you know the movie, then you know that the villain Vizzini is a perfect example of someone who treasures the past in this way. After he and the Dread Pirate Roberts agree to a battle of wits to the death, Vizzini ridicules his masked opponent for ignoring one of the “classic blunders” of history. The most well known is “never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but the second is “never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.” Spoiler alert: it’s right after this that the Sicilian Vizzini keels over dead.

"Never get involved in a land war in Asia."

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

The unwitting inspiration for the “lessons-of-history” group is Georges Santayana, a resolutely atheist Spanish-born philosopher who famously wrote that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The quote is buried in a 1905 philosophical treatise titled The Life of Reason, and for the life of me I cannot figure out how Santayana’s dictum came to be so popular. What I do know is that we take the quote entirely out of context and force it to mean something that Santayana didn’t remotely have in mind. The philosopher was making an observation about the nature of knowledge—as philosophers like to do—while we have turned it into an axiom about the value of history. Santayana meant merely that the acquisition of knowledge is incremental, which means that memory is essential to learning. Well duh. We have transformed this truism practically into an assertion that history is cyclical and historical patterns are unchanging. By studying patterns from the past, we tell ourselves, we can, like Vizzini, discern laws to guide our future.

"Those who do not remember the past . . ."

“Those who do not remember the past . . .”

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, 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.

We need a better justification of the study of history than either Santayana or Vizzini can supply. Toward that end, I introduce a series of metaphors to stimulate our thinking about history’s potential value. In the interest of time, I’ll share just two.

First, the study of history can serve as a mirror—helping us to see who we are. 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. Our historical travels can help us 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.

Second, the study of history can function as a grand dialogue across the ages, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” to quote historian David Harlan. When we embrace this dimension of history, we approach the past in a posture of humility. Rejecting what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” we open ourselves to the possibility that those who have gone before us weren’t all idiots. We listen to them. We allow them to ask us hard questions, maybe even to speak truth into our lives. The idea of history as conversation also invites us to show love to the poor and the powerless, drawing into the conversation voices and perspectives that are easily marginalized or ignored, both now and in the past.

In sum, history has the potential to help us to see more clearly who we are, and to think more clearly about who we should be.  Its value is not utilitarian, but moral.  It helps us, not to predict the future, but to meet the future more humanely.


CSLewisAs a historian, one of the things I most appreciate about C. S. Lewis is his conviction that the present has much to learn from the past.  As a teacher, one of the things I admire most about Lewis is his ability to communicate that conviction in an accessible, memorable, and imaginative way.  The extended quote below from my commonplace book wonderfully embodies both of these features.

The quote comes from Lewis’s WWII-era classic The Screwtape Letters.  If you’re not familiar with the book, I heartily recommend it.  It is a great example of Lewis’s genius at using imaginative literature to convey spiritual truth.  The book consists of a series of 31 letters from a senior devil named Screwtape to his nephew, a junior devil named Wormwood.  Throughout the letters, Screwtape lavishes his nephew with advice on how to cause Christians to stumble.   The book is both engaging and convicting, as long as you remember that everything comes from a diabolical perspective.  What Screwtape is recommending, Lewis is warning us to avoid.

Screwtape lettersToward the end of the book, in letter 27, Screwtape shares with Wormwood about what he calls “the Historical Point of View.”  In context, Screwtape has been explaining to his nephew how best to undermine the effectiveness of human prayers.  He notes that an ancient writer  had shared insights that, if humans took them to heart, would badly undermine the devils’ strategy.  There is no need to worry, however, Screwtape assures his nephew.  “Only the learned read old books, and we [he means the devils of Hell] have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.”  Screwtape then goes on to explain the reason for this hellish success:

We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View.  The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true.  He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.” To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge–to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior–this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.  And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.  But thanks be to Our Father [i.e., Satan] and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk.”

Isn’t that a delightful passage?  I could go on and on about it, but let me share just a few observations.  First, Lewis is reminding us that there are moral consequences to our ready dismissal of the past.  By cutting ourselves off from all those who have gone before us, we forfeit the hard-won wisdom of experience that our ancestors might otherwise bequeath to us.  This lessens our ability to live virtuously.  Our contempt for the past is itself a sign of a moral shortcoming on our part, namely intellectual pride–or what Lewis elsewhere labeled “chronological snobbery.”

Second, while there are many reasons why western society as a whole learns little from history, be sure to notice that in this passage Lewis is focused on “the learned.”  The Historical Point of View that he describes is most pronounced among the well educated, but I think we can be even more specific:  In the United States, at least, the Historical Point of View–the mindset that finds it “unutterably simple-minded” to suppose that one could learn how to live by studying the past–is most pronounced among academic historians. At its best–in the words of historian David Harlan–the study of history should be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Too often in today’s universities, however, the study of history is a closed, self-referential conversation that individuals with Ph.Ds have with each other.

Finally, don’t miss the potshot that Lewis takes at the individual who was then the wealthiest man in the world.  During WWI, automobile tycoon Henry Ford had famously lectured Congress on the worthlessness of the past. “I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world,” Ford proclaimed.   “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

Somewhere in the Lowerarchy of Hell, Screwtape smiled.

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!