What History is Supposed To Do (which is different from blogging)

More thoughts today on the outlook that historical knowledge cultivates.

First comes the pietist version — the past as pointer to what’s true and right:

In the introduction the authors offer five reasons to study church history: 1) It continues to record the history of God’s faithful dealings with his people and it records Christ’s ongoing work in the world. 2) We are told by God to remember what he has done and to make it known to those who follow us. 3) Church history “helps to illuminate and clarify what we believe” and in that way allows us to evaluate our beliefs and practices against historic teaching. 4) It safeguards against error by showing us how Christians have already responded to false teaching. 5) And finally it gives us heroes and mentors to imitate as we live the Christian life. In this way it promotes spiritual growth and maturation.

History as a means of grace? I’m not sure.

Second, history as perplexity:

… we developed an approach we call the “five C’s of historical thinking.” The concepts of change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency, we believe, together describe the shared foundations of our discipline. They stand at the heart of the questions historians seek to answer, the arguments we make, and the debates in which we engage. . . .

One of the most successful exercises we have developed for conveying complexity in all of these dimensions is a mock debate on Cherokee Removal. Two features of the exercise account for the richness and depth of understanding that it imparts on students. First, the debate involves multiple parties; the Treaty and Anti-Treaty Parties, Cherokee women, John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, northern missionaries, the State of Georgia, and white settlers each offer a different perspective on the issue. Second, students develop their understanding of their respective positions using the primary sources collected in Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents by Theda Perdue and Michael Green.7 While it can be difficult to assess what students learn from such exercises, we have noted anecdotally that, following the exercise, students seem much less comfortable referring to “American” or “Indian” positions as monolithic identities.

Third, history as empathy:

I hope that the young adults who study history with me find themselves cultivating five interrelated values: comfort with complexity, humility, curiosity, hospitality, and empathy. I don’t think Donald Trump is unusual among Oval Office aspirants in his utter lack of humility (here’s a conservative critique of him on that point), his disinterest in learning (see his recent comments on his reading habits), or his impatience with complication and nuance. But if I’m going to tell my students that historical study exists to a significant extent to help them be more hospitable and empathetic to those of a different culture, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., I can hardly stay silent about a candidate who has demonized immigrants and Muslims.

So I think the open letter’s authors are right to characterize the Trump candidacy as an attack not only on the “constructive, evidence-based argumentation” we try to practice in our profession, but on “our values, and the communities we serve.”

What is striking is how even professional historians can make history be what they want it to be.

But why is it that professional historians don’t recognize that the way they frame the historical enterprise winds up making not a scholarly but a political point. If the aim of history is to empathize with others (among other things), where have historians been about developments in Turkey or the real complexity of issues that inform the current discussion of police and crime in the United States? (For some academics, there’s not much complexity about cops shooting people.) I’m sorry, but to be so outspoken about a guy like Trump just doesn’t take all that much insight or courage. Most people who work outside history departments know he is egotistical, bombastic, clownish, and a jumble of assertions and passions. Even supporters see that. Are students so desperate?

Or is it that historians want to present as being on the “right” side?

The thing is, the responsibilities necessary to be president are not the same as the virtues that historical study cultivates. In the case of empathy, a president does need to be empathetic. But that’s not all. Just think back to episode 2, season 4 of West Wing where President Bartlet approves the assassination of a Qumar state official suspected of terrorism. Sometimes prudence trumps empathy. And that’s something that history actually teaches. Or it should. (Why should Aaron Sorkin get all the good lessons?)

To John Fea’s credit, he excerpts Jonathan Zimmerman’s reasons for not signing the letter:

I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

I speak, of course, of the millions of people who have cast ballots for Donald Trump. According to the signatories of the statement, there’s only one historically grounded opinion on Trump: their own. By that definition, then, Trump supporters are uninformed. When he accepts the Republican nomination this week, the historians’ statement concludes, the party will have succumbed to “snake oil.”

Of course, there are plenty of ignoramuses and bigots in the Trump camp. But surely there are reasoned, knowledgeable people who back him.

The “lessons of history” — to quote the historians’ manifesto — can be read in different way, by equally informed people. And it strains credulity to imagine that all Trump supporters have had the wool pulled over their eyes.

One consolation in all this: it’s not only Reformed Protestants or social conservatives who traffic in outrage.

