Tag Archives: historiography

“We value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded.”

Why should teaching the past matter? It matters because teaching any pre-modern culture exposes students to ways of being that may be alien to them, a form of ontological diversity just as important as the more familiar kinds we hear so much about today. Many years ago, in a lecture at my college, the classicist Danielle Allen argued that education is fundamentally about knowing the foreign. Like Allen, I share that conviction and, in my own courses, daily ask students to explore the foreign battlefields of Homeric Troy or to inhabit the psychological terrain of Augustine. Both the Iliad and the Confessions offer examples of imaginative mindscapes as foreign to many students as any far-flung land they might visit on a study-abroad trip. And such foreign intellectual encounters, so familiar in early literature and history courses, help students cultivate virtues such as empathy and tolerance. […]

History also teaches us that the pursuit of knowledge is often a digressive process. Unlike the natural sciences where knowledge and learning are generally linear, experimentation and research leading to new insights and replacing previous conclusions, humanistic knowledge proceeds haltingly. In the natural sciences, one often draws the conclusion that new knowledge is better than old knowledge. In the humanities, we value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded all in the interest of thickening and enriching our understanding of human life.

While much of that life has involved regrettable episodes, history reminds us of what it means to be questing and creative and to transcend the limits of our human predicament, as Julian of Norwich or Galileo or Mary Rowlandson once did. Studying the past has been shown to remove feelings of isolation that many young people in contemporary America report as their greatest fear. Further, today’s younger generation may learn resilience, courage, and fortitude through an imaginative engagement of the people of the past.

–Carla Arnell, All for the Now–or the World Well Lost?

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A childlike indifference to fact and fiction

Legend says the diver drowned retrieving the pearl. Trapped in a giant Tridacna clam, his body was brought to the surface by his fellow tribesmen in Palawan, a province of the Philippines, in May 1934. When the clam was pried open, and the meat scraped out, the local chief beheld something marvelous: a massive pearl, its sheen like satin. In its surface, the chief discerned the face of the Prophet Muhammad. He named it the Pearl of Allah. At 14 pounds, one ounce, it was the largest pearl ever discovered.

A Filipino American, Wilburn Dowell Cobb, was visiting the island at the time and offered to buy the jewel. In a 1939 article that appeared in Natural Historymagazine, he recounted the chief’s refusal to sell: “A pearl with the image of Mohammed, the Prophet of Allah, is earned by devotion, by sacrifice, not bought with money.” But when the chief’s son fell ill with malaria, Cobb used atabrine, a modern medicine, to heal him. “You have earned your reward,” the chief proclaimed. “Here, my friend, claim this, your pearl.”

In 1939, Cobb brought the pearl to New York City, and exhibited it at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, on Broadway. There, a new legend emerged, eclipsing the first. Upon seeing the pearl, Cobb said, an elderly Chinese gentleman “of highest culture and significant wealth” named Mr. Lee “burst into an hysteria of trembling and weeping.” This wasn’t the Pearl of Allah; this was the long-lost Pearl of Lao Tzu.

[…]

Wilburn Cobb was born in 1903 on Cuyo, an island in the western Philippines. His father was an American mining engineer, and Cobb grew up affluent, with a penchant for adventure. Ruth described him as a brilliant swimmer who would go diving in Palawan’s underwater caves and race with schools of sharks. As he traveled from island to island, he grew enamored of indigenous cultures, and began writing romantic stories about the people he encountered.

“The storytelling part of him was always, always there,” Ruth told me. “He wanted to be a writer.” Cobb studied his pearl, sketched it from different angles, and finally saw the turbaned face, like a figure in a cloud. He called it the Pearl of Allah in heretical, if well-meaning, deference to the chief, who was Muslim—and then put the words in the chief’s mouth, in the pages of Natural History. With a childlike indifference to distinctions of fact and fiction, Cobb seemed to perceive the pleasure of a story as proof of its validity.

–Michael Lapointe, “Chasing the Pearl of Lao Tzu”


Our love affair with dissent

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just “conservative,” nor is it just “working class” in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a “real-world” America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

–Jefferson Cowie, How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt


Causes and pretexts

We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history. On the contrary, without care it may be used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness. In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in church and state, and supplying the means of keeping alive, or reviving dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury. History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public without the same

—“troublous storms that toss

The private state, and render life unsweet.”

These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition, by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out every thing that is valuable in the human breast. As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil by resolving, that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils. You might change the names. The things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community, in some hands, and under some appellation. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice. Seldom have two ages the same fashion in in their pretexts and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive. Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life by the change of its appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigour of a juvenile activity. It walks abroad; it continues its ravages; whilst you are gibbeting the carcass, or demolishing the tomb. You are terrifying yourself with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of robbers. It is thus with all those, who, attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under colour of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse.

—Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) [ed. J. C. D. Clark, pp. 310-12]


Cultural memory as cultural warfare

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s timeline of the dedication of public monuments to the Confederacy.

Via The Atlantic.


A problem only speculation can solve

“Yet even in their comparatively modest call for long time lines to confront burning problems (including a literally burning earth), Armitage and Guldi have no answer to what has always been the really hard question: How do you interpret facts across a tiny or huge time scale? Just as the globe provides a larger space, an extended time line merely allows a longer frame. To think about what happens in the sunlit uplands beyond the confinement of the local and time-bound, you need a theory. Data—including big data about the long term—is never self-interpreting. Nor is orientation toward the past for the sake of the future solely a problem for which more information is the solution; it is ultimately a philosophical problem that only speculation can solve. This was the point of social theory from Vico to Marx: to integrate necessary facts with a vision of human becoming, which never lacked an ethical and political dimension. Arguably, it is this, most of all, that people need today, not merely a proclivity for the long term.

[…]

Even our boldest trendsetters, then, do not see the wall between history and philosophy as the final frontier to breach, in part because it was the first one erected to define the discipline by antiquarians in love with their facts. Armitage and Guldi wisely remark that fashionable “critical turns” conceal “old patterns of thought that have become entrenched.” Of these, the most durable is not the affection for the short term, but the refusal to risk the certainty of facts for the sake of a fusion of history and philosophy.”

—Samuel Moyn, “Bonfire of the Humanities”