This was written by John Fea, a professor of history and chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and a scholar of early American history and American religious history, he is the author of several books. This article is a bit long, but I think it’s worth reading.
Students of history, your professors have prepared you for such a time as this!
The study of history offers an approach to the world necessary for the creation of good citizens in a democratic society. In school, most of us probably recall taking some sort of “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights.
This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts about the system of government, does not make us citizens with an understanding of our roles, power and obligations in those systems. And citizenship is what we need at this moment.
Good students and teachers of history understand full well that history is more than just “the facts.” Yet even they may fail to grasp the role of history within civic education. Too often young people are taught to engage public life for the purpose of defending their rights or, to put it in a negative way, their self-interests. This approach to citizenship education, as historian Robert Ketcham writes in his 1987 book Individualism and Public Life, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”
Such a rights-based approach, an operating manual for the civic machine, is a vital part of citizenship, but it does not help us in a time when sacrifice is essential. The coronavirus pandemic demands a citizenship that places a commitment to the public good over self-interest. Yes, we have a right to spend Spring Break partying in Florida, eat meals in restaurants, and buy as much toilet paper as we may afford, but citizenship also requires obligation, duty, and responsibility. Sometimes the practice of these virtues means that we must temporarily curb our exercise of certain rights. We must think of others and their needs.
Historians think critically about their world, and about how they can reliably know it. They will evaluate the information they receive about the coronavirus and develop insight into which sources they can trust and which they can’t. In a time when news and information about this virus is changing and developing at a rapid rate, context becomes very important. News that came across our feeds two days ago may no longer be relevant today. Historians’ work revolves around building a context for knowledge out of disparate documents and sources and demands revising and reframing knowledge in light of new discovery. Odd as it may seem, the skill of building knowledge from an archive of old documents is the same skill of sorting the flood of electronic information.
Historians are also able to put this pandemic in a larger context. Type the words “1918 Influenza” into your web browser and you will find opinion essays, interviews and news articles written by or featuring dozens of historians trying to help us make sense of the present by understanding the past. They can, at times, alert us to potential present-day behavior by reminding us of what happened in an earlier era.
The study of history also cultivates the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy. In his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Stanford historian Sam Wineburg argues convincingly that it is the strangeness of the past that has the best potential to change our lives in positive ways. Those who are willing to acknowledge that the past is a foreign country–a place where they do things differently than we do in the present–set off on a journey that has the potential to transform themselves and their society.
An encounter with the past in all of its fullness teaches us empathy, humility, and selflessness. We learn to remove ourselves from our present context in order to encounter the culture and beliefs of others who live in this “foreign country.”
Sometimes the people we meet in the past may appear strange when compared with our present sensibilities. Yet the discipline of history requires that we understand them on their own terms, not ours.
History demands we set aside our moral condemnation about a person, ideal or event from the past in order to understand it. It thus, ironically, becomes the necessary building block of informed cultural criticism and political commentary. It sharpens our moral focus and places our ethical engagement with society in a larger context.
One cannot underestimate how the virtues learned through historical inquiry also apply to our civic life. The same skills of empathy and understanding that a student or reader of history learns from studying the seemingly bizarre practices of the Aztec Empire might also prove to be useful at work when we don’t know what to make of the beliefs or behavior of the person in the cubicle next to us.
The study of the past has the potential to cure us of our narcissism. The narcissist views the world with himself at the center. While this a fairly normal way to see the world for an infant or a toddler, it is actually a very immature way of viewing the world as an adult.
History, to quote Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, “dethrones” us “from our original position at the center of the universe.” It requires us to see ourselves as part of a much larger human story. When we view the world this way, we come face-to-face with our own smallness, our own insignificance.”
As we begin to see our lives as part of a human community made up of both the living and the dead, we may start to see our neighbors (and our enemies) in a different light. We may want to listen to their ideas, empathize with them, and try to understand why they see the world the way they do. We may want to have a conversation (or two) with them. We may learn that even amid our religious or political differences we still have a lot in common. We also may gain a better understanding into why their ideas must be refuted.
This is a time for engaged citizenship and regard for our fellows along with ourselves. The study of history reminds us that we are all in this together.