A Sense of History: Some Components

by Gerald W. Schlabach

All students who graduate from a liberal arts college should take with them an indelible awareness of the following:

1. Some things happened before other things.

Studying history is much more than the memorization of dates. But if we get things out of chronological order, we'll inevitably get a lot of other things wrong too. Imagine that we are in a new city trying to find "408 N. 5th St.," but vandals have taken down the signs for 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th streets and rearranged them in random order. We'll probably fail. Neither can we expect to succeed in the study of history if we think Socrates was Aristotle's student, and they both argued with St. Paul when the Christian apostle preached in Athens.

2. Some things only happened in certain places.

Athens is in Greece, of course. It may be nearer to Jerusalem than some people think, but the two cities are on different sides of the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, geography is as basic to the study of history as is chronology. Time and space are the most basic units of historical study because they are the most basic units of historical existence. We must respect them both.

For a human being to exist in a "place," however, also means to exist in a particular community, society, and culture. When the third-century Christian apologist Tertullian asked, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" he was not denying that there were routes for travelling between the two. He was not talking about geography. He was insisting that Greek philosophy and Christian theology grew out of very different cultures or worldviews. He may have been wrong to exaggerate their differences -- but he was right to expect differences. To expect and recognize cultural differences is also to exercise a sense of "place."

3. Meanings and definitions of words change.

Let's say we read the word "virtue" in an English translation of a text that the Christian thinker Tertullian wrote 200 years after the birth of Jesus. Later we read the word "virtue" in an English translation of a text that the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote 350 years before the birth of Jesus. Should we assume they mean the same thing? No!

If nothing else, we must should remember that Tertullian wrote in Latin, whereas Aristotle wrote in Greek. So we can't assume that the words behind the English translation meant exactly the same thing. (If you are studying a foreign language while in college, you should already know this. If you aren't studying a foreign language -- why aren't you?)

More importantly, words get their meanings from the times, places, and cultures in which people use those words. (Remember points 1 and 2?) Aristotle was both reflecting and deliberately changing the meaning of "virtue" that he had learned from other Greeks, such as the ancient poet Homer. Tertullian and other early Christians had rejected some of the Greek virtues entirely, and modified the meaning of others. So there is no way to understand the meaning of words except to read them in context -- noting how they are used, associating them with related words, learning as much historical background as possible, and so on.

Lesson: there are no short cuts to reading, and reading carefully. We reluctantly allow ourselves a huge short cut when we use English translations! What more can we ask?

Hint: unless you really want to aggravate your professors, never begin a history paper with Webster's definition of "virtue" or any other word.

4. Where there is no record there is no history.

Professional historians get as frustrated as their students over this one. Sure, stuff happened before human beings started leaving artifacts and writing things down. And sure, a lot more stuff happened afterwards that nonetheless left no trace. So we'd like to know more. We'd like to fill in the gaps. But we can't draw conclusions where we don't have evidence. Sometimes we can make educated guesses and speculate, but we dare not pass our speculations off as facts. So students shouldn't try either. Show your professors your evidence.

5. Texts that powerful educated people have written are not the only kind of record, however.

Writing is an absolutely wonderful invention. We know infinitely more about other times and places because people have left textual records. And we know those people more intimately because they wrote down their thoughts. Texts are virtual miracles. The survival of many ancient texts, against terrible odds, might really be miraculous (though see point 7 below).

Still, texts suffer from one huge problem. During most of human history, only a few people have known how to read and write. Even when the literacy rate has increased, only a few people have enjoyed the luxury to systematically record their thoughts. The textual record, marvelous as it is, therefore suffers a bias toward elites of almost every time and place.

Fortunately, other human artifacts count as records too: chards of pottery, coins and tools, preserved grains, unearthed shacks, layers of city lay-outs buried as one civilization built over the ruins of the last, paintings on walls of caves and catacombs, jewelry and children's toys, stories passed down orally for many generations before being written down. To understand the lives of common folks, historians can also piece together clues from mundane forms of writing that no one thought of as literature: tax records, law codes, bills and inventory lists, ships' logs, baptismal records, advertisements for slave auctions, letters of scared and lonely soldiers. By studying all these, historians can correct somewhat for the bias of people rich, educated, and powerful enough to have imagined themselves "making history."

6. History is almost always complex:

Therefore, conflicting explanations of historical events and developments are almost always possible.

Why are you in college? If you are thoughtful you can probably list five or six reasons. So why did the Roman Empire fall? Don't expect any one reason to suffice! We're talking about a 500-year-plus empire here! It had incorporated many cultures, depended on a vast network of trade, tried to defend many borders, and recently switched religions (sort of). Expect a cluster of reasons. Expect scholars to argue over which reasons were more important. Expect complexity.

This is the human condition after all: complex. A mixture of good and bad. A mixture of creativity and stupidity. A mixture of generosity and greed. Heroic actions and good intentions in the service of dubious causes. Just causes defended through violence and other dubious means. To study history is to learn to distinguish between shades of grey.

