The Purpose of the Past

 “We Americans have such a thin and meager sense of history that we cannot get too much of it. What we need more than anything is a deeper and fuller sense of the historical.” Gordon S. Wood

The Vatican Splendors Exhibition has been  extended in St. Paul by a few days.  Until January 11th.  I have not traveled the half-mile or so to the Minnesota History Museum to see it.  I have already been to the Vatican.  Long ago, after visits to about 10 European countries, I lost a lot of desire to see many more museums.  Why did people need to go to museums where there seemed to be at the ticket booth a display of one fundamental truth: The fundamental truth that we differ from our ancestors.  The fundamental arrogance was that the modern world was better.    


I had this overdue library book, The Purpose of the Past by Gordon S. Wood, on history.  Wood, the past winner of the Pulitzer Prize.   There was too much to digest in the book and I had trouble giving it up.  In The Purpose of the Past, Gordon S. Wood reviewed the debate over narrative history and microhistory.  Wood believes that the mission of the historian is to communicate the past to everyday people.


Wood was frustrated by the microhistories that used individual stories of common people to help make inferences from the past.  At a time when enrollment in higher education was booming from 1970 to 1986, “the number of history degrees granted by all American colleges and universities declined almost by two-thirds.”  In a generation when academics shunned so-called triumphalist U.S. history, “graduate students of history are well aware that ‘race, class, gender’ is the mantra they must repeat as they proceed through their studies and write their dissertations,” Wood wrote.   History had become valued more as a science than as part of the humanities.  Storytelling had become frowned upon in favor of theory.   


Story-telling.  Dealing with past reality.  Unconnected series of events.  Memoirs.  Some people were now making theirs up.  History.  Objective story-telling.  Or just another social science about problem-solving?  Ideology?


In September 2001, there was a plane ride from Warsaw to Amsterdam next to soon-to-be history professor, this twenty-something male teaching assistant.  I was reading a book.  There was his initial contemptuous comment about Columbus, about Christianity’s part in the new world.  There was discussion, a contemptuous comment, about the way history was taught to the generation behind me which I made.  The ideology as some kind of purchased commercial time.  


I had been reading at the time Eva Hoffman’s Shtetl.  There was discussion about September 11th.  A discussion about Poland and Jews.  This young man was Jewish.  This guy was very secular.  He had spent 2 years in the Peace Corps here.  Then he was asked to extend his stay one more year.  His brother had been in New York City on September 11th.  I was the first American he had seen since that day, who had been in the United States that day.  I bore witness to what televised America had seen that day.  He really wanted to get to this brother in New York.  To see him again before heading back to Portland.  His brother was alive. 


The struggle to say something meaningful.  Long-lasting.  The search for the Truth. 

The fundamental truth.  In narration.  But the arrogance, that the modern world was better.   In museums.  In history. 


Memory.  Telling the stories.  And searching for understanding.  From the past.  Jews were a story-telling people.  People with a common history.  And I loved to listen to them speak about their faith.  I could learn a lot.  There was discussion about the conflict between Poles and Jews and whether Poles were anti-semitic.  In a sense I had come to Poland in answer to the question.  So had he.  It was one of two international flights when the time length did not seem long enough.  


The writing of history.  Stories call us, lead us to significance.  History.  The suddenness of evil.  That was the reality of world history.  In Poland in the 1930s.  In the United States today.  The suddenness of evil was the reality of world history.  To keep evil under some kind of control.  With freedom.  With an objectivity.  The human struggle for decency, to keep evil under some kind of communal and individual control.  


It was New Year’s Day in 1998.  It was New Year’s Day in 1999.  It was New Year’s Day in 2000.  There was talk of the New Paradigm.  Firms were trying to devise more sophisticated risk models because the world was changing around them


In That Noble Dream:  TheObjectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Peter Novick bemoans the age when ideology has replaced objectivity.   No wonder the fundamental human condition seemed to carry a doubt of the presence of the Devil in the world.  In the days leading up to September 11th, there was the fundamental arrogance that the modern world – bigger, stronger, faster – was better.  It was the New Paradigm.

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