Having just returned from attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association and the American Society of Church History, I am doubly enthused about teaching Church History II this afternoon. I’ve blogged previously on my plans for the term and look forward to a good few months with my students.
I have been thinking about my love for history over the past few days, and I’ve realized a few things.
First, history is not meant to be a purely pragmatic discipline, at least not in the way it is commonly thought. Many people say that the only reason to study it is so that you can avoid the mistakes of the past. On a surface level, I suppose I can accept that. But it is true only on a surface level. Yes, we know about the horrors of the Nazi regime…but while we’ve never done THAT again, it hasn’t stopped humanity from committing other great atrocities. We are similarly aware of war, but we still have it. You could simply say that these results are simply because “people never learn,” but if that is the case, why do history of this kind in the first place? On the macro-level, history is therefore influential but not determinative. On the micro-level, it is just a bunch of historians talking in code to other historians about interesting topics which have little to no connection to the “pragmatic history” position.
Second, historians don’t want to admit it…but history can be boring. I experienced this during some of the conference sessions this past weekend. As I thought about how little I cared about some of what I heard, I shuddered to think what someone who was a non-academic would think. Just as I am not interested in every piece of news on CNN.com, there is a great deal of history that just doesn’t grab me. It doesn’t grab a lot of people. History helps explain more about the story in which we find ourselves…but when the history we are learning has little to do with us, it can be hard to follow or even care. You might think this is rather provincial and smallminded. Perhaps, but it’s true.
What do I think? History is both essential and useless, pragmatic and esoteric. It is not a trade. It is not vital in our everyday lives. Houses are built without it. Machinists work metal without it. No plumber ever need know about the Holy Roman Empire. The history of Pentecostalism in North America has no relevance to the businessman. So why study it? If you’re looking for some purely pragmatic reason, please look elsewhere. I study history because I like stories and stories about people. In the words of Lady Gaga, I was “born this way.” Yet there has been value for me in its study. It does remind me that things have not always been the way they are today. It does force me to have respect for others and reserve judgment. It has kept me honest and never lets me forget my place. These are my lessons from history.
I hope that history and my teaching of it will help others learn these lessons. But I don’t do it because I assume it will enthrall others the way it does me or because I feel like knowing history will automatically make the future better. I do it because it is my passion. Because it helps us understand the communities in which we are bound. Because at its best all history may be deeply biographical and jarringly foreign at the same time. There is something very…human about bringing these things together.