Monday, May 5, 2014

Why Do Historians Ask "Why?"

I am very grateful for the way that Chris Gehrz and his students at Bethel University have been so engaged with my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris reflects on why historians are in the business of asking "why." In the process, he dabbles in a variety of historical issues, including the so-called "5cs of historical thinking" and providential history.  Here is a taste:

Perhaps it was his publisher’s decision, but I’m struck that Fea’s book is asking a question of why-as-purpose: when he asks Why we study history, he’s not asking What Causes Us to Study History? but For What Purpose Do We Study History? In his prologue, he sets out not to “write a defense of historical knowledge against postmodern critiques,” but to explore “the pursuit of history as a vocation” — and even to “win some converts” in the process (p. ix).
So even as he largely rejects providentialist approaches that would make history into a “subfield of theology” (p. 69), Fea also quotes approvingly Walter McDougall’s contention that “history must do the work of theology,” since history is, “for all practical purposes, the religion of the modern curriculum.” What McDougall means here is that history, more than any other discipline, teaches humility and thence “wisdom—and if it doesn’t, then it is not history but something else” (pp. 127-28).
History can make its students more knowledgeable by asking why-as-causation questions; I’m not sure it can make its students more wise without asking why-as-purpose questions. The former might teach the humility of understanding that history is contingent and complex, but it still tempts us to think that we can (as all undergraduates seem to believe) “learn lessons” from the past and not be condemned to repeat it.
To achieve the humility that is indeed central to wisdom, history must underscore what McDougall calls the “gaping disparity between motives and consequences in all human action, and how little control human beings have over their own lives.”
Thanks again, Chris!  Great post.