The Past is a Foreign Country

Oct 5, 2008

Murray, KY – Sometimes I forget as a teacher of history how difficult the study of history often is for many of my students. In The Past is a Foreign Country, Cambridge University Press, 1985, the historian David Lowenthal likened the study of history to a study abroad experience. According to Lowenthal, The past thus conjured up is to be sure largely an artifact of the present. However faithfully we preserve, however authentically we restore, however deeply we immerse ourselves in bygone times, he argues, life back then was based on ways of being and believing incommensurable with our own. The past difference is, he writes, indeed one of its charms. No one would yearn for it if it merely replicated the present, but we cannot help but view and celebrate it except through present day lenses. People did do things differently back then. So the problem for the student of history is to try to figure out what they did, what they thought, how they lived - and then to make some sense of all that for ourselves, for our own situations.

Making a connection with the past is sometimes hard, sometimes easy. Surely, for example, a study of the Bible and of the Koran will help us understand the deep divisions in the Middle East today. Surely a study of the presidential administrations of Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt will help us put into context George W. Bush's uses of power today. Surely a study of the beginnings of The Great Depression of the 1930s will give us pause, warning us of similar trends in our economy today. But sometimes students of history must simply admit that we just do not know that we just cannot fully understand how folks lived in the past.

I know that I have learned to state those three words often in my history classes. I don't know.

In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton wrote eloquently about the limits of doing history, The other day a scientific summary of the state of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words they wore no clothes.' Not one reader in one hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had been worn by people of whom everything has perished except for a few chips of bone in stone. It was doubtless hope that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet. It is not contended here that these primitive men did wear clothes anymore than they did weave rushes, Chesterton concluded, but merely that we have not enough evidence to know whether they did or not.

Sometimes we have to admit that we just don't know. But still we search the archives of the past to enlighten, to educate, and even to refresh us. Recently, Maria Taylor, a great musician and an inspiration to me, as well as to her family and to her many friends and admirers sent a quotation along. In her thoughtful email, Maria wrote that tonight I opened a new box of Celestial Seasonings Natural Tea. For whatever reason the following quote was included, I thought of you and decided you might add to your archives in case you haven't already used it. I have indeed added the quote to my archives, burgeoning file folders filled with quotations, clippings and articles about the study of history. Now I add the quote as a fitting end to this commentary:

To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.

There it is. However difficult the study of history, however like it is to visiting a foreign country, just think of the refreshment and the excitement we always receive when we travel abroad.