Q&A: On the Purpose of Studying History

My (former) student Jason asks: "First, thanks for referencing me--I feel so prominent now! Second, can I ask for your reflections on why we do what we do (besides that it's soooooo interesting)? I'm taking a military history class with [Prof. L].... He spoke at length about applied military history vs. academic, how all of his students have gotten jobs (whether in academia or at the Pentagon), and how he was speaking to General X about Louis XIV and Iraq.

"This made me reflect (again) on what we contribute as medieval historians. Right now, everyone else seems to be contributing to society: military history has its applications; medieval theologians were then what political scientists are now, informing decisions the Church made; even the original Academy sought to help people understand their role in society...

"I would like to think that understanding the church and the City of God has some transcendental value, but is there some here-and-now value? Why don't we turn our efforts from historiography to finding meaning in what we do--cool as it may be?"

To which I initially replied, "Ha, ha, you're not going to catch me that easily!"--because, of course, arguing about "the purpose of studying history" is the original tar baby if there ever was one. Start trying to justify what we as historians do from any practical (i.e. economic or political) perspective and you are soon stuck to the pavement begging to be thrown into the briar patch. I remember tormenting (or, at the very least, regularly bugging) one of my own professors with just this question when I was an undergraduate. I would trot out all of the usual justifications--to give voice to the people of the past (as if the dead can benefit from anything other than our prayers); to appreciate better the mistakes people made so as to avoid making them ourselves (as Dilbert says, "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat the mistakes that appear in history books but never actually happened"); to practice understanding cause and effect (try giving clear causes for anything that has happened in the past other than "context" and "motivation")--and she would just shake her head and say, "No, that's not it." I don't actually remember if she ever gave me an answer; I just remember that no matter how sophisticated I thought my answers were, they never satisfied her. Not that the answers I was coming up with were wrong, exactly. They just weren't, at least in her view, reason enough. But what then was?

In a way, or so I now realize, nothing ever could be because I was, in fact, asking the wrong question. It's like trying to ask what is the "use" of art or literature or music. So long as you try to make any of these "answers" to questions or, rather, problems of anything other than the meaning of human experience, you're punching the tar baby. Why do people study history? In large part, simply out of curiosity about the things from the past of which traces survive today. That old building? That old painting? That roadway or sewer or well? Who built it, painted it, dug it, traveled along it? Who wore these old clothes? Where did that idea come from? Who is that person depicted in that sculpture? Once we're old enough to understand that the world did not come into being the moment we were born, most of us start asking questions about what things were like before we were here to be conscious of them. Then, as we get older, we start reflecting on the way in which some things which we took for granted in our childhood no longer exist or have changed, and we start to realize that similar changes have been going on for as long as people have been alive. Eventually, we start to wonder why things change in the way that they do, and, if the hunger is intense enough, we start digging around in the "sources" (that is, the stuff that survives from the past, mainly writings, since things like buildings and clothes can tell us only so much about what people thought about why they made them) in search of answers. If we keep at it long enough, we start constructing stories about how things got to be the way they are, and viola! you have the study of history.

But, you will say, isn't it true that we somehow owe it to the past to describe it accurately? To which I would say, why? The dead are dead. It is we, the living, who are still tangled up in the physical, phenomenal world, anxious about whether we will be remembered after we have died. If you asked me whether, as a Christian, I think that we should remember the dead, I would say, "Yes, absolutely. We should pray for them every day." But as an historian do I think we owe them anything? Not really. Not unless we become conscious of the degree to which we are indebted to the institutions and built environments and traditions that they inherited, created and handed on to us and upon which we depend for the structure of our own lives. But then, again, the debt is not so much to them as it is to ourselves, hoping for our own achievements to be remembered after we have died while at the same time seeking to understand why our world has the physical, institutional and intellectual shape that it does. In microcosm, it's the same problem we have when anybody in our own family dies: it is we, the living, who feel bound to the things (quite literally, the things, but also the ideas, passions, and shared memories) they have left us. It is we who cling, refusing to throw out the clothes and the books and the furniture that we remember them using; but they are--we pray--with God and have no need of such material things or, alas for us, memories any more.

