I believe that by studying the past, I can re-imagine the present.
As a history professor I want my students to see history the way I see it: forming, moving, constituting their lives. It isn’t easy. In one assignment my students read Puritan captivity narratives and write about what the Puritans thought of their Native-American captors. I’d like to report that students find Puritan captivity narratives endlessly fascinating. They don’t. Most of them say the narratives are boring; that the Puritans talked strangely and behaved hypocritically; that it is very difficult to relate to them. Many students wonder: What’s the point?
Lately I’ve been thinking about why I get so excited when I open a history book. One important reason was an undergraduate history course on the Sixties I took with the late Dean Albertson. I admired Dean. He wanted his students to engage history personally, emotionally, viscerally, and sure enough, did he ever succeed with me. With Dean, history was palpably joined to the present. His lectures were thundering, secular humanist versions of a Puritan jeremiad. His course one long rap session in political awakening, Sixties style. Young, idealistic, naive, I was easily awakened.
Some twenty years on and I have mellowed. So have America’s youth. All the more reason, I believe, to teach students that history lives in the present. I began this semester by asking the students to imagine that the moment they walked into my class, every thing they knew about their life up to that point was suddenly forgotten. Then I asked the students what they would do. A young woman raised her hand. “I would try to find out where I grew up, where I came from, how I got here . . .” “Exactly!” I interjected. “In other words you would seek out your history.”
The students immediately understood my point: Without knowing their history, they cannot know themselves. I explained that the same can be said of nations, of civilizations. This, I told my students, is why I am a student of history. “Forget what you’ve heard about the past repeating itself,” I told them. “I study history to better know America today. And in that knowledge, I can begin to imagine a better America tomorrow.” Remain open to the possibility, I tell them, and they’ll discover that history did not merely happen in the past; history is always happening in the present, redefining their identity, expanding their horizons, creating something new.
I’m stubborn. I like the book of Puritan captivity narratives and will use it again, despite the anguish it causes my students. But I will also repeat the exercise in momentary amnesia. In asking my students to forget, I made them reconsider the relationship between history and themselves. And at least for that one eureka-moment, my students got it! They saw that by studying the past, they might re-imagine the present, and just maybe their contribution to it.
I believe Dean would approve.
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