There be dragons!

Friday, March 31, 2006

On the Study of History

An exchange with one of my recent grads.

You told us the importance of studying history and it's significance in every knowledgeable persons education. I was recently asked by a fellow student why I would major in a study which is not about true "facts". He went on to say that the winners write the history books therefore we are given skewed and twisted accounts of what actually happened. Basically we cannot read a primary historical text and know for sure if what is said happened or if we are getting a distorted version. I knew this was dangerous logic and that just because you do not witness an event does not mean you cannot be sure it happened but I was not entirely sure what to say at the time. I tried to remember what you had said to us way back in the dark ages of 11th grade but alas, my memory grew clouded.
Your friend is essentially dodging the issue. It isn't that the logic is poor (which it is) but that is a pseudo-intellectualism that borrows the trappings of logic in order to avoid addressing the issue. Sure history is written by the winners. To say otherwise is assinine. How could losers write history? They're all dead!!! One might just as easily ask why study music since we only know the music written by musicians, or why study math since only mathematicians show it to us. Foolishness. But if we say "oh, the winners write history" we can effectually avoid having to memorize dates, names, events, avoid studying the scope and drama of human existence, avoid the rigor of getting our facts right. Essentially your friend is acting like a lazy slob who chooses to look smart instead of being smart. (Tell him I said so).
It isn't important that the winners write history but that there be around winners who can write at all. It is a consummation much to be desired that those same winners who can write take interest in the passing of human events enought to chronicle what happened.
Why should it be important?
Well, first see my blog entry on Anselm and the nature of education.

In brief, every study we engage in is really a study of ourselves. We learn about ourselves (gnothi seauton) so that we might know more about that which we most closely represent; namely the divine. The study of any discipline is only superficially about the subject matter (numbers, or history, words, or notes). Primarily it is a study of who we are and how we relate to the world around us. Simone Weil states that studying anything teaches us to be aware of our surroundings, to "pay attention." Indeed, the strictness of history forces the student to look at what really is there, not what they want to be there. Did Custer really get slaughtered by the Indians? Were the Crusades really against the Muslims? Was the potato famine really a disaster for the Irish? By doing so we learn the discipline of looking at things around us and letting them speak to us. We learn our own capacity for error, insight, accuracy and sloth. These things are important no matter what course of study we choose, but history particularly teaches us these things.
Second, sure there are bad historians; twisters of facts, fabricators of data, charlatans of academia; but ought that not be more incentive instead of less for good men, honest and intelligent to enter the field? Every story is an interpretation and as history is story it too is interpretation. But interpretation does not imply falsehood. I interpret that the sun is rising in the morning. Is the sun rising? Yes. I interpret that the ground is hard when I slip on the ice and fall down. Is it hard? Yes. Just because our interpretation corresponds to reality doesn't mean that the interpretation is erroneous. Good historians do all they can (barring the limits of their cultural background, personal predilections, and natural comprehension) to convey the meaning of the events accurately. In fact, one who does interpret the events is normally a better historian than one who purportedly does not because he can more thoroughly convey to his audience the sense of what really was. Everyone interprets events. As soon as we open our mouths we are interpreting by the mere act of choosing this word and not that one. So those who claim to not interpret history really are interpreting and should be watched, very carefully.
Third, "the farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see." Churchill was correct in this. The man who knows history v. well knows that what is happening currently, and what might happen eventually, are events that follow a pattern. Lack of knowledge about how the Nazis gained power only hobbles a man into believing that expediency outweighs legality. Knowing that appeasement has never ever ever ever ever worked against tyrants prevents one from thinking that Sean Penn has a rat's chance in Hades of stopping Saddam Hussein. "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat" says Tocqueville, and he was right. Moreover, to paraphrase Boethius, the insight into the patterns of history allows one to see the workings of the Pattern Maker. How does God operate in the carnage and joys of human life? Historical study grants a window into the mind of the Maker.
Fourth, historical study ought to be engaged in because it's simply so much fun. Essentially those who do not acknowledge history as worth while have failed to make the effort to see what is good in the study. Essentially, history is a lot of fun; all those slaughterings, torturings, diseases, empire-buildings, marriages, betrayals, skullduggeries, survivals, struggles, journeyings, oratoryings, artifactings, partyings, and livings that people have done for who knows how long are a riot to read and think about. It gives delight to see and makes one happy to think about and as such makes one a little bit more godlike; as God delights in watching us scuttling betwixt heaven and earth, so too we delight in seeing the panorama of history laid out before us. Your friend has not only denied himself a real joy, he has denied himself the opportunity to become more like God.
Yes, history does repeat itself but why do we really study history? Why is it so essential for every humans education? Was Winston Churchill right when he said "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see"? What does really mean? I think it was Boetheus who said that we do not realize the true worth of our goods until they are gone. ... Please remind the current students of how blessed they are to attend their school and to really take advantage of the rich education which can't find anywhere else. You and the other teachers are such an invaluable resource and so kind share your knowledge with your students even when they are hundreds of miles away.
Ah... you tell them and you tell them, but do they listen? No. C'est la vie.


  1. As a teacher of a subject which is "entirely facts" I can safely say that a student with no regards for interpretations is going to fare badly when it comes down to facts. Sure, history is written by those who win. For those who wonder, so is chemistry. Why did genetics get ignored for fifty years after its initial discovery? Because no one wanted to look at the work of a Catholic monk when they could have more fun arguing about evolution. That's a historical "fact" of course, but there is history to what is known about science, too. Why are we able to do gene therapy? Why because Rosalind Franklin died of cancer and because Cary Mullis was stoned on LSD! Everybody knows that, who knows my field!

    Actually, I think it easier to know the scientific "facts" if you know a bit about the personalities whose interpretations are now "factual." If you know that Count Volta initially used frog legs to make a device which could store electricity, the principles behind the Volt battery stick in your head better once you learn them.

    I say: learn the facts; and learn who TELLS YOU they are the facts. Usually it makes the facts more fun, and reveals what is fact and what is incorrect interpretation. The same goes for history.

  2. No, that's an accurate interpretation. I intend to make sure I win this discussion!