29 thoughts on “What History is Supposed To Do (which is different from blogging)

  1. “Most people who work outside history departments know he is egotistical, bombastic, clownish, and a jumble of assertions and passions. Even supporters see that. ”

    I am trying to figure out just when and why the jumping the shark moment came for the intellectual skywriters. As recently as early spring, there were reasonable, in some cases respectful, portraits of the Trump voter. David Brooks even promised to dust off his pith helmet and go on a field trip in search of same. If it is so blindingly obvious that Trump is a threat to the core values of Western Civilization, where were these people just a few months ago? Is Trump angst at a fever pitch because he is running close to HRC? That’s a cynics explanation. Surely there is more to it.


  2. DG Hart say: What History is Supposed To Do

    It all depends on one’s ‘worldview’

    DG Hart say history as a means of grace? I’m not sure.

    weell, I think the Lord says so. History written done for us to learn ever since Adam – a grace – all scripture useful- 2 Tim 3:16- and He tells us Israel was one big object lesson including their wilderness history which happened and was written down for instruction to learn not to crave evil things – idols, immorally, trying the Lord, grumbling.(1 Cor 10:6-10) -petty much covers the categories for why discipline is needed. The yield of learning from it all – the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Heb 2:11)

    History :

    Isa 32 The Glorious Future:1 Behold, a king will reign righteously and princes will rule justly.17 And the work of righteousness will be peace,And the service of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever.


  3. the chaplains defend the narrative
    thank god for Constantine
    and all those who kill to make it possible for us to worship
    in peace

    the cops with guns
    who stand between us
    and the chaos of apocalypse
    thankful we do not have to be shaken just yet

    the soldiers are cheap, their lives also,
    they kill for us so that we don’t have to
    the historians cost more but they comfort us
    with two kingdoms, private and professional



  4. If we substitute a fill-in-the-blank in Fea’s quote for Trump’s name, will Fea’s paragraph stand regardless of whose name we insert?


  5. D. G. Hart says: Ali, boo! (what Richie Allen wrote in the infield dirt while fans booed)

    oookk DG, never heard of him, looked him up … you’re the one making your association with him ….here on this ‘What History is Supposed To Do’ post 🙂

    George Myatt of the Phillies: “I believe God Almighty Hisself would have trouble handling Richie Allen.” (one of the most prodigious sluggers in history, also one of the most complex, enigmatic and controversial)

    one of your best fans, in the best sense of the word, Ali


  6. DG,

    From a historian-in-training to an actual historian (you): what do you think history is supposed to do? At my current university, ’empathy’ often appears on syllabi as a “learning outcome” (how bureaucratic we are), but I think that usually means understanding the perspective of various historical actors…empathizing with the President’s decision not to empathize.

    I like to think of it as cultivating a ‘historical consciousness’ but I have trouble defining that much more specifically than as a way of thinking that is rooted in knowledge of past people, ideas, events, contexts, etc. And of course, there is no guarantee that any two historical consciousnesses will be alike…


  7. Caleb, I think the AHA’s five C’s is right even if a tad abstract. Put simply, I see history showing how variable and accidental human existence is, how subjects act with a variety of motives. Historical awareness should lead to sobriety. It should also make us reluctant to approve or condemn. It does relativize and that’s a threat to most conservatives and believers who want history to vindicate. Liberals often want that too, but since they are more interested in liberation from the past’s structures, history seems to be more liberal than conservative.

    That’s like my opinion, man.


  8. I agree that historical awareness should lend itself to sobriety. We could all use more of that, especially right now. So often, though, it inflames. And that isn’t by accident.


  9. Odd question: if you were to recommend one book that you have written for me to read this summer, which one would it be??


  10. …and you didn’t ask DG, but I should clarify, I don’t’ mean fan, as like fanboy -1) I’m not a boy and 2) to agree with everything one says =not a good fan and, after all, you’re not the infallible pope.

    For example, I notice here, DG Hart say “I see history showing how variable and accidental human existence is”, and then elsewhere DG Hart says “I actually do think that the meaning of life is not disclosed to Christians.”

    and I say weelll, hmm, I think Jesus clarifies those thoughts – don’t have time to list references – but as Jesus says: he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him and from the beginning has said : one will find Him when one searches with all one’s heart. (which btw seems opposed to exclusively/ultimately relying on a human(s) for that seeking and searching).


