Tuesday, December 8, 2015

History without Reflection

Historians are -- some of us anyway -- notoriously bad at names and dates. We know what came before and after and in the midst of what, so we can make some inferences about causality. But what makes a history major or a professional historian different from a history buff is that our main questions are not about  "what" or "who" or even "when," but "why." Why did this thing happen? We also like "so what?": Can our answer to the "why?" question make us understand the past and maybe even the present better?

This is how I encourage students to be history majors: because the study of history, done correctly, beyond being fun, makes you think about how various factors and impulses and circumstances and even chance encounters might add up to Something Important. Granted, not every bit of history is All About Us. Likewise, similarity is not identity: we are not living in the last days of the Roman Empire;1 no one is Hitler except Hitler. Looking for the lesson can sometimes distort what we see, if we try too hard to read the past through the lens of the present.

But when there is a lesson, we ought to pay attention.2 "There," we say, "was a moment where we, as a human race [or country or gender or whatever] were at our best." "There," we say, "is where we screwed up, and we need to take a long, hard look at that, not to beat our breasts, but to become better." We can look at the past and realize that there are factors out of our control, but there are often choices: moments where we, as individuals or groups or societies, have options with how to deal with the circumstances handed to us. And yes, history will judge us. It always does.

And what happens when we don't study history with an eye to the "why"? This:

"Anticipating the criticism [of his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country], Mr. Trump compared his plan with former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclamations during
World War II that labeled Germans, Italians and Japanese “enemy aliens” who could be detained in the United States.

"Mr. Trump referenced the proclamations specifically, noted that people were stripped of naturalization proceedings and not allowed to use radios and flashlights and praised Mr. Roosevelt in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” program. 'Look at what F.D.R. did many years ago,' Mr. Trump said, 'and he’s one of the most respected presidents.' ”


Having the facts of history without reflecting on what those facts mean makes us dangerous.


1 No matter how much Niall Ferguson thinks this is the case.
2 For example, I regularly teach courses on the encounter between medieval Christianity and Islam, and am forever trying to dismantle the whole "clash of civilizations" thing. Sometimes it even works.

3 comments:

Jess said...

Coincidentally, I'm teaching a novel about Japanese internment camps this week, and was planning to ask my students tomorrow what lessons the novel (and the history it's based on, of course) might hold for the US, specifically with respect to Muslims and Syrian refugees.

Apparently, the question is even more a propos than I'd realized. Thanks for the link.

Friendly Joe said...

When Dubya was president, he would drool.
The Donald will surely emulate that behavior next.

Susan said...

It would help if Trump knew there had been an apology, and a financial settlement as partial compensation. The apology was signed by Ronald Reagan. So maybe the problem is that he doesn't know the whole story.