L.P. Hartley famously opened his novel The Go-Between with this aphorism: “The past is favourite author, a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Perhaps many of us today are not very xenophobic—at least, not to the extent that we shun foreign travel—but we are becoming increasingly history-averse. There are fewer and fewer applicants for passports to travel to the foreign country that is the past.
Consider our changing reading patterns. Earlier generations, when asked to name a favourite author, would often name someone who had been dead for centuries: Homer, or Dante, or Milton. People deeply valued literature written in a time long before and quite different from their own—and this was true of the masses, as well as the cultural, social, and intellectual elite.
We are becoming increasingly cut off from the riches and resources of the past as we lose the habit of reading across time. In 2007, the British charity World Book Day conducted a survey of the books “the nation cannot live without.” With the exceptions of the Bible and Shakespeare, the oldest items on the list of the top one hundred were all from the nineteenth century. The majority of the books on the list were written in living memory, including such instant classics as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Da Vinci Code, Notes from a Small Island, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and His Dark Materials. Even Britons—in a society that generally has more of a sense of history than North America—are developing a reading culture that essentially reaches no further into the past than the occasional stretch to Jane Austen.
Indeed, perhaps even much of the twentieth century is now considered too remote. Anne Trubek, a professor of English at Oberlin College, has recommended that her colleagues stop assigning The Catcher in the Rye. When asked for a rationale, she said nothing at all about the literary merits or demerits of this novel, but rather simply observed, “It was published in 1951 and it’s not so contemporary anymore.”
Perhaps part of the reason we only read contemporary literature is that, while we pride ourselves on our ability to absorb shocking material (such as sex and violence), we are becoming more squeamish about encountering ideology with which we disagree. Let me be clear: the past really is full of offence. People were often dramatically and painfully wrong about race, gender, and all kinds of other issues. We can see their blind spots immediately and wince. But we need them and their works because they can help us see our own, different, blind spots. They challenge us to attend to vital matters that we have ignored.
C.S. Lewis once observed that we should read authors from the past so we can gain strength from the virtues and insights they possessed that we lack; he also observed that the very fact that we are sometimes offended by their writings demonstrates that we are in no danger of their vices infecting us when we read them: “They made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.”
My family does not have television at home, but whenever I stay in a hotel, I watch a bit to see what, if anything, I might be missing. As a historian, I always hope that I will find something worth watching on the History Channel. I have been repeatedly disconcerted to find that even its programming is often about contemporary life—a documentary about today’s urban gangs, for example, or even reality shows about risky occupations.
The main exception is World War II programming. (This observation has been confirmed by others. Indeed, some wit quipped that it should have been called “The Hitler Channel.”) This commitment expresses a wider cultural obsession with the Second World War, which is given far too much airtime, not only on TV and in movies, but even in teaching and college course offerings.
We should indeed never forget that war. It has much to teach today’s leaders—for instance, that there are times when appeasement will not work and the only fitting response is resolute resistance. Nevertheless, Hitler’s defeat is one of the rare historical conflicts that fits well into the framework of good vs. evil, and so it is not a particularly propitious case study for helping us learn about the complexities involved in leading the good society. This, of course, is precisely why World War II history is so popular with us: it is the historical equivalent of the media echo chamber. World War II is often the historical place we go, not to gain understanding, but to have our own identity validated. It feels good to be on the “right” side.
For leaders to be equipped to make wise decisions, however, studying almost any other war instead would provide vital ballast: the Mexican-American War, World War I, or the Korean War, for example. And anyone who cares about creating the good society would do well to attend to the stated ideals and resulting ironies of the French Revolution.
The good society must encounter history in a serious way because the historical record gives us a way to grapple with the capacious human capacity for mixed motives, self-deception, blind spots, and unintended consequences. Case in point: a few years ago, I attended a public lecture by a historian on the eighteenth-century evangelical minister and thinker Jonathan Edwards. The audience included a fair number of virile, young, Calvinist men who were there as Edwards’s fans. For them, Edwards was something like the great Reformed hope. In the course of his address, the speaker alluded to the fact Edwards had owned slaves. Offended, these young men flat-out denied that this was true. Moreover, they based their assertion not on any research they had done, nor anything they had read to the contrary, but on the simple fact that they admired Edwards so they “knew” this could not be right.
To foster the good society, it is not sufficient to have emerging generations who can only either ignore the past or co-opt it and repackage it to be congruent with current sensibilities. The choices should not be simply to avoid Jonathan Edwards for his offences or celebrate him as a hero for our times by airbrushing out everything offensive. Wrestling with how someone can be wise and admirable in lots of ways, and yet have a tragic blind spot, is how we learn to think more deeply about the human condition, and therefore to reflect more profoundly on our own lives and actions.
Moreover, the past is always impinging on the present. Ignoring it does not make it go away; it just impairs our ability to grasp our current situation. People might assert that history is boring and irrelevant, but they intuitively know that history matters in their personal lives. Few who consider getting married do not want to know whether their future spouse has been married before. They might not think it “matters”—that the truth will not change their certainty about marrying that person. But only a fool would not realize that if the previous marriage had been abusive, or had ended because of unforgivable issues that continue to exist, this history is crucial for their future spouse to know, and that an understanding of the past equips them to address these issues in the present.
Wheaton College in Illinois, where I teach, used to call its sports teams “the Crusaders.” The college became increasingly aware that this was a historical reference with a lot of baggage. During the Crusades, Jews, Muslims, and eastern Orthodox Christians were all slaughtered by western Christians in the name of Christ. Every summer, when Wheaton students went on a study-abroad trip called “Wheaton in the Holy Land,” they would be walking around the Middle East with “Crusader” written on their baseball caps and T-shirts. This was not good.
In 2000, Wheaton dropped “Crusaders” and rebranded its sports teams as the “Thunder.” (The school decided that this new name would last for the long haul, as nobody could imagine shifting sensibilities that cause anyone to take offence at an atmospheric sound.) But though the goal was to avoid offence, a few grumpy alumni were deeply “offended” that Wheaton did not stand by their beloved “Crusaders,” and vowed to not give money to the institution again.
Once again, a historical picture is reduced to caricature. The Crusaders must evoke only either idealistic heroism or murderous villainy. A real historical knowledge and analysis of the Crusades allows for a much more nuanced meditation on the relationship between a society’s values and its attempts to implement them. When I teach the Crusades, I draw students’ attention to the case that Pope Urban II made for the First Crusade. His argument was that in certain foreign lands, Christians were religious minorities who were now experiencing intolerable persecution. It was, therefore, the duty of western powers to use their military might to rescue and defend these victims of oppression.
Reading this history, students begin to realize that a similar appeal by their political leaders might still be effective in getting popular opinion behind military action. This opens up space for considering messier and more complex realities about goals, choices, and consequences. The point is not merely to decide if the Crusades were “right” or “wrong”; we also ought to gain a deeper grasp of what motivations, strategies, and rationales were in play, and how they unfolded.
To learn how to foster the good society, we must ensure that our passports to the past are in order, and that we are making regular trips into that foreign country. We must retain or renew our capacity to read texts written in previous centuries. We need to learn how to move beyond merely vilifying or lionizing historical figures and movements, and into exploring the ambiguities and ironies of human efforts. We should not be nostalgic about the past: that is a sure sign that we have airbrushed out the offensive bits. The good society is not in the past, but neither is it in a present or future that suffers from amnesia. Maybe a chronological shift in our culture’s collective reading lists would be a good place to start, because the good society is created by people whose substantial understanding of the past equips them to act with greater wisdom in the present.