Monday, November 26, 2018

My Struggle with History


History was a high school class subject I disliked the most. Memorizing dates, countries, events, and names as single entities is what I disliked. It was like memorizing for spelling. The teacher was my track coach and as track coach we could connect. But the way he taught history was a different experience. 

That experience followed me to college where I made it through four years without taking a single course in the history department. This was a conscious effort, and somehow I managed with an advisor to use courses from the English and philosophy departments with a historical dimension as a substitute. Greek theatre, modern novel, Shakespeare, and philosophy from different periods of history, ancient, Middle Ages, modern.  I graduated cum laud to my surprise without a single course in the history department. Incidentally, the next year the college changed their ways to make what I did impossible. 

A rude awakening came my second year at the Virginia Theological Seminary when Dr. Zabrisky, Bill Clebsch, and Church History came into my schedule for three straight semesters. Now I had to connect dates, countries, events, and names in the life of the church with what was happening from a historical perspective, not a literary or philosophical. The background I had was helpful and expansive but not the full picture of what was happening on the ground. I did recover and because history was taught from another point of view other than facts and dates I was able to make meaningful connections and grow to see the importance of history.

Fast forward to today, I echo the quote from the philosopher George Santayana, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," 

The philosopher Hegel generated a quote, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” 

“It seems to me this tautology-like quote is a result of mistranslation, I’m not sure though. In German language and specially Hegel philosophy, there are two words for History:

1- History as reported in history books (plain reports) which is called “history”
2-History as a subject to philosophical reflection, “geshishte or reflected history”

Now it might be that Hegel meant this “We learn from ‘geshishte/reflected history’ that we do not learn from ‘history (plain reports from the past)’.” (haven't been able to find the source for this but it seems authentic.)

Our present day is ripe for harvesting the task of reflecting on our past. Ken Burns has done this with his Civil War series. The last of the series ending provides insight that we are still engaged in that struggle. In the words of Ken Burns, "the Civil War was history running on all cylinders. It was the most important event in the life of our nation, and its importance continues today. The blueprint of the America we know was drawn up then, and whether we know it or not, we are still walking around in the shadow of that war.” One of the commentators in the last series does a better job of focusing on the present in the light of the Civil War.

Reminders about our historical forgetfulness are cropping up in our daily newspaper. On Tuesday, November 20th, 2018, Esther Cepeda’s column was entitled, “Ignorance of history fuels hatred in America.” On November 25th, Michael Gerson wrote, “A Lot of Historical Forgetfulness.” His first line reads, “One of the worst things about our awful political moment is its historical forgetfulness.”

 A more recent spokesperson for our society from a conservative school, Hillsdale College, called the the present situation a Cold War. War to reference our society remains in the daily vocabulary as culture wars, fight, etc., Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times used “Trying to fight, Not spread, Fear and Lies.” The article seemed to be more about media manipulation. For me the war and fight as metaphors are misplaced. I am not at that level or intensity. 

I am planning to go with the metaphors of light and dark this Advent.  And I may even embrace the paradox from the Psalms, “to thee light and dark and both alike,” a both/and for reflective history.


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