This is a strange and difficult semester in higher education. College campuses across the country have closed and students are now attempting to learn in isolation. For some undergraduates, the uncertainty and lack of a timeline for a return to normalcy make it hard to look forward to future semesters. Faculty, too, have fears about future security. As a university professor, I can say that none of us felt fully prepared for what the semester has become.
I find history may be a surprisingly good place to turn in these challenging and chaotic times. “History” is often used by most people to refer to the past and its events, while historians prefer to use it to describe the study of the past. But it is in both senses that history can be a gift to us all in moments like ours.
The present may feel overwhelming, but we are not the first to endure uncertainty and hard times. There have been other global pandemics, like the 1918 flu, and other times of quarantine. Humans have felt powerless against bacteria and viruses before, like cholera and polio. In a letter to his brother, William James wrote that “surely the cutting edge of all our misfortunes comes from their character of loneliness.” The seemingly remote events of the past can bring us closer to others’ experiences.
Looking beyond fears and considering historical facts can remind us that challenges do not have to lead to chaos and collapse. Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell is a record of disasters that demonstrates the tendency of people to behave their best in the worst circumstances. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the 1917 Halifax Explosion, and 9/11, ordinary people came together to help each other and often did so effectively and generously. The same is shown Jon Mooallem’s book This is Chance!, which chronicles the aftermath of a 1964 Alaskan earthquake. Despite media narratives, bad times do not doom us to Social Darwinism but often lead to increased heroism, altruism, and simple neighborliness. The disruption of our normal rhythms of work and life does not mean destruction of all we hold dear.
For Christians, knowledge of the past does not just put the present into proper perspective, it orients us to God’s metanarrative. All of our holy days are remembrances of the past that emphasize our hope for the future.
The call to remember is woven throughout the Bible. Even in introducing the Ten Commandments and initiating a new way of life, God reminded His people, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). We may be tempted to fixate on the problems of the present, but, if we are grounded in the past, we have a broader perspective and a foundation for hope.
When we step back to recall the past, we see beyond individual assignments, news broadcasts, and Zoom backgrounds. We are saved from myopia. The past gives us the big picture; history can refocus us on the present. History is not just facts and dates; it is an attempt to meet the past on its own terms and construct a narrative of it that helps enhance understanding.
Why bother teaching or learning about the causes of the Civil War or the debates about the atom bomb during quarantine? Because the historical thinking nurtured in class assignments equips us to respond to our own confusing times. History de-centers our assumptions and perspective.
In his book Why Study History? historian John Fea explains the ways in which history is like a Christian discipline because it can take “the focus off of us and put it on God or others.” Historical inquiry forces us to confront our own limited perspective and abilities as we wrestle with the complexity of the past. As Fea writes, “history, perhaps more than any other discipline, teaches this sense of limits,” and requires humility. Empathy is also required, in order to understand, but not excuse, the people of the past.
N.T. Wright has also taken up the relationship between history and Christian virtues in his recent book, History and Eschatology. He writes that history “requires humility, to understand the thoughts of people who thought differently from ourselves; patience, to go on working with the data and resist premature conclusions; penitence, to acknowledge that our traditions may have distorted original meanings and that we have preferred the distortions to the originals; and love, in that genuine history, like all genuine knowledge, involves the delighted affirmation of realities and events outside ourselves, and thoughts different from our own.”
Because history requires us to consider first the experiences and ideas of others and to do justice to them, Wright believes that it can be part of an “epistemology of love.”
Students and teachers right now may resemble the paintings of St. Jerome, alone in his study and bent over a book. Cut off from the world, with limited resources, they may wonder if the assignments are worthwhile. Some may feel pressured to have the kind of isolation experience that produced Shakespeare’s King Lear or Newton’s annus mirabilis. Students may be worried about financial aid or graduating into a “real world” on lockdown. Reflecting on the past can reassure students and faculty that their value transcends anything academic that happens this semester, and it can connect their experiences to those of others. Looking at the past through the lens of history teaches us to handle each other and our circumstances with more grace. It can be a gift to us and to others.