What about the supposed lessons we can learn from the past? Interestingly, historians nowadays make very little of such lessons, presumably because we are (professionally, at least) so convinced that the world we now live in is so radically different from anything that humankind has ever experienced ("The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there") that there is nothing useful that we could possibly learn. More fools us, I say. But not, of course, because (pace Marx and Santayana) "history repeats itself." No, it doesn't. The one thing one learns if one studies history for any length of time (say, a day) is that nothing that has happened in the past is ever anything like a predictor of what is going to happen in the future other than in the most general, "Human beings tend to act like this when they get in this kind of situation" way. At which point, you are not studying history so much as psychology--and that's where things start to get sticky.

Why do people behave in the ways that they do? Much as the social scientists of the early twentieth century wanted to believe, it does not seem to be entirely dependent upon the structures in which they find themselves, otherwise nothing would ever change; we'd all still be living out on the savanna with the lions. Guess what? People seem to have something suspiciously akin to what the theologians would call "free will" and can seemingly decide to do things that nobody else ever has--over and over and over again. True--and this, to my mind, is what makes studying history so endlessly fascinating--they are also expert at learning from other people's experience and they seem to have a proclivity for trying to copy things that they see other people doing that they like; thus, we have what we call "civilization", the steady accretion of experiences handed on from generation to generation and, once writing is invented, from age to age even when no one living remembers ever having had the experiences described.

Can we learn about ourselves and how to behave from studying the examples of the people in the past? You betcha. I find it interesting, therefore, that so many professional historians, at least, are reluctant to do so. Hubris? Resentment? The conviction that "we should be able to make it on our own"? I'm not sure. Historians in the self-styled "Renaissance" were all over history as a study of moral behavior; perhaps historians today have no confidence in the possibility of human beings behaving morally, not after the Holocaust and the horrors of the Atomic Age. Certainly, many of my colleagues seem to prefer judging the past for its failures, even as they profess to be trying to describe the past "in its own terms." And yet, paradoxically enough, for much of human history, the tendency was rather to look to the past to judge the present for failing to live according to "its [the past's] own terms."

See what I mean about the tar baby? I'm not sure I know whether I'm coming or going at this point. We live in an age in which people are on the one hand quick to judge ("Wasn't it awful that the Church--whatever that is, problem for another post--did such-and-such?") while at the same time insisting that nobody really should be judged ("You have to understand the circumstances that they were dealing with"). And yet, surely the only thing that really makes history interesting is the possibility of watching other human beings make decisions in stressful and complicated situations--and then trying to decide whether they judged right. Which would, if you think about it, practically speaking make studying history the ultimate form of gossip: arguing about what your neighbors did and why over the course of six or seven millennia. At the moment in the academy, this gossip has tended to crystallize around the question of whether our neighbors are with us or against us, "us" or "them," more formally known as questions of "identity." But it's really much of a muchness: people study history because they're curious about the way other people behave, with the corollary that because in "real" life, we are deeply affected by the way other people behave (buying houses with subprime mortgages, flying airplanes into skyscrapers, sleeping with their staff members), we are also inclined to make judgments about whether they should or shouldn't have done certain things.

Is there any reason for studying this group of neighbors over that one? Not really. History, like heaven, has many mansions, as many as there are people who have lived on this earth. Whether we believe this group is more important than that group depends mostly on how we view ourselves, although it would be naive to insist that every group has had an equally strong effect on the development of the human community as a whole. Some groups, indeed, some individuals have had a vastly greater effect than others; they have, as we say, "made history." And yet, this is not to say that studying those who have affected only those whose lives they touched more immediately, in the everyday, is not also valuable or worthwhile; think of all of those who study history principally in order to trace the names of the people in their own families. This, too, "counts" as history.

So do I have a justification as an historian for studying medieval European history? Not as such, not any more than I have for studying history more generally. Do I have a justification as a Christian? Well, yes. But I think that that is another question altogether.

To be continued...


  1. As I continue to carefully read "From Judgment to Passion" I have the deepest admiration and gratitude for your contribution to history. What we have lost most in our life today as Western Christians is the imaginative spiritual life of the story tellers and theologians of the Medieval world. What we as Catholics received since the Council of Trent is a tightly controlled, apologetic, rational,pseudoscientific approach to Christian tradition. Art was also tightly controlled and degenerated to postraphaialn sentimental pap. Ignatius of Loyola, inspired by Ludolph of Saxony, taught a return to imaginative approach to an affective relationship with God, but by the third generation of Jesuits, Rome had that under tight control.

    So the work you are doing, the questions you are asking, the imaginative works of medieval writers you are presenting are an essential contribitution to rediscovering the soul of Western Christianity.


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