A friend of mine, and fellow historian, makes some very sound points about the study of history and how to keep it fresh in her post today , an important aspect of the study of history that I would like to elaborate on. One of the ways in which one keeps one’s study of history fresh is by varying one’s reading habits to provide a sense of balance. For most people, areas of interest are like short-term hobbies. This is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, reading a fine book on World War II might inspire a lot of reading about World War II, then one gets your fill and stops reading about it.
The problem is not in the temporary nature of that particular interest (it usually takes deep personal relevance for a subject to remain of interest for a lifetime–such as the history of the American Civil War has for me in light of my own life experiences and upbringing as a proud Yankee in the unreconstructed rural South), but rather in the rejection of the study of history merely because one has had one’s fill of a particular part of it. For example, too narrow of a focus (let’s say the Normandy Campaign of WWII) may burn someone out where as a broader examination of the larger topic (perhaps reading about the Eastern Front, or the War of the Pacific, or the political history of the 1940’s) might provide some sense of balance and context to the particular interest.
The problem is in studying a narrow focus without maintaining the larger balance. This is a problem for a few reasons. Among them is the fact that without a larger sense of perspective it is impossible to gain insight from the study of any particular thing. It is the context that provides the way of connecting the particular to the general, and the general to other particulars in different times and places with different people, and perhaps even to one’s own life and experiences. It is this sense of context and perspective that allows the study of history to make us wiser, if a bit sadder. If we understand how people came to be and do what they were and did, then we better understand ourselves, and both our own temptations to fail and our own opportunities for greatness.
In order to do so we must be able to balance the general (that is, which is true in all times and all places to all people) and that which is particular (that is, which is specific to the case at hand being studied). It is the sense of the general that makes history useful as case studies for us today, and what makes it relevant for us to study our past for insights. It is the sense of the particular that makes history interesting as a narrative and compelling to imagine. Those who re-enact history, whether in mock battles or motion pictures, do so because the particular is so compelling–the people whose heart and mind and soul are borne out in letters and memoir, that others are able to appreciate those from the past as real people and not merely as cardboard characters. However, their relevance to us is because these particular people dealt with the same sort of ultimate questions and problems that we struggle with. We see them as unique and distinct with their own cultures and quirks, but also as brothers, separated by distance in space and time but also part of the same story of mankind that we too are a part of.
Therefore, having a sense of balance in one’s study of history is useful and vital not only to gain the right truths, but also to gain a sense of what people are like on their terms and not merely our own. We must see things, and people, as they are, and not how we are, as best as possible. To see the Founding Fathers of the United States as libertarians when their views on limited government were conditioned by the extensive bonds of extended family and local community (which in many cases overlapped considerably), is to see them as we are and not how they were. We must always guard against the tendency of using history merely as the raw material for our own agendas, and we must also realize that just as the past was blind to its own sins because they were so interwoven with their culture, the same is true for us in different ways. We have all eaten from the same tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we all have fallen short of the perfect, and unchanging, standard of God. We must all, therefore, repent and be changed, rather than consider ourselves to be uniquely qualified to be the arbiters of the past as a result of our own moral perfection, given that we are blinded by our own beams in the eye.
The note from my friend closed with very wise advice, saying: “Keep it fresh, and you will always stay curious!” That is very true, true because there is such variety of topics to study that even if one tried to keep learning and keep reading and keep understanding, there is no end of material to study, whether one wishes to study history in greater breadth or depth. Given that, we must take care to make sure that we are seeing history in a large enough perspective and in balance with our concerns here and now (for history is not only a tale of what was, but how we came to be what we are as well). Keeping track of the larger picture, and filling in the gaps in our perspective, keeps things fresh and interesting and gives us an understanding of the relevance and importance of that which we study. When you can manage that task, studying history need never grow old and stale, for there are ceaseless wonders without end to uncover and examine.