A Word on Methodology and the Purpose of History

On the first day of school in 8th grade Ancient History (which is the first time I will have taught any of the students in that class), I begin class with the premise that I am wasting their time.

History, after all, (I argue) has no real bearing on your life.  We study some names and dates from the past, a few battles here and there.  Sometimes it might have entertainment value but will never really impact you in any way.  Whatever Cyrus the Great did, be it good or bad, won’t impact on you today.  The past has no present.

Depending on their personality and previous experience students either get very excited or troubled by the prospect that we can blow off the year.  Yes, eventually we get around to reasons why hopefully I will not waste their time, but we should not sweep the arguments against History under the rug too quickly.  Before we bother with History in the first place, we should know what we are doing and why.

Some students respond by stating that history offers us lessons.  When people do bad things, we can learn to avoid them, when they do good we can emulate them.

This is a very common answer, with some truth in it, but I refuse the premise on which it’s based.  Reducing history to didactic lessons runs akin to telling people that Christianity is about adhering to a superior morality.  Whatever truth lies in that statement, Christianity really is not about “morality” at all, or at least, the moral component makes no sense without a much larger context.

In the same way, History does not begin and end with proverbs and moral lessons.  It should be about encounter.  It should be about transformation.

History is often and easily abused.  One common form of abuse is using History as a vehicle for proving a pet theory, something all of us can be guilty of at times. Such an approach is both dangerous and uncharitable.  Uncharitable, because History has no room to speak for itself when we insist it conform to us.  We stop listening and lose the possibility of empathy and understanding.  Dangerous, because manipulating the past puts us in a position of great power.  We erect a wall between ourselves (the “good,” or those with knowledge and understanding) and others, those who “should know better.”  If we do this, we cannot learn, cannot be challenged, and cannot grow.

Finitude will always limit our experience, but we need confronted with “the other” to get shaken out of our narrow field of vision.  Historians can often make the mistake of viewing the past in terms of the present, but this robs the power of the past to really do its work.  Seeing through different eyes pushes us beyond ourselves.  In writing about great books, C.S. Lewis said,

. . . in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

This is how History (like all our endeavors) should prepare us for the Beatific Vision.  The “otherness” of different cultures and people can by grace train our hearts for the “otherness” of God’s Kingdom.  Other times and places should also make us humble and charitable.  Hindsight is a great luxury, but we must avoid “finger-wagging.”  We must honor the past by viewing it as they saw it, not as we see it now.  We too act in a fallen context without omniscience.  Those in the past lived under the same constraints.  What kind of decisions would we make in their place?

Bringing it to the present, how do we act morally and justly with the information we have?  How do we make decisions in a fallen world?   We must take responsibility for these decisions, and the difficulties we face should make us rely on God’s grace and wisdom.  Our own sin should make us slow to judge those in the past that struggled with many of the same things as ourselves.  Are we so sure that we would do better?  When we, with proper conviction, call out the past for its mistakes we likely will need the humility to call ourselves and our own society to account.

I am not interested so much in changing the opinion of any student about, say, Napoleon or the Industrial Revolution.  But I am very much interested in 1) Each student coming to a greater understanding of their view of the world, and the extent to which that view can be supported by Christian belief, ethics, etc., and 2) Each student more fully understanding the implications of their decisions in the short and long term for themselves and others.

Mark Twain once said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  As we see connections and patterns, we learn more about humanity.  But humanity does not exist in a vacuum.  As in all disciplines, the study of History involves an attempt to understand Reality, imbued with God’s presence.  As Francis Schaeffer said, “He is there and He is not Silent.”

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