Thinking Historically (Part Three)

Lord ActonIt’s been a little while since I have had the chance to continue with this line of posts. A busy few weeks for me, the free time I have had has been spent putting together more podcast episodes. Still, I consider our move toward a more ahistorical society one that needs serious attention and focus.

What perhaps reminded me of this fact was a conversation that I was having with someone online.  A history teacher, he was talking about how he felt like, at certain times, students drew the wrong lesson because they only took a snippet of time or a single moment to define their historic assessment. A sincere lover of history, who spends his free time talking about it and its application it isn’t hard to see why something like that would alarm him.

Yet, the truth is that it isn’t something that is terribly surprising.  When I first started talking about this topic I made the point that we do not live in a vacuum, free of the lessons of history. The same thing can be said of history itself. Though we may look at a single event or a single moment, observing it as a lesson of history, nothing can be seen in with a narrow scope except the smallest of pictures of a larger tapestry. Yes, we may, in a moment of particular clarity, see the loose strands of something greater and grander, but we fail to see how it all weaves together as the people and the events entwines together to create the larger whole. It becomes a failing on our part where we lose the messages that these experiences teach us, or worse, we draw the wrong message out of it as we find that we have settled for the convenient or easy rather than the truth.

KingWhat we need to perhaps remember is that historical context is, of course, vital, whether it is good, bad or ugly. This means that though, yes, we need to consider the immediate context or figure in the course of our study of a moment out of history, we also need to consider it against the backdrop of the larger course of events to truly understand its deeper significance and meaning. This allows us to find its place amidst the larger puzzle that it is constructing. For example, we might look at the immediate events of a young George Washington’s expedition into the Ohio Valley in the immediate context of the slaughter of the French by his Native Allies to see how it would lead to the Battle of Fort Necessity, but that doesn’t necessarily take into account the complexity of Franco-Anglo Relations or the agenda of Tanacharison, the Half King, leader of the Seneca who accompanied him. It does not necessarily paint an accurate picture of how those events would set into motion a chain of events that would pave a path not only to a war between France and England that two hundred years later Sir Winston Churchill would call the first World War, or the American Revolution after. Because of it we miss not only a startling history, but lessons in treaties, alliances, wars and agendas that we can still learn from today.

Yes, this means that we have to decipher, taking into account that we have evolved and grown, advanced as a society and a people as we understand that cultural aspects have perhaps changed. Yet, this creates for us not only a deeper sense of a connection to our past as we deconstruct what we are studying but also hones our critical reasoning skills. In stripping away our pre-conceived notions and perceptions we gain insights in the inductive observations that we make as we delve deeper, honing our ability to peel away the foremost layers to not only see what lays beneath but also determine the meaning that it ultimately holds.

In the end it allows for us to avoid the traps and pitfalls that can cause us to stumble and falter in our steps as we look through the eyes of experience rather than just events, drawing from judgement that is tempered by both knowledge and application. We then begin to understand that just because the world may have become a smaller place through technology and its application, it is still as wide and as complex as it has ever been as we begin to make sense of it.

That is valuable for any one of us in our pursuit of knowledge as we look to the wide array and vast scope of human experience to guide us through our deeper understanding of who we are and were we came from.

I will be back again next week with another post on this as we talk about the importance of thinking historically. Hope to see you then.

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