Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. and Christe A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays and Wednesdays, 6:00 - 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time
As teachers, we are concerned with the formation of our students’ integrity of thought and character. This is one of the ongoing goals of education, classically defined, though it has slipped from the screen of many since the days of Dewey’s educational overhauls. We are, however, dedicated to bringing it back to the center stage. We study history, after all, because it is our story. It’s not the private property of any individual, and all people can (and should, I think) lay claim to the whole mass of human history as part of their common heritage.
We study history, too, because, as the sum of human experience, it is a superset of our personal experience. Nothing falls outside its purview, not even the abstract. Pure mathematics and philosophy exist in the historical current just as much as politics and wars do. The Jewish and Christian scriptures are largely couched in terms of presenting God’s relationship with humanity in historical narrative terms. The wars that are fought, the political battles that are waged, and the griefs and triumphs of everyday life are all rooted in history and part of history. The historical viewpoint, therefore, is just one way of looking at everything there is. Developing some nuance in that view seems to be a very important part of becoming a fully-formed human being. It’s doubly important if one is expected to become a thoughtful citizen of a republic that looks to its citizens to be informed and so to make educated and thoughtful decisions themselves.
Accordingly this course is largely about historical discourse. It’s aimed at providing a certain robust outline of historical fact from which students can launch their own further investigations and on which they can also base their (we hope) evolving opinions. It is intended, however, more as a foundation for discussion than an oracular pronouncement either on the present state of the past, so to speak, or a satisfactory or complete accounting of where we have been as the human species. The full—even the satisfactory—picture is unachievable. Dialogue and discovery are not. They are part of what identifies our humanity, and growing into our fulness as people demands a nuanced relationship with the past, since that is where we meet each other.
This course attempts not only to suggest that there is a wide range of divergent opinion out there somewhere about many of the things we discuss, but also to model that discussion. We have tried to bring controversy into the class itself—to present opposing opinions about a variety of things.
In so doing, there are a few things we are not trying to do. We are not attempting to whip up partisan frenzy wherever possible. That’s easy enough to do, but it’s cheap and its consequences range from the trifling to the troubling. One need only look to the newspaper or the blogosphere to see how high is the ratio of heat to light in such discussions.
We are also not trying to portray a wholly disengaged and arid “academic” controversy. The things we’re talking about here really do, we believe, matter. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be worth bringing up.
Finally, we are not suggesting that there really is no objective truth out there. In most matters, there is. It may or may not be possible to discover: that’s a different problem. (In addition, some things are intrinsically subjective, and it’s as much a mistake to take them as objective as the other way around.)
What we are trying to do is to present a positive model of discourse in which civilized people can engage civilly, despite their disagreements. We won’t soft-pedal the substance of our disagreements: we won’t, however, resort to abuse, name-calling, ad hominem attacks, or the like. If I think my colleague or any of our “guest dissenters” to be wrong, I’ll call it wrong, and try to make a good case for it—but that’s as far as I’ll go. That is as far as (we believe) we are licensed to go by the terms of our own faith and simple human decency.
Finally, we hope that the process of engaging in disputation and the push-and-pull of genuine historical thinking will encourage a certain skepticism among students. Skepticism can be understood in a number of ways, and we are certainly not promoting thoroughgoing philosophical skepticism as such. We do encourage students, however, to approach the subject with a certain healthy respect for their own limitations, and for the incompleteness of the historical record — which, even for the best-documented periods, is woefully incomplete and fragmentary.
In practical terms, that usually means reserving judgment, or at least leaving open the possibility that one may have it wrong. There are cases when one has to make and voice some kind of practical judgment—for example, when one goes to the polling place to vote. Many of life’s decisions are similarly thrust upon us with inadequate preparation. Then we must make the best decisions we can on the basis of what we know. One need not, however, consider those decisions set in stone, and if the occasion to review them arises, one can review them graciously and gratefully.
Part of the process also has to do with determining the difference between what is knowable and what is not, and what is of a kind to be known or a kind to be decided. Many people will say things like, “We now know that slavery is wrong.” Well...perhaps. I certainly believe that it is wrong. But I don’t know that it’s a fact that we’ve discovered as much as it is a decision we’ve reached. Those are two different kinds of things. Keeping them distinct is useful.
At the end of the Homeric Iliad, Achilles meets the father of his old foe Hector. Hector, the chief of the Trojans, had fought and slain Hector not merely because he was a foe in the political struggle that was going on, but because he had killed Achilles’ friend and cousin Patroclus. This was a killing of personal revenge and hatred. And while his killing of Hector in a war was, by Greek lights, perfectly acceptable, what happened then was not: Achilles, unsatisfied with this revenge, went on to retain the body of Hector, and to abuse it by dragging it behind his chariot around the walls of Troy, and defiling it every way he could imagine. Priam, Hector’s father, boldly comes, unaccompanied and unguarded, to the Greek camp and Achilles’ tent to plead for the return of the body of his son. Achilles, at first surprised and angry, listens to Priam, who tells him a bit of a story, relates the whole matter to Achilles’ own father and how he would feel in similar circumstances. Achilles eventually reassesses his position and relents. He sees his decisions in a new light and turns away from his rash anger. He gives Priam safe conduct back to Troy, sends Hector’s body with him, and grants the city a space of time in which to conduct Hector’s funeral rites.
