Monday, August 21, 2017

Time to Study History

Antietam Battlefield
History is a subject we all take in school. Sometimes it's taught well. Sometimes it's not. Either way, the study of history is often viewed as irrelevant to daily life. History is about the past, and while we're told at times that if we fail to learn the lessons of the past, we're fated to repeat them, I'm not sure that's true, but we can learn a lot from history about context and the way things have evolved. 

Many of the issues of our day have roots in the past, none more serious than the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, two legacies of our past that are enshrined in monuments remembering and even celebrating the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. These monuments began to emerge in the 1890s as a way of pushing back against gains made by African Americans, putting them in their place. These monuments were accompanied by the reign of terror that was wrought by a resurgent KKK, which not only took on black Americans, but Jews, Catholics, and immigrants from Southern Europe (immigration from Asia was already being banned). The goal of all of these efforts, rooted in history, was keeping America in the hands of White Protestant Americans (Anglo-Saxons). Of course, this is my own heritage (I'm the product of immigrants from Western Europe and the British Isles).

While I have no problem with people pursuing STEM courses of study, I think part of our problem today is that we don't do a good job of engaging the basic elements of the humanities. The study of history, religion (all religions), philosophy, and civics are all important components of being well rounded and grounded. This isn't an elitist view, because I think that everyone no matter their background should have a good grounding in history and civics. Then we'll be better prepared for our conversations.  I want to share two paragraphs from Reinhold Niebuhr's book The Irony of American History, which I believe help make the point about the importance of studying history.  

The first paragraph I'd like to take note of, Niebuhr reminds us that our pursuit of technical proficiency hasn't made us a more intelligent nation.

Yet we cannot deny the indictment that we seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms; and are not fully aware of the limits of this approach. The constant multiplication of our high school and college enrollments has not had the effect of making us the most “intelligent” nation, whether we measure intelligence in terms of social wisdom, ├Žsthetic discrimination, spiritual serenity or any other basic human achievement. It may have made us technically the most proficient nation, thereby proving that technical efficiency is more easily achieved in purely quantitative terms than any other value of culture. [Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History (pp. 59-60). University of Chicago Press - A. Kindle Edition. ]
Then he speaks of the consequences in the next paragraph:   

Our preoccupation with technics has had an obviously deleterious effect upon at least one specific sector of our classical cultural inheritance. No national culture has been assiduous as our own in trying to press the wisdom of the social and political sciences, indeed of all the humanities, into the limits of the natural sciences. The consequence of this effort must be analyzed more carefully in another context. It is worth noting here that, when political science is severed from its ancient rootage in the humanities and “enriched” by the wisdom of sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists, the result is frequently a preoccupation with minutiae which obscures the grand and tragic outlines of contemporary history, and offers vapid solutions for profound problems. Who can deny the irony of the contrast between the careful study of human “aggressiveness” in our socio-psychological sciences, and our encounter with a form of aggressiveness in actual life which is informed by such manias, illusions, historic aberrations and confusions, as could not possibly come under the microscope of the scientific procedures used in some of these studies?  (Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History (p. 60). University of Chicago Press - A. Kindle Edition.)

So, perhaps it's time to go back and hit the history books, and not the kind of history books written by professional historians. They don't always get everything right, because historians are human and have their own sets of biases, but there is good history out there. Unfortunately, much popular "history," like what is shown on the History Channel is fanciful.  And don't turn to Dan Brown or David Barton either.  

If we're going to find our way to a better conversation about race, immigration, and the like, we'll need some historical context. It's clear that ouir President doesn't know much about history. That's a problem. So, in response, we need to do some study of our own, so we can respond appropriately.A good place to start understanding America's problem of hate might be Jon Meacham's article in Time Magazine So happy reading!  


Henry Neufeld said...

Good post / good point.

I would add something here. I have been telling Greek teachers that they need to emphasize the ways in which their students might use Greek later, rather than teaching it as though they'll become classics researchers. Most of my classes were such that what I learned would only become usable if I attained--and MAINTAINED--expert level.

The same thing goes for history. I took an American history survey from a professor who obviously felt that the only point of studying history was to know some details. On the other hand, I took church history from a professor who tied everything to our lives, explaining how some church father's thought carried through into the various church traditions of the present, for example.

I think teachers often become too specialized and focused. The same thing that makes one an expert in one's field can make it hard to pass knowledge on in a way that will be remembered.

Robert Cornwall said...

Henry, part of the problem is that history isn't always well taught. I was fortunate to have excellent teachers in both college and seminary. I have tried to follow their example, when teaching. I think where things often get lost is in K-12, where the value of history is often lost. But, perhaps we'll see a renaissance!!

Smith said...


Elgin said...


While we would probably disagree over some of the lessons we should learn from history, I could not agree more that we should study it and currently we do a particularly poor job. When I encounter someone who has a different view of history, we can talk and often that leads both side to a deeper understanding, and reduces the differences between us. When I encounter those with similar opposing views, but no real knowledge of history, discussion is very difficult. To really solve the problems we face we need to discuss our differences and sadly there is too little of that.