Friday, April 1, 2016

Why Study History?

Yesterday, my wife asked me, “Why do we study history?”. Her question arose from a conversation she’d had earlier in the day with her elementary school colleagues. I was both taken aback and intrigued. I was taken aback because from my early elementary school days I’ve been intrigued by history for reasons that I cannot identify at so young an age. I majored in history (and political science) as an undergraduate, and I’ve remained a life-long student of the subject. I was intrigued by the question because it’s so easy to take for granted. Why do we study history?

My wife suggested that we needed history to provide us analogies which we can use to help make current decisions. This is not wrong, but its incomplete. Also, historical analogies, while useful, is also fraught with peril. Historical precedents, like “Pearl Harbor,” “Munich,” “Hitler,” and so on, mislead as well as instruct.

Before we dig deeper directly into an answer to the question of why we study history, let’s engage in a short thought experiment. Imagine that you wake up one day from sleep and you have no memory. Your senses all work just fine—you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. But you connect none of your sense experiences with any memories. Even tastes and smells—the most primal senses (just ask Proust)—bring no memories. The faces you see are all new. Of what your life consisted before awakening that morning—either the day before or years before—you have no knowledge. You don’t have a name. (I’ll posit that you recall language, but the words which you use are new to you, you have no memory of having used them before.) Now, do you know who you are? Do you have a self? Do you have a soul? I suggest that you’re more like a zombie than a human being. Without memory, your sense of personal history, you’re unknown to yourself and therefore soulless. As St. Augustine put it centuries ago, “the seat of the mind [anima] is in the memory.”

And so it is with our collective selves, our civilizations, nations, towns, churches, family, bridge club, and every form of human endeavor. Each entity is the sum of its history. To know the history of a person or group is what it means to know that person or group. Of course, such knowledge is always partial and limited, even (or perhaps especially) about ourselves knowing ourselves. (We do like to hide certain things from ourselves, don’t we?). We tend to think of history as the history of nations, politics, and battles, but history applies just as much to art and science as it does to politics or any other human endeavor. Science? Yes, for a while we think of science as discovering timeless laws, in fact, the laws (perhaps better thought of as habits) of science arise in time. For instance, what were the laws of biology or chemistry at the first instant of the Big Bang? Or the laws of physics? Not only does our knowledge of science have a history, but those laws themselves developed over time as a part of the evolutionary history of the universe.

The historian John Lukacs sums up this attitude:

The history of anything amounts to that thing itself. History is not a social science but an unavoidable form of thought. That “we live forward but we can only think backward” is true not only of the present (which is always a fleeting illusion) but of our entire view of the future: for even when we think of the future we do this by remembering.

Lukacs, The End of an Age, 53.

Lukacs draws upon C.S. Lewis to further his theme that all knowledge is a matter of memory—of history in its many different guises:

The past in our minds is memory. Human beings cannot create, or even imagine, anything that is entirely new. (The Greek word for “truth, aletheia, also means “not forgetting.”) “There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us,” C.S. Lewis once wrote. "No one can imagine an entirely new color; or an entirely new animal; or even a third sex. At best (or worst) one can imagine a new combination of already existing—that is, known to us—colors, or monsters, or sexes.”
           Lukacs, At the End of an Age, 52.

How does this relate to education? In education, we tend to segregate history as a separate course among all of the others. We think of science and math as dependent solely on only the most up-to-date information. But even in the sciences and in math we delude ourselves if we believe that the current practice of a discipline can ignore its own history. We can afford this attitude because we can make the history implicit in teaching these fields by concentrating on current states of knowledge. But experts in a field are conversant with the history of the field, whether concentrated in the near-past (e.g., the latest developments in quantum mechanics) or the distant past (e.g., the world of Newtonian physics). As the Lukacs quote above suggests, all knowledge comes from the past, whether far or near.

For teachers, this means that in addition to the traditional segregation of history into a separate course about government, politics, and wars, history can enlighten the entire curriculum. The great American philosopher, psychologist, and teacher, William James, writes:

You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught by reference to the successive achievement of the geniuses to whom these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature means grammar, art a catalog, history as a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.
           James, Memories and Studies, 312-313, quoted in Lukacs, At the End of an Age,              53.

(By the way, the late Neil Postman, media ecologist and educator, makes a very similar point in this book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1999)).

Of course, I’ve only identified a few key thoughts that have bounced around in my head since my wife raised this topic with me. On careful examination, we’ll find that the question—like most crucial questions—defies a single, definitive answer. Such questions invite a conversation, with many voices, many perspectives, occurring over time. In other words, this is just one more contribution to the history of attempting to answer the question: Why do we study history?

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