Ok, so I tried doing a video for this chapter. Please forgive the poor video quality (#CollegeLiving), and be prepared to see my overall gooberness. You can read most of what I say below, but in the limelight I went a bit extemperaneous.
Welcome to the first article in the review series I am doing on Dr. John Fea’s new book, Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.
My initial thoughts? First, check out this sweet cover! I remember when a few of my buddies in my historical methods’ class one of them said something like “Well now I have to get it.” I’ll admit, the cover is pretty cool (lame joke is now over), but what I was really excited for was the content inside.
As I read the first chapter, I could almost imagine Dr. Fea sitting at the head of my historical methods class and I can hear his voice crescendo as he explains his love for the discipline of history.
Reading through the first chapter, I was immediately reminded of some of the chapters from Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Critical Perspectives On The Past). This summer I got hooked on reading about how historians think, and all the things they do in the study of the past. Where I think Dr. Fea’s first chapter differs, is that it goes in great depth about the 5 C’s in very simple terms — we’ll talk about the 5 C’s later.
Ok let’s dive into some more specifics of the chapter. Dr. Fea opens up asking a lot of questions about what historians do. First thing, he makes a clear break between studying history and studying the past. If I had to pinpoint one of the most important lessons I have learned at Messiah College it would be realizing that the past and history are not the same thing. Why Study History? discusses how, “The past is the past — a record of events that occurred in bygone eras. The past is dates, facts, and things that ‘happened.’”(2) On the other hand, he starts one paragraph with a simple sentence that conveys a strong message, “History is a discipline.” (3) History involves interpretation, and understanding the past. How do we understand the past? Easy, the 5 C’s!
Okay what are the five C’s? “According to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, when doing their work, historians must always be sensitive to change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity.” (6) Let’s dive into these, Dr. Fea talks about change over time meaning that there is continuity (there another C) in the past. One example he uses is when in the 2012 London Olympics there was that opening that went through the history of England. While I heard other people telling me how lame they thought it was, I was fascinated by it, because it takes England from their agrarian roots, into their industrialized state (6-7). Part of understanding the change over time is understanding the context. Do you ever get really frustrated whenever people take what you say out of context? I get really frustrated, whenever the context is not taken, because I feel like my message is not being accurately portrayed. As Dr. Fea articulates, “The context provides meaning” (8). He talks about understanding any document, phrase, event, in the context of the bigger picture. Part of understanding that picture leads into the 3rd C, causality. In elementary school I hated doing those cause and effect charts my teachers used to force me to do. Now I see the significance in understanding what caused events like the Civil War, The Glorious Revolution, and so many other events. Dr. Fea points out that at this point in telling the story of what happened, historians stop just laying out facts, and start to do the explaining part of history (10). In regards to contigency, he defines contigency as “. . . the free will of humans to shape their own destinies.” Plus contingency helps turn history into a narrative (11). The final C is complexity, history is not as black and white as talking heads on TV may lead you to believe. Dr. Fea points out that there is a deeper story and understanding of the past.
Now we get into a topic that really intrigued me. Dr. Fea brought up the idea that all historians are revisionists. Immediately after stumbling upon that idea I am immediately thinking of those same TV heads telling you history is just fact, who are now using the word revisionism as though it is curse word. As Dr. Fea explains, being referred to as a revisionist should be taken as a compliment. History is constantly being revised, and that’s the beauty of it. There are constantly explanations coming out about why things happened, or why certain events hold a particular importance. If history was just a bunch of facts, then there would be no true meaning behind it.
On this Earth, we will never know the entire past. We will never know every single thing what happens. If you asked Dr. Fea if he thinks that this statement makes studying history weaker, I think he would honestly pitty you. Historians seek the truth, and while we may not always know all of it, we will continue to seek out what we can, and learn what we can from the past. (22)
Ok that’s enough on the first chapter. If you want to keep reading it you can go to Amazon and buy it for $11.70 plus some shipping fees, so go ahead and add it to your cart, it’s a great read for a great price!