Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Gen Eds H1: History Overview

World history starts today. Last week, I finished twelve posts overviewing philosophy as one of ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. I'm calling this series, "General Education in a Nutshell."

Today we begin the second series of posts on World History. The format will be similar--an opening overview, ten posts, and a concluding wrap-up. I'm going to try to present multiple perspectives when I know them.
1. As part of my philosophy series, I did a post on the philosophy of history. In it, I mention the famous quote by George Santayana that "those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it." This quote suggests one of the key benefits of studying history, namely, to get a sense of how cause and effect work in history so that we can get some sense of what certain decisions and events might lead to next.

Is a particular candidate for office similar to some political figure from the past? How did that work out? Is a particular world situation similar to a situation of the past? How did that work out? Of course a great deal of subjectivity is often involved in such comparisons. History never repeats itself exactly. But there is a reason why generals study military history and politicians study political history. There is the hope that it will sharpen their decisions toward the future.

2. Of course the past has always been a tool of rhetoric. We tell stories of our origins to instill pride and a sense of identity. We tell family stories to do the same. Human storytelling is seldom "critical." That is to say, we are typically gullible when it comes to our history-telling. We omit the warts of the story and key figures take on a legendary character.

"I cannot tell a lie," the young George Washington says. "I chopped down the cherry tree." Serious historians have examined the primary sources and have discovered that this story is unknown before 1806 in the sixth edition of Mason Weems' sensational The Life of Washington. Almost no serious historians think it is historical. But the story has done its work. Even when he did wrong, George showed himself the ideal, rational, repent-er.

More often real history is like the words of Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple."

We are also fond of the "grand narrative" (grand recit), the overarching story that claims to explain the whole of history or of some era. Recently, Dinesh D'Souza has given us the "nefarious" history of the Democratic party (Hilary's America). Unfortunately, a quick switching out of the names and we might find a similar version could be made of the Republican party.

Responsible historians at least try to be dispassionate rather than partisan. [1] Like any true academic discipline, scholars engage in an "agonistic" enterprise where interpretations are brought against contrasting interpretations. Primary evidence is weighed against primary evidence. Sometimes there are consensuses. Sometimes there aren't. Often there simply isn't enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion.

There is no book of the Bible that gives God's specific perspective on the last two thousand years. Different Christian groups certainly have their own versions of certain parts of the story, but none of these have any definitive divine endorsement (although we sometimes treat our "grand narratives" as if they had more authority than the Bible itself).

3. In reality, aside from learning from the past to predict the future, the past is only relevant to the present if it is still "touching" it in some way. The etymological fallacy is the belief that the past somehow determines the meaning of the present. But in fact that past only impacts the meaning or the nature of the present if it is still "touching" it directly in some way.

This "touching" can take place in two ways. First, the past can touch the present materially. For example, there can be a geographical or environmental feature that is the result of some event from the past. If you go to Chernobyl, the past "touches" its present with radiation. My great-grandfather may be materially relevant to my present if he has bequeathed me with certain genes.

The second way in which the past can impact the present is when human beings bring the past into the present with our ideas, always in fragmentary form. [2] This can be conscious or unconscious. Sometimes we do not realize the ideological impact of the (almost always recent) past on us. At other times, we use some version of the past rhetorically, as I mentioned.

But we are always selective, simplistic, and skewed in our ideological use of the past. It is usually not the real or literal past that we resurrect in such cases but a narrowly perspectivized version. The ideological use of the past is as much or more the present influencing the past, as it were, than the past influencing the present.

Ideas from the past only impact the present when they are in someone's head today. As ideas, they do not have a life outside of the specific people in specific places and times that have those ideas in their heads. Meaning is always a matter of now, not of the past.

It is true that God is a constant who touches every moment throughout history. But his movements are often complex, mysterious, and unpredictable. We make ourselves feel good by saying we know exactly what he was doing at a particular point in time. Maybe we are right sometimes, but we have no way of verifying for sure. The Bible doesn't give details on a definitive interpretation of God's movements in the United States in 2016.

Any attempt to reduce God movements or actions to a simple scheme says far more about the person looking back at history than it does about the real God.

4. Accordingly, I am going to treat world history moving backward. [3] We can learn from the distant past to be sure, but far more often it is virtually irrelevant to the present. [4] Indeed, the overwhelming majority of all the past has completely disappeared from our view. We have only the barest of archaeological remains from thousands of years of human history, and even what literature remains represents only the elite of the elite. [5]

I am also going to start inevitably from where I sit on the historical bus. I am a twenty-first century citizen of the United States, a person of English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, and German descent. So that is the center point from which I will start, although my intention is to connect with a broad range of groups and places. That is my starting point but hopefully not the ending point. Ten posts clearly won't allow much.

The sense that history should be told from the beginning to the end fits with the way the human mind works and it fits with the nature of cause and effect. However, history in terms of its true impact and relevance, is most relevant and impactful in terms of the recent past, and it becomes increasingly less relevant as we move backward in time.

5. So, moving backward in time in broadening circles, I suggest the following ten posts in this series:
  • From 9-11 to the Present
  • From the Cold War to the Millennium
  • From Waterloo to World War II
  • From Cromwell to Napoleon
  • Renaissance and Reformations
  • The Age of the Church and Jihad
  • The Age of Rome
  • Waves of Conquest
  • Classical Civilizations
  • The First Humans
Next week: History 2: From 9-11 to the Present

Classic Reading
  • Will Durant, The Story of Civilization
[1] We live in a climate where the public scarcely even knows what the critical investigation of history looks like, which aims at objectivity and evenness in the use of sources. Conspiracy theories are prevalent, which by their very definition are not likely to be true (since they suppose that factors which are not evident are central to the supposedly correct interpretation of history).

Extremely skewed versions of history are rampant, versions that do not really try to arrive at the most likely conclusion given the evidence but that explicitly let certain ideological presuppositions drive the organization of the data. In other words, critical history is inductive (looking for what is most likely true) rather than deductive (assuming certain perspectives and then reading the evidence in that light).

[2] I run the risk of letting back in the door a whole host of fallacious thinking by saying ideas can continue from the past unconsciously in fragmentary form. I believe we have to accept that there are often fragments of past ideas bouncing around our heads. What I am not saying is that ideas from the past have some life of their own that transcends or determines how a person uses that fragment today. Specific people in the present determine what an idea fragment means now. The sense of an idea in the past does not determine what it means now.

[3] My colleague Keith Drury had this brilliant idea for studying American church history when we were designing the curriculum of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.

[4] As Christians, of course, we believe in some major exceptions to this general truth. The fall of Adam and Eve, the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection of Christ--these still touch the present in an overwhelming way, for example.

[5] Of course, some of what has survived has survived by coincidence. E.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

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