One of the joys of reading the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), the British book review journal that arrives in my mailbox more or less on schedule four times a month, is that it periodically includes lengthy essays drawn from lectures or from introductions to new books that are aimed at that borderline place between the educated layperson and the browsing academic. TLS’s editors often group a selection of each week’s works by theme, and its July 6 issue included several interesting reviews related to medieval heresy (the subject I returned to grad school to study) and Saladin and Islam during the Crusades, and then one of those thematic essays. I began reading it more or less on momentum. One sentence in the piece stopped me in my tracks: “he” (I’ll tell you whom in a moment) “frames what he is not sure of within the boundaries of what he is sure about.”
That sounds nice, but fairly innocuous. It’s what we tell our students to do with research assignments—build on what you know, and when you’re uncertain, look for more evidence while acknowledging your sources and the limits of your knowledge. But in this case, the author is talking about the venerable Bede, a monk and historian who lived in the seventh and eighth centuries. And, as the essay goes on to say, “he is sure about the all-embracing character of the biblical story and about living in the last days of the world.” For Bede, the bible is unquestionably true—it’s a factual account of historical actions by people he needs to track down. Now consider us and our students: What are the unquestioned truths of their lives, which they begin with, before they start their research?
See the problem? In teaching students how to be historians, we need to train them to question their own assumptions as well as the topics they’re investigating. Yes, like Bede, they need to look for evidence in areas they are unsure of. But unlike Bede, they also need to question what they have not previously questioned: the assumptions behind what they are “sure” is true.
For example, is it really true that a young person who’s the same age and gender but lives in another time and place is “just like me”? Is it true that a slave holder who claims to be fighting for democracy is a hypocrite? Is it true that their idea of “normal” is normative throughout this country, throughout the world? The challenge of being a historian is that you have to keep examining yourself as well as your evidence—where are you biased, where do you jump to conclusions, where do you believe ideas because they match your preconceptions, where does “rooting” for someone you like or a cause you support cause you to blur, ignore, or dismiss counterevidence?
Science uses the principle of the repeatable experiment as one test. If I claim doing X under Y conditions will bring Z result, you can test that by following the same steps and comparing the answers. By changing variables and observing outcomes we narrow the possible causes. But with history, that’s harder to do. The events are in the past, so we can’t perform tests on them. But we can do something similar by being fair and open. So long as the next guy can see exactly how I arrived at a particular judgment, he can check my sources. OK, that’s fine for sources, but what about assumptions? What makes me believe someone a thousand years ago would “obviously” have thought this, felt that, or been ready to fight for something else?
Rowan Williams’s essay on Bede explores how the monk poured the details he had gathered about British history into the biblical narrative he was certain was true. And that meant he told a story of a chosen people living out the example of the Jews, only this time it was the Christians on their island in the far north who carried that sacred mission, against their enemies—the parallel to the Philistines who opposed the biblical Jews. Of course, it’s exactly that narrative that the Puritans brought with them to North America, and has remained part of our own national mythology—sometimes in explicitly Christian terms, sometimes in a more generalized image of the United States as the leader of the Free World, the standard-bearer of Democracy bringing the benefits of freedom to the entire planet.
The United States did bring a new form of democracy to the world; we have indeed fought wars against dictators and tyrants. But does that make us exceptional? Different? Are we sure of that? Are we as sure of our truths as Bede was of his biblical truth? This is how history can help us—by holding up an unsparing mirror. What others didn’t see in themselves, we have the chance to observe in ourselves—that’s their gift to us. But we have to remember to teach our students to look at themselves as they look back on former times—that’s the true glory of history.
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