It was my hope to have this article posted Friday, but I was blessed to have my siblings visit me for the weekend. It was really nice having them come up and visit me, and I found that many of our conversations reflected on fun memories that our family has made. As I was reading through Why Study History? I found the discussion to be over a useable past. This conversation often rises in my history classes — particularly in my Teaching History course.
So let’s dive in.
Dr. Fea argues that it is part of our modern nature to desire for the past to be useable. If the past cannot benefit the individual, people will not look to it. Americans will look to the past when it provides something to gain (28). Often times when people think of how they were taught history, Dr. Fea has found that many people define it has dull or irrelevant. This view of history stems from when students were not taught about interpretation, but were taught pure rote-memorization, so they could spew information out on a test (29).
There are many reasons why people turn to the past.
People desire an “Inspirational Past” because they want to be able to connect to certain people. “We are moved by the heroism of American soldiers charging onto the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1994. We admire the persistence of William Wilberforce, the nineteenth-century British politician who ended the slave trade in England. . .” (30). Dr. Fea goes on to describe one particular student who was so inspired by Thomas Paine, that she made a radically different type of portrait for the cover of Paine’s, Common Sense. Christians use the past for inspiration as well. How often have you heard the prayer by St. Francis of Assisi? We are constantly looking at inspirational figures from our Christian past to inspire us in the days ahead (31). Dr. Fea closes this segment of the chapter saying that, “The past both inspires us and keeps us out of trouble. George Santayana was correct when he said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Whether it is inspiration or warning we can all draw lessons for the present by studying the past,” which I think is a good reminder as we approach the study of the past (33).
Sometimes people dive into the past to escape the present. Dr. Fea blends this topic through a narrative of the Twilight Zone’s episode, “A Stop at Willoughby.” While I have only seen a couple episodes of this show, the description of this episode screams of someone trying to escape their present situation by running to the past (33). Some people find enjoyment in escaping to the past by going to places like the Renaissance Faire (one of my favorite places to visit) or drive to Virginia to explore Colonial Williamsburg (34). “For some, the practice of getting lost in the past is a great form of therapy,” I think is a fitting conclusion to this segment (35).
An interesting thing about the past is that it has the ability to remind us who we are. The past can help root us in our identity. Not even necessarily our own identity, but of our ancestors. Dr. Fea points to our “popular quest to discover our roots,” and I am reminded of my mom who is searching to develop more of her identity by researching more about our family’s heritage (35). There are even TV shows that promote the search for our past. “The past can also help us understand our place in the communities and nations we call home,” and can help develop a place in culture (35). Dr. Fea looks to the town of Greenwhich, NJ and their Tea Burning celebration as an example of this. History makes our national identity, and has earned its place in our social studies curriculum in school. History is deemed useable to the present, because it develops our identity, but people will often argue over what that identity looks like (37-38). There is a difference between “heritage” and “history” and it is a difference that historians have a responsibility to convey. Christians can turn to their past to develop their identities by way of studying church history (40).
People usually only want to study history that is familiar to them. If history presses them outside of their comfort zone they do not even want to study or explore it (42-43). Some people even look to the past as a way of reform, Dr. Fea argues. They will look to past events to help in the present. Dr. Fea in particular zones in on the involvement of historians in the development of World War I propaganda to help the American cause (43-44). This progressive view of history has also developed the broad discipline of “social studies” where history is only one aspect of the studies. They are argue that history must serve present needs (45).
Again, I found this chapter very engaging. I think it has helped me develop a deeper understanding regarding why people turn to the past aside for just pure enjoyment. I look forward to reading chapter 3, where Dr. Fea engages in the idea that the past is a foreign country.