Thursday, December 4, 2014

I Can't Believe I Forgot to Include 12th-Century Theorists of Providence in *Why Study History?*

Not everyone liked my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  For example, Cambridge University professor G.R. Evans found it a bit too "chatty" and "scattergun." She especially chides me for focusing too heavily on the American context.  This is a fair a critique. My audience was American Christians and other Americans interested in history.  Since I am an Americanist, most of my illustrations came from the United States or United States history.  Guilty as charged.

Here is Evans's review.  It appeared in volume 117 (November 2014) of a journal called Theology.

This is a book with a strong USA viewpoint and written mainly for and about American university students taking ‘History’ courses. It begins with a chapter about what historians ‘do’ and ends with a chapter entitled ‘So what can you do with a History Major?’ It also has an Epilogue, ‘History and the Church’, containing the author’s personal view of the kind of work a historian can and should do by speaking in churches and to church groups, and especially for the cause of making America more acceptable in God’s eyes. The final section is an appendix containing ‘A proposal for the Center for American History and a Civil Society’. So the book’s purpose has further dimensions.

It tends to the chatty and the personal in its approach and has a somewhat eclectic, even scattergun, approach in its main chapters to the task of supporting its argument with evidence and illustration. The ‘usable past’ is sketched in terms of modern American ideas about consumerism and ‘progress’; it is barely queried that ‘the United States survey course has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens’; ‘history for a civil society’ is said to be about ‘how to get American democracy on the right track’; and so on.

To a reader who sees the world from the other side of the Atlantic and from a broader and longer perspective, this is disturbing when the underlying themes of the book include the role of Christian history and the history of Christianity. To find a chapter on ‘Providence and History’ which barely touches on Augustine and has nothing to say about Joachim of Fiore or the other twelfth-century theorists is worrying. The author regrets American cultural ‘isolationism’, but perhaps he has some way to go in breaking free of it himself if he wants to write a book called Why Study History that will have something of value to say to a non-USA readership.