Come to think of it, when did Rome fall? Did it ever really fall? Something changed in Western Europe between 400 CE and 600 CE. But much continued. History involves both change and continuity. Expect to find both.

7. God may indeed intervene in human history, but this is hard to document and historians require footnotes.

Sorry, but to suggest the ways that God may be involved in human history is to move into theology or philosophy of history. Those are different from the documentary study of history. To be sure, all study of human history should raise larger questions of meaning. Philosophy, literature, art, and religion take up where historical study leaves off and enjoys greater freedom to answer the question of what it all means. But good historians bind themselves to the historical record. Until they can provide footnotes referring to the pages of a heavenly scroll, they refrain from making claims about what God has done in history. (Besides, scrolls have columns, not pages.)

All students who expect to make the most of their liberal arts education should also be able to explain statements such as the following:

8. To attempt to live without a memory is to attempt to lose one's humanity.

I said it is your job to explain this statement! But okay, I'll help you get started: Without a memory, would you recognize your family? recognize your house? know how to say your prayers or know why you have stopped praying? learn from your mistakes? know which friends to embrace? stay in love when you fall in love? Be the person you are?

Now, how is all of this true for entire families, neighborhoods, societies, nations, civilizations?

The answer is the reason we study history.

9. Our memories fail us, however, and so we must continually work to recover and test our collective memory.

Now that you know how important history is, you may also start to understand why families, neighborhoods, societies, nations and civilizations tend to twist, distort, or conveniently forget parts of their histories! A lot may be at stake. Violence, oppression, injustice, racism, sexism and other unsavory patterns of human behavior may have allowed us to enjoy the lives we now live. The unvarnished truth may painfully force us to choose between becoming different people or repressing our humanity.

But do we really want to live out lies? If not, we have no choice but to test, argue and challenge one another's memories, in the hope of remembering and living more truthfully.

10. Historical study has at least as much to do with interpreting the past as with gathering "the facts."

By now you're wondering: How are we supposed to get the facts right? Historians must have lots of different interpretations!

Hey! You're catching on. Don't despair! Good historians always seek to interpret the past, not just gather "the facts," and they know it. Good historians work to acknowledge their own locations in history too. They are "coming from" somewhere. Even while letting history cast light on their own "somewhere" -- their own perspective or worldview -- they are letting their own "somewhere" cast light on history. Think of it as a good conversation, which continually moves back and forth, but hopefully moves forward.

So how do you decide which interpretation of history to trust? Get in on the conversation! Let the study of history help you recognize self-critically your own location -- your values, your convictions, your faith, as well as your privileges. Then become a good conversationalist: By turns listen respectfully and by turns argue persuasively. Be open to testing and changing your own perspective, yet also be prepared to argue well. You can do both at once if you are drawing both on a rich worldview that need not fear the truth of others and on a competent familiarity with the best available historical evidence.

All interpretations are not created equal. Some are more cogent than others. Some have more evidence in their favor. Some are false and some are lies. Even though history is more than a bunch of facts, evidence still counts for a lot. So how do we know? So how do we interpret? We converse well, and we keep conversing. And we approach, even if we never fully attain, the truth.

All "A" students who graduate from a liberal arts college and all history majors should show that they have mastered points 1-10 by handling historical evidence with a care that reflects the following:

11. Nothing is more important for historians than to chart cause and effect -- even though nothing is harder to prove.

Remember: there are gaps in the record (points 4, 5 and 9). Sometimes we know exactly who read what (because they said so) and have a pretty good hunch about how this affected them (because they immediately changed their course of action). But such instances are rather rare. And even when someone has said that a text or an event or another person has influenced them -- can we be sure that other forces were not influencing them as well? Do you know all the reasons you are in college?

Still, the chain of causes and effects that have shaped our world is what makes history most interesting! Why do we live in one kind of society and not some other? Why do we dream the dreams we do, yet make the mistakes we do? We want to know! So we keep trying to learn and to learn from history.

Just be careful with the evidence! Please.

12. Intriguing coincidences sometimes point to relationships of cause and effect, but never are enough to prove cause and effect.

Just because two things happened simultaneously does not automatically mean that they are related. Just because one event followed another does not necessarily mean that the first caused the second. Yes, these patterns are intriguing and suggestive. In fact, when there are gaps in the record, they may be all historians have to go on.

But we must be careful how we present the evidence, lest we claim more for it than it deserves. Really.

13. Human history sometimes seems to involve themes that are common to many cultures and continuous through many ages -- but historians do not have the right to assert them until they have paid long and close attention to particular differences of time and space.

So return to point 1 and start over, again and again.

Copyright © 1996 by Gerald W. Schlabach
Permission has been granted to reproduce this document for non-commercial educational purposes, on the condition that the author receives credit. Gerald W. Schlabach is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas (Minn.) and previously taught history Bluffton (Ohio) College.

Page maintained by Gerald W. Schlabach, gwschlabach@stthomas.edu.
Copyright © Gerald W. Schlabach. Last updated: 12 July 2000.