Saturday, June 15, 2024

Warts and all

I majored in history and then taught it for over three decades. Late in my career, I taught a 9th grade TAG elective with two colleagues, one from the Science department, and the other an English teacher. We chose the 19th century as a time frame because of significant events that occurred in each of our fields, as well as the kinds of subject matter that might interest bright and motivated students in that age group. One of my most helpful discoveries was the work of Gertrude Himmelfarb. Her work as a historian focused on that century. And her work was fascinating. A search for her name on this site will find many references. National Affairs has published an essay on "The Historian's Craft" about Himmelfarb's approach to the discipline:
...Himmelfarb looked to the past and what it had to say about liberal society as someone (to borrow philosopher William James's phrase) "twice-born": someone who appreciated the profound and terrible role contingency played in history; who had no illusions about the purported inevitability of progress; who, as she put it herself, experienced "life as a tragic mystery, acutely aware of the potentiality for evil and of the heroic effort required to overcome it." ....

Himmelfarb had as little use for misty-eyed nostalgia as she did for an unbounded confidence in the moral arc of history. She revered the liberal tradition, particularly the sensible, practical, and virtue-oriented one born out of the British and American enlightenments, and the multi-generational British and American societies that cultivated and transmitted this tradition. Morals and moral sense mattered, in her telling, because they made the pursuit of freedom — of a kind of progress — possible. ....

"I suffer from the professional deformation of the historian," Himmelfarb confessed at the end of The New History and the Old. "Philosophers can see the eternal verities that transcend history. Political scientists can see the abstract processes that underlie history. Historians can only see history itself, the 'epiphenomena' of history, it might be said pejoratively — the messy, unpredictable, contradictory, transitory, yet ineluctable facts of history."

Even if history is only visible through a glass darkly and mired in mess and contradiction, Himmelfarb knew that wrestling with its ineluctable facts was an essential part of recovering a tradition worth preserving. Unfortunately, our capacity to meaningfully reckon with historical facts (moral or otherwise) has been jeopardized by those who treat history as a litany of abuses by the empowered against the disempowered, while others sanitize it beyond recognition by cleaving ideas from their historical context. If we are to return history to its rightful place in our civic discourse, it will depend in part on emulating the example Himmelfarb set by treating history as a beloved spouse — warts and all.

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