I finally got around to continuing to read Why Study History?, and finished chapter 3. John Fea dives right into the process of historical thinking. Since my Historical Methods course, I have been fascinated with the way that historians think, and the different wants historians will approach issues.
Chapter 3 keys into the idea of the past as a foreign country. This contrasts the idea of chapter 2 which discusses how people are consistently in search for a useable past. Fea looks into the idea of historicism. Historicism is essentially allowing to past to speak on its own terms. On one hand, this is an ok thing to do — most historians (including Reckless Historians — do partake partially in historicism. The trouble is when you think that what has happened in the past cannot teach any lessons in the future. I have found that in my own pursuit of history, it has been a balance of the past as a foreign country as well as a useable past. Fea also critiques presentism — pushing our 2013 values and thoughts on the past. I can definitely get behind that critique.
Fea also dives into the ideas of empathy and humility. Empathy means being able to understand the viewpoint of another. He contrasts this with sympathy, which develops an emotional connection with someone. Often times I have seen people mixing the two up, so I appreciate that Fea does make a clear line in the sand between the two.
Studying history, for Fea, teaches humility. When you see how small you are compared to the rest of the world, Fea argues that then you get off your self-centeredness, and start to understand the vastness of the past. While we look at the past and see events that we deem horrendous, we need to realize that it is totally possible for our own generation to act in such a manner, and so as we pursue the past we must do so with humility and empathy. “History reminds us of the inherent weakness in the human condition and the very real possibility that our fellow human beings are capable of horrendous things,” is how Dr. Fea closes out this section (61).
I really do enjoy reading this book. Fea puts together another well-organized and deeply thought out chapter. I appreciate all the sources he uses (my summer reading list is growing longer and longer), and how he actively engages in them. Hopefully I’ll be able to read chapter 4, but now one of my roommates has dinner made (baked mac-n-cheese), so I’ll talk to you all later.