By Robert Guffin
Upper School History Teacher
I recently read that the number of students choosing to major in history at college has dropped significantly since the last recession. As people rightly consider how to best prepare students for future employment, it seems to me that we should also remember the contribution of the humanities in general and history in particular to guaranteeing a “rich” life. These values become more and more vital as our nation grows increasingly polarized; our belief in the centrality of facts and evidence in judging the merit of arguments erodes; and the respectful exchange of ideas and opinions appears to be an antiquated ideal in an age of click-bait oversimplifications.
While considering these trends, I recently came across this quote from the University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon, and I found it one of the most succinct and yet compelling descriptions of the goal of historical study I’ve come across in years, and I wanted to share it with everyone as we all consider how best to insure that future generations are prepared to meet the challenges and benefit from the opportunities the future will present:
One of the things I actually love about the discipline of history is that historians are narrators. I honestly think we are the last explicitly narrative discipline left in the American academy (with the journalists, as well). Storytelling is no longer, in most disciplines, regarded as a serