In Praise of History
Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the
past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet
need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic
assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much
which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion . . the
scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from
the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone
of his own age.
"Learning in War-Time
in The Weight of Glory,
Grand Rapids, Ml, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 50-51
My father would lean his heavy walking stick against a bookshelf and awkwardly lower himself into his chair (he had been severely wounded and left crippled in World War I). I had come home from school, and we were both settling down to our almost daily before-dinner chat. I was perhaps twelve or thirteen, and I loved my father.
"Well, how did you like Carlyle's History of the French Revolution?" he might ask.
"Not nearly as much as Hentig's biography of Robespierre," I might reply (that biography, with its superb illustrations which included a somber portrait of Robespierre by Greuze, has never left my memory). We would go on discussing history or sometimes companionably reading till dinnertime.
My father's tiny, crowded study contained many hundreds of fine history books, for history had been his vocation rather than the practice of law to which he had reluctantly turned under the prodding of my grandfather. Now, over forty years later, after the death of my husband and after raising most of my family, I have returned to college to give shape to my father's dream, which has become my own as well. Nor has history, my first and persevering academic love, ever disappointed me. On the contrary, and largely thanks to the structure and nurture provided for me by an outstanding instructor,1 I joy in its pursuit more than ever. As a Christian I can enter the discipline of history without reservations,2 for it is the purpose and rightful practice of history to study, verify and provide for written records of man's thought and action as factually and truthfully as possible. A Christian considering history as his profession can also rejoice in the historical books of the Old and New Testament as testimonies to the genuine worth of recorded history.
While I recognize, of course, that all history writing except the Bible's contains less than perfect truth about "what actually happened" and may well perpetuate fiction as fact, professional history writing and research is bound to an absolute standard which the practitioner of this discipline disregards only to his own hurt. This standard is the existence of, and attention to, written primary sources, such as reports by the eyewitnesses to an event, transcripts of speeches, diaries, genealogies, dated shopping lists and the like in their original form. By this absolute standard deliberately slanted historiography, such as the Communist or Nazi variety, is condemned because its research is of necessity unreliable, and it will even commit the cardinal sin of tampering with primary sources to fit the "party line."
The historian must base his writing upon the most exhaustive possible research of primary and secondary sources (which latter generally consist in the writings of other historians or commentators about the historical subject under consideration). If reliable information is found to be at basic odds with his narrative or his conclusion, he must unhesitatingly concede the point. For instance, honest historians who might have been inclined to absolve Lenin from responsibility for GPU and Cheka terror and torture after the 1917 Russian Revolution, shifting all the blame to Stalin, stood corrected by the painstaking research about Lenin's approval of such torture and terror proffered in Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.3
Sometimes historical research resembles detective work and is just as thrilling. I shall perhaps never quite forget my intense excitement about my research into the life of Savva Morozov, a wealthy pre-revolutionary supporter of the Bolsheviks. Morozov was rumored to be alive and in hiding somewhere in Russia after his well documented suicide in 1905. Was there anything to the rumors? I determined to find out. Many weeks of concentrated reading yielded nothing. But at last, to my immense delight, I found a piece of information seemingly missed even by the new, authoritative Encyclopedia of Russia and Soviet History4 According to none other than Alexandr Solzhenitsyn Savva Morozov was one of the defendants in a Communist "show trial" held in 1920i5 The historical researcher's burning desire to find out "what really happened" is described in suspenseful detail by Josephine Tey, the mystery writer, in her history-cum-sleuthing novel The Daughter of Time, where we learn what may be the real historical truth about King Richard Ill of England and the little princes, his nephews, whom he supposedly murdered in London's Tower.6 If the study of history has seemed dry and boring to many, it is the fault of teachers unacquainted with the joys of historical study, and also, alas, of some professional history writers, journals and treatises which would put to sleep or flight anyone except a fellow researcher in their own minuscule and remote area of arid specialization.
Because of its well-justified enforcement of scrupulous respect for primary sources and verification of data, history, thank God, does not suffer from the modern academician's sickness of compulsory uncertainty. One of my history professors once took me to task over the way I had worded my conclusion of an honors paper. "Why do you write, `it seems that' when you ought to write, `such and such is the conclusion'?" he asked in some irritation. I attributed my hedging to my recent exposure to philosophy. "Well, this is history and not philosophy," he said, and added with a chuckle, "and in history we can say `yes' and `no."' Indeed we can, for in history we are dealing with recorded facts and not with tentative speculation. Perhaps one must have personally experienced the perennial impenetrable fog of a modern philosophy teacher's or writer's chosen waffling over every issue to appreciate, as I do, the freedom, light and harmony of an academic discipline within the liberal arts which permits clear yeas and nays.