In the Second Book of Samuel, we can read the story of David, whose roving eye lights on his neighbor Bathsheba. With a little finagling, he takes her for his lover, and arranges to have Bathsheba’s husband Uriah put into the front lines of the next battle, where he will be sure to be killed. When the predictable happens, he takes Bathsheba as his own wife, and she bears him a son. The prophet Nathan comes to David and tells him a story—a thinly veiled allegorical accounting of his own transgressions. David, missing the point, is outraged and fumes, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay...four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” At this point, of course, Nathan reveals his meaning. “You are the man,” he tells David. Through the telling of a story, presenting his own deeds from a different perspective, David is moved to rethink his former actions, and to understand how he has transgressed. He makes such amends as he can, though of course Uriah is beyond any kind of recovery. In any case, it is a huge step in David’s own course of self-realization and ongoing character formation.
These are both remarkable stories, but they are by no means exceptional in respect to the fact that their characters are moved to reassess their own past actions. Thoughtful re-evaluation of oneself is, and should be, part of the main currency of human behavior in every age. It’s a large part of the reason for studying the historical record.
It is an often-repeated truism that those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. It is a loose misquotation of the philosopher George Santayana, and is usually taken out of context to mean something Santayana never meant, and to justify whatever smug pontifications are to follow. The fact of the matter is that all the lessons there are are by necessity historical—the past is the only time period from which one may have learned anything. But it’s also true that few if any of them have a simple and unambiguous moral point. We decide what lessons we are going to draw from any given historical set of events. There are better and worse ways of deciding, I think, but there is no simple black-and-white path or summary of those lessons.
The truth is infinitely simpler and infinitely more complex than Santayana’s dictum would have one believe. On the one hand, if we do not learn from the past, we are condemned or blessed (depending on who’s talking) to know nothing at all. In the final analysis, there is nothing but history to know. The question isn’t whether we’re going to know history or not, but whether our knowing will be deep and thoughtful, or shallow and superficial. On the other hand, if we erect a trivial and dogmatized historical framework and treat it as a governing structure for the whole, we may know something, or think we know it, but it may have fairly little to do with the truth, and may wind up warping and distorting our perceptions about almost everything else.
If there is a signal virtue that ought to accompany all historical thinking and investigation—whether that of the rankest novice or the most seasoned professional—I would suggest that it is humility. We have every reason to be humble, in this field in particular; we have very little reason to be otherwise. Even if we believe that somehow we stand at the apex of the historical pyramid, we’re hardly responsible for being in that place. And tomorrow we will have been demoted from it: the position itself will prove to have been an illusion.
For one thing, the sum of human experience consists of the whole lifetimes of every person who has ever lived. There is no corner of it that is irrelevant. There is also no conceivable way for us to probe or penetrate more than the tiniest portion of it. The subject is, for all practical human purposes, infinite: nobody, even one spending a lifetime in a singleminded pursuit of it, could ever arrive at a complete understanding of its facts, realities, perceptions, attitudes, and human experiences.
For another thing, each piece of it that is uncovered, however trivial, has the potential to alter the way we view all the rest. From the mathematical field of combinatorics, this suggests that not only is every historical fact potentially revolutionary to our thinking, but every subset of the whole set of those facts is its own unique mix and mash of imponderables. It is, as truly as any ever has been, an incomprehensible field.
And yet we do continue to try to comprehend it—whether because there is nothing else to do with the past other than to try to understand it (since we can’s change its events), or because there is, in the long run, nothing else to understand than the past. Either way, it seems a large part of what people are expected to do, and something that should be taken with all the humility that the occasion dictates.
There is—and long has been—a kind of model of human progress that dictates that we are in every way becoming better. Accordingly, the mistakes of yesterday—or even the ideas that disagree with our own—are scorned as the mere ignorance (or worse) of primitive people, something we’ve gotten beyond, as they really should have done themselves The mere fact that something new has come along is taken virtually as justification for holding the position. Positivism (so named by its chief proponent Auguste Comte) made such a claim. But neither of the teachers of this course considers the case even remotely proven, and we won’t proceed on the assumption that it’s true.
In his autobiography, C. S. Lewis wrote of his friend Owen Barfield:
In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.
If anything, it seems that we ought to be most wary of those ingrained—or often unsuspected—biases characteristic of our own age, precisely because their position makes it less likely that we will question them. This is a perspective that only a mature engagement with history can provide. It’s worth a great deal, and it can be applied to every field of human endeavor, even those not generally considered historical. Accordingly we will encourage neither a reflexive disdain for the people and thought of the past nor a reverential treatment of certain periods as separate and superior to our own or each other. In the long haul, it’s not clear that a period as such can be better or worse than any other: all that can be said is that the experiences of certain people—such people as we know—were better or worse. Human experience is something we can talk about concretely.
Contents of this page © Copyright 2015-19 by Christe A. McMenomy and Bruce A. McMenomy.
Permission to download or print this page is hereby given to members of Scholars Online for purposes of personal study only. All other use constitutes a violation of copyright.