  11. John Lewis Gaddis: “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions–their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perceptions of the world and where they fit within it.” Gaddis, *The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past*, 124. Empathy.


  12. I read your inquiry as asking for a recommendation to a book our host has written. I am personally partial to A Secular Faith. I’m guessing that The Lost Soul of American Protestantism might be his choice.


  13. DG (and markmccully): I actually have The Metaphysical Club on this summer’s list because I’ve enjoyed Menaud’s magazine work of late. I was hoping for DG to recommend one of his own books…which is the best to start with for a PhD with a major field in US history that was light on US religion? If you are too modest, you can email me.


  14. johnfea and DG: what about structures, systems, etc.? Many are keen to teach “the history of capitalism” and the like right now. Empathy, individual motives/choices are great, but what do you think about the Left’s interest in structure, meaning etc.? Can the more moderate do the same?


  15. Caleb, most people seem to put Defending the Faith high on the list — an intellectual biography of J. Gresham Machen. It may be a good specimen of historical scholarship and provide the added benefit of knowing more about one of the most important Reformed Protestants in the United States.

    I am also partial to The University Gets Religion — a history of religious studies in American higher education. I studied with William R. Hutchison and was always impressed by his Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism, which was a model for UGR.


  16. DG, thanks. I will start with those. I am teaching a US survey this year and want to increase the amount of coverage that religion gets, which is usually scant where I am.


  17. Or maybe the two kingdom worldview thinks that history professors should be more liberal in the kingdom in which they are not Christians or Muslims. Sure, we know that Jesus is the Creator, but trinitarian creation has nothing to do with trinitiarian redemption


    Mohler–The first thing that does is to allow only religions that do not have any public significance, and you address that in in terms of how you see these secular theorists trying to place religion in a safe position over against modern societies.
    Stanley Fish: That’s right, and that’s usually done by the device, a very handy device, of the public-private distinction, which is, I’m sure you know, central to large portions of liberal thought. So the idea is that we should allow religious perspectives to flourish in the private spaces of the home, the chapel, the synagogue, the mosque, the church, but when we venture out into the public square, either to do business in a mercantile sense or to do political business, we should leave our religious views at home. And the argument is then made because if we don’t, we’re going to be speaking to people, other people, in a language they do not share. Instead, the liberal will then say, let’s all agree to speak a language that has no metaphysical or theological hostages, and then we will be able to speak in a way that affords perfect communication between us. There are many problems with, and one obvious problem is that there is no language that is free of substantive assumptions or metaphysical underpinnings. Liberal thought thinks that it has discovered such a language in the workings of empirical science, but that project as productive and amazing as it, is based no less on a set of metaphysical assumptions than any other.


  18. Just when you thought your mind was made up, a comprehensive set of reasons not to vote for Trump:

    At some point Trump thought pieces will need to move from analyzing the latest controversy, to analyzing how we got here, and finally to prescriptions for addressing what is culturally broken. The purpose of this piece is to comprehensively cull and collate the most helpful analysis of how we got here in one place. In order to have a look at the many overlapping clusters of factors (hereby referred to as constellations), we will need to be quite brief with both the main principles and their sub-principles.

    Hey pastor, how’s your evening sermon coming?


  19. More limits to history:

    Presidents would benefit from their own careful study of history, and it would be useful for them to consult with professional historians to acquire some wider perspective on a contemporary problem, but Ferguson and Allison are proposing something very different. Few things are less productive or potentially more misleading than to have historians go on an analogy hunt to influence a contemporary policy decision. For one thing, drawing an analogy between a current event and another time and place under very different circumstances is just as likely to corrupt as it is to improve understanding of a subject. And if an analogy to something in the past is likely to mislead, the way the analogy is interpreted can do additional harm. At its worst, trying to “identify analogues in the past” is just an excuse to shoehorn a contemporary problem into an inappropriate model to deliver a predetermined conclusion, or it invites ideologues to impose their policy preferences while pretending to be offering impartial analysis. Considering how eager some historian-pundits are to liken each new crisis to Munich and how often we get pseudo-learned claims about how we’re living through a new Thirty Years’ War, the last thing we need is a group of formal appointees tasked with the job of finding historical analogies.


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