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The Uses of History

I've been MIA from blogging for a couple of months. I won't bore anyone who has stumbled upon this site with news about my life. Let's just say I find myself in a period of transition. No telling what lifeform I will resemble when it is over. But, for right now, I am making a new year's resolution to blog and blog consistently. I plan to add one short contribution to the blogosphere every week. If you are out there and read this, add grit to my resolve by sending along your comments. For this first full week of the 2004 I've reflected on history, my vocation (along with teaching) and also the main intellectual preoccupation of my life.

For most scholars in the humanities and the social sciences, history carries a heavy intellectual burden. The context for important issues, and even the ability to understand the issue, depends on knowing that issue over time. The same applies to policy professionals. History, usually meaning “my view of the past,” either dictates or (more frequently) justifies policy decisions. Daniel P. Moynihan’s controversial investigation of slavery and the African American family became the foundation for programs directed at mitigating poverty and family dysfunction among African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. The sweeping policy decision at the heart of the Cold War, commonly known as “containment,” emerged from the post-World War II understanding of the rise of Nazism and the success of German expansionism during the 1930s. For almost all important social and political issues, a view of the past is essential, and the most powerful analyses of issues requires a historical framework that reflects all the complexity and ambiguity of the past.
Yet, for most people, it seems that their concept of history settled into a fixed evaluation (usually a negative one) based on a class taken long before college. Every time someone asks me what I teach, I brace for their inevitable reaction. They usually tell me something like, “I was horrible at history,” or, “I hated history.” Since these tend to be new acquaintances I have no knowledge of their lives, but I am probably correct 90% of the time when I respond in turn, “You had the wrong history teacher.” Probably they remembered dreary tests that depended on matching a date and a name, defining a term such as “indentured servant,” and recalling the three points the teacher or the text had made about the causes of the Civil War. History meant memorizing details that held no value or interest and probably no meaning. But even those who liked history probably had pretty much the same experience. For them, the past sounded like a really good story, or string of stories, with colorful characters, interesting plot twists, and heroic resolutions.
Two recent editions of History Matters, the monthly magazine of the National Council for History Education, provided essays dealing with the uses of history [see volume 16 issues for October and December 2003]. These articles noted the importance of particular approaches to history in the classroom, but taken together they provide some direction for thinking generally about the utility of history. History provides us with common knowledge of some important parts of our common life, it provides a vital method of critical inquiry, and it gives us the opportunity to learn from the example of others.
For Paul A. Gagnon, an emeritus professor from the University of Massachusetts, history education (along with social studies education) should “nourish citizens’ political judgment.” It can do this by providing a common vocabulary for understanding American and world democracy: “…citizens of whatever class, race, age, gender, or religion need a common body of knowledge that givens them the power to talk to each other as equals on their society’s priorities, each others’ experiences in it, and the political choices it confronts.” History is helpful when we have some of the same knowledge about it.
So, to be good citizens, what do we need to know? Professor Gagnon provides two categories of historical knowledge (and a third that is more contemporary social studies), one of which I will mention here and the third I will save for later. First, we should all understand the fundamental founding principles of American democracy. [This seems self-evident (a no brainer), but I should mention that my university, for all its virtues, required for many years an “American Studies” course that made no mention in its core learning objectives of democracy, let alone any of the basic documents and practices of American democracy.] Gagnon mentions, specifically, the practices of assembly and protest, the controversy over British Acts of parliament, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but also the arguments of Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the ratification of the Constitution. I would add that the controversy over slavery also redefined democracy, and that the issues of citizenship raised in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution must be part of any individual’s intellectual toolkit for democracy.
In his short essay on “American History in American Classrooms” Zachary Osofsky, who is studying at Stanford to become a teacher, discusses the conflicting roles of history and social studies. For Osofsky, history provides a tool for understanding the world. Where Gagnon stresses content, Osofsky stresses process. The work of historical analysis is not adequately reflected in simplified definitions that often appear in the work of professional historians (who should know better), such as Carl Becker’s: History is “the memory of things said and done.” Osofsky writes, “historical memory is a complex process of inquiry that requires the historical investigator to pose questions, to marshal, weigh, analyze, and interpret evidence, and to articulate and defend an argument based upon the relationship between the questions posed and the evidence gathered.”
History, then, is useful as a particular type of thinking that problematizes the past. Once we identify an issue in the past, historical thinking demands understanding the relevant context of an issue, identification and critical evaluation of evidence, and development of explanations. While it is hard to ignore the allure of historical narratives, these almost inevitably hide the critical thinking and evaluations that made the narrative possible.
In addition to shared knowledge and habits of thought, history also provides “true stories,” to use Gagnon’s term, that show how people have fought for democracy and turned ideas into practice. From this point of view, history becomes important in providing examples that can, by analogy, be applied to problems today. In 1392 Peter Paul Vergerius wrote to Ubertinus of Padua explaining the value of what he called the liberal arts, whose “purpose is to teach men the secret of true freedom.” History, according to Vergerius, “gives us the concrete examples of the precepts inculcated by Philosophy. The one shows what men should do, the other what men have said and done in the past, and what practical lessons we may draw therefrom for the present day.” An even earlier advocate of the exemplary use of history was Thucydides, writing in the 5th century B.C. “It will be enough for, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other, and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.”
So, here is the policy wonk’s history. If the practice of history demands problematizing the past, exemplary history allows us to face current problems. I admit to some skepticism about this third use of history. Although I think that history must provide an important part of the context for understanding issues that we face today, I always keep in mind the words of Keith Bailor, who taught the world history course I took as a freshman in college. Always be skeptical when someone uses the phrase “lessons of history,” said Keith.Always be skeptical when someone uses the phrase “lessons of history,” said Keith. “History doesn’t have lessons. Historians do.” Lately, some of those historians, including Paul Kennedy and journalist Robert Kaplan, have srtipmined the past to support their views about the current direction of world affairs and to support particular policies. Donald Kagan of Yale University has recently published a history of the Peloponnesian War in which he recruits dear old Thucydides to punish skeptics of our current adventures in empire building. As a practitioner and advocate of holocaust education, I know that it is difficult to avoid implicitly (and not always implicitly, either) invoking the lessons of the holocaust. But, used cautiously, the past can provide abundant examples of human invention and aspiration. Maybe, if studied closely, the past can give us the opportunity to learn humility.


Welcome back to the blogosphere, John.

Your post made me think of this quote, from an essay over at Shapiro's "The Irascible Professor".

"I tell my students I won't live forever. I tell them to look around the room, that the nation is filled with classrooms just like theirs and students who care just as much or as little as they do. Then I ask how many of them will be ready to inherit the republic."


Wow! Good, meaty entry. I love that last line (about humility)...

I mentioned this interesting essay on my blog, having come to it through Dennis Jerz's blog. My wife and I write historical mysteries and we're always amazed how many people say they like mysteries, but not historicals. Not exactly like saying you don't like history but I suspect there's some of that in it.

I stumbled upon your log by following a link posted by Dr. Jerz on my log, Wanderlust. He'd given me a reference on an article I'd posted about the wall in Israel. All I can say is, I'm looking forward to anything that you'll be putting up here on.

i'm looking for http://steelbuildings.angelcities.com

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