This mockery is just as bad as ignoring humanity's overall time on earth in order to give students the impression that America is God's Chosen Land (in which everything was peachy and godly until the Civil War). If we use historical anecdotes merely as morality tales intended to buttress some modern argument, we are not teaching history at all. If we do not teach history, we are giving up one of the civilizing effects of education.
Taught in isolation, either of these scenarios fails to show the true scope of humanity in history.
In Teacher in America (1955), Jacques Barzun speaks insightfully of the result of a proper education in history.
“When broadly based on a good knowledge of western European history (including that of the United States), the historical sense is a comforter and a guide. The possessor understands his neighbors, his government, and the limitations of mankind much better. He knows more clearly not what is desirable, but what is practical. He becomes ‘practical’ in the lasting sense of being taken in neither by panicky fears nor by second-rate Utopias. It is always some illusion that creates disillusion, especially in the young, for whom the only alternative to perfection is cynicism. The historical sense….is a moderator which insists on knowing conditions before passing judgments…. It suggests that in the struggles of men with one another, no virtue implies the possession of any other; the motives are mixed, and that no evil is absolutely perverse. For these reasons, the study of history tends to make men tolerant, without on that account weakening their determination to follow the right: they know too well the odds against it. Even when history does not equip the student mind to the extent that I have shown, it induces a little humility and prevents those fits of sudden misplaced moral indignation for which Macaulay so roundly ridiculed the British public.”
Students will not acquire the humility, balance, and understanding that Barzun describes if history is used merely to present a modern ideological argument. Yet it is impossible to teach without being influenced by our own beliefs. The solution, I think, is not to pretend to an exaggerated objectivity. Instead, it is to focus on providing enough history. As Barzun says, historical understanding is based on a “good knowledge” of western European and American history. Students need so firm a grasp of historical facts, figures, and chronology that they are qualified to evaluate their teachers’ theories. In fact, they should be able to form their own as well (this does not mean that they should be encouraged to give opinions based on feelings instead of knowledge). The key is that they are able to compare many historical events to teach other, and to recognize the modern equivalent of past trends. We are all able to acknowledge that our own society contains many instances of injustice, crime, and wrong-headedness without rejecting all modern people as stupid (in part because we understand the context of our own era's wrong-headedness). Students should be able to do the same for the people of the past.
Anecdotes can be part of this process. Yet the stories should be fair in representing the people and places in question. The telling should convey, “Human nature doesn’t change, does it?” not, “Weren’t people back then stupid?” Perhaps one reason that many professors limit themselves to silly anecdotes instead of fascinating, overarching theories is because the overly-specialized nature of modern study has prevented them from becoming truly qualified to see history as a whole. Perhaps we all need more, and better, training in history.
Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results. (Machiavelli).
Linking up to Wednesdays with Words.