History covers all human activity and istherefore a much richer discipline in principle than others concentrating only upon special areas of man's work. Here, perhaps, young people can be shown the enormous educational enrichment potential of the study of history. The story on the jacket of a record on how the music came to be written and performed is history; so is the story of an invention, of space exploration, and soon. There is the history of painting, the history of music, the history of mathematics, baseball, law enforcement, women's fashions or science fiction. This cornucopia of historical information is circumscribed only by the availability of primary sources and by the aggregate potential of mankind. All history put together reflects the amazing range of man's mind and capabilities and is thus a witness to the greatness of God the Creator Who made man in His own image and likeness. History also shows the abysmal horror of fallen man's sin.
The thorough historical study of a period of history spanning as little as a decade will open doors tothe whole panorama of human action. My own area of special interest, the history of Russian thought, has tremendously expanded my entire education and vision. For example, for the first time in my life I am now studying French symbolist poetry through researching the Russian symbolist movement at the turn of our century (part of my proposed master's thesis). This aspect of history was familiar to me already in my father's study where I had glimpses of the entire world of man by means of his books.
George Santayana said that those who would not learn from history were condemned to repeat it. This statement is true only with qualifications. First, no two periods of history are ever exactly alike. Second, it is far, far easier to assess the influence of currents of thought and events in hindsight than in advance. For instance, the firm entrenchment of Communism in Russia was by no means a foregone conclusion even in Russia, and parallels between pre-revolutionary Russia and other countries and times (such as the 1960s and `?Os in the United States) may forecast but do not of necessity entail the same developments. However, the study of historydoes indeed give warnings and reasonable prognoses of the future which a society must consider to survive.
History provides emotional links between the individuat and his or her society or nation. It is much like two people becoming close friends who reveal their past to each other. The teaching of American history in American public schools must have been faulty in that it did not provide this vital link between American young people and America in the years immediately preceding the Vietnam war and the radical and anarchist youth movements of the 1960s and `?Os. I do not mean that the teaching of American history should overlook American shortcomings; but I do believe that American history shows American virtues as well, and that these virtues were underemphasized in our schools and colleges. One does not balance slanted teaching (if pre-1950 American history teaching was slanted towards uncritical favoring of "the American way") by slanting it in the opposite direction ("Amerika" is a racist, materialist, imperialist hell). Just as no family genealogy is composed of none but criminals or none but saints, so no national history shows only national virtues or only national vices. We accept our own family roots as they are (unless we are unrealistic fools); we must accept our national roots in like manner, acknowledging kinship regardless of the mixed record historical research shows. The proper study of history teaches humility and charity individually, nationally and for mankind at large.
For all these and additional reasons the study of history is essential. But the study of history is in dire straits~ Some four dozen students were majoring in history at my college two years ago out of a total of over 15,000 students enrolled. The situation is no better on most campuses. Many young people have learned to dislike history while in high school. Many more are poor readers (and history does involve much reading) Yet others reject the study of history for utilitarian reasons("l can't find ajob in this field", or "Who needs to know history?"). How many parents awaken the love of history in their children, as my father did in me? Perhaps we who are Christian parents have an advantage here in that so much of the Bible is "real history." Do we tell our children that this is so? Or do the men and women of the Bible remain somehow "not real in the sense that King Alfred was a real person"7, as they were to the Christian writer Dorothy L. Sayers until she found out from a secular history primerthat King Ahasuerus, Queen Esther's husband, was the Xerxes of secular history:
Xerxes! but one knew all about Xerxes. He was not just "classics," but real history; it was against Xerxes that the Greeks had made their desperate and heroic stand at Thermopylae. There was none of the fairy-tale atmosphere . . . about him . . . only the noise and dust of armies tramping through the hard outlines and clear colours of a Grecian landscape, where the sun always shone so much more vividlythan it did in the Bible.8
In connection with King Cyrus, whom Sayers also discovered in a children's magazine in a series of articles popularizing Greek historian Herodotus, she exclaims: "And here was God . . . bursting into Greek history in a most uncharacteristic way, and taking an interest in events and people that seemed altogether outside His province. It was disconcerting."9
The Christian historian can do his or her part to insure that such pernicious separation of "different bits of history in watertight compartments, of which `Bible' is the tightest and most impenetrable"10 does not occur. The Christian historian knows that the God of the Bible is also the Lord of all history of all times and nations. This gives the Christian historian a starting and integrating principle which the worldly historian lacks. Our God initiated history though creation cx nihilo; He physically entered history when He became incarnate as the Virgin Mary's firstborn son Jesus and Immanuel, "God-with-us" in history; He redeemed history through His historically recorded death and resurrection from the dead; and He will end this present age or history when He returns in glory. It is no wonder one can still find relatively numerous Christian believers among history students and professors, for the discipline of history is explicitly validated by love of truth, which is one of the names of Christ.