Thinking Historically

The assessment movement in higher education is now more than 25 year’s old.  It has challenged us to think about what we do as professors, and has broken through many (not all, by any means) ideological battles to allow different kinds of institutions to thrive. It has required us to state the “learning outcomes,” what we want students to know, to learn, in a class, program (or major), and at a university.  

One of those that I add to my courses particularly to my lower division, GE courses is to “think historically:” “To learn the practices of critical historians, including how to appropriate historical sources for understanding, and to test historical claims and conclusions” as I phrase it on one syllabus.

The political arguments in our broader cultural, political, and churchly arenas are carried out often as historical arguments.  “We have always been” this or that, compared to someone or something else. “It developed out of…” “We should go back to…” or “We must achieve” x or y as successful societies have.  “It is the arc of history,” the “way of the future;” “anyone who knows our history, can see…”  Of course, these are often false assertions.

Behind what we are doing in teaching the history of civilizations, for example, is providing examples, patterns, cases so that students are not taken in by false comparisons and can “test historical claims and conclusions.”  Here are some of the broader characteristics of thinking historically I hope students begin to absorb in my classes.

Complexity: history is complex. Historical events involve unique personalities, are set in concrete environments each one a little or greatly different from the last, embedded in cultures that are different from neighboring ones, and rely on the judgements of historical actors with limited knowledge, conflicting passions, and differing judgments of the importance of contributing forces and possible outcomes. Monocausal explanations are almost always wrong. If a student will let the complex elements of an historical episode develop in their understanding, and sort through them with patience, they will almost always come to a deeper understanding than if they choose a simple and single cause as an explanation. It requires mental and emotional discipline. I suppose that is why we call subject areas disciplines.

Cultural Continuity: cultures are different from each other and embedded deeply in habits, minds and traditions. They are deeper than ideas or institutions. They shape the way we act within institutions, what institutions are deemed permissible and important, what ideas mean, which kinds are important, which we should listen to and which ignore. A Chinese Confucian will think very differently form a Muslim theologian/lawyer, and both differently than a Christian Bishop in the middle ages, or a rationalist philosopher in the early modern world. They will each develop different institutions and find themselves willing to act in certain ways and unwilling in others. Cultures continue on and change slowly. They are an example of the “longue durée,” those long-standing, slowly altering structures of history French historians have emphasized. We must understand them to make sense of current events. When we think everyone thinks and acts as we do, we will be shocked by differences, and misunderstand the actions and thoughts of others. Religion is at the heart of culture. A historical sense that leaves it out, misses energy that drives people and cultures.

Contingency: sometimes odd, chance, strange things happen. We must be ready for them.  A unique personality comes onto the scene. A new people is encountered, a continent that was not anticipated is found, a new use for an old element discovered. Epidemic disease or famine or an unforeseen war changes the context for any response or action. Climate changes—it has in the past, is now changing, and will in the future. Old problems die away, and new ones arise people could not anticipate. Stuff happens. Our most learned predictions can turn drastically wrong. Politicians and leaders of institutions face this regularly. To understand how to act and why something has developed the way it did, we must be ready for the strange and unanticipated. Historical understanding is not scientific. No one knows the scientific laws of historical development because they do not exist.

Chronology: things happen in sequence. Programs that started out in moderate ways, may become extreme, or vice versa. Institutions develop and decay. Certain ideas are not encountered in particular times and arise in others. And we must get the chronology right. My students are shocked to learn that the modern world is the age of Absolute, Divine Right Kingship, and the Middle Ages the time of the development of parliaments and representative governments, and that some of the ideas that go with them (representation, consent, etc.) developed in theological arguments about the nature of the church and its governance, not first in the arguments of secular thinkers of the modern age. Wasn’t the Middle Ages the time of abusive nobility? No, kings then were bound by law. Get the chronology wrong and history becomes a frustration or a soothing myth.

Comparison, Comparativity (is that a word?): we must use comparison to understand history. What happened in the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Latin American Revolutions, the Communist Revolutions of the 20th century, in the Arab Spring of the 21st century?  When we can compare them, with all their complexity and contingency, their cultural continuities, we will gain a firm understanding about the nature, possibilities, and dangers of revolutions.  We might also question why revolution is seen as such a positive event in our age.  Or we might begin to recognize the nature of true achievements and false achievements. Medieval Europe and Ancient and Medieval China were the only two pre-modern societies that developed technological cultures. When we compare them, we gain profound knowledge about technology and society, a knowledge we cannot gain without the comparison. 

Creativity: we meet extraordinary creativity regularly in history. It can be astounding. Great thinkers, political actors, saints, the unknown artisan and builder of an ancient road or medieval cathedral live in every period and place. Their creative works, thoughts, writing and lives inspire. We meet selfless saints, heroic common people, inventive geniuses, tireless workers, inspiring artists. We also meet the creatively manipulative leader or conqueror, the person driven to command and exonerate evil. They all remind us that everything cannot be systematized, categorized, and controlled. We might be inspired ourselves to look for brilliant possibilities. We find them in every time a place. Where do we find great novelists and story-tellers?  In Africa, North America, South America, Europe, China, Japan, India—I don’t mean to leave anyone out, but the list must conclude at some point.

I had hoped to keep it to five but ended up with six. “Creativity” creatively emerged in the process. I suppose that is not too many. If students are sometimes overwhelmed, I tell them, it is time to sit back, look at the big picture, make some comparisons, recognize that confusing, contingent things happen, and enjoy the complexity, chart the chronology, and look for the cultural continuity. Enjoy the ride–history is one attempt to make sense out of life. It is preparation for working in businesses, being members of churches and families, and citizens of cities, nations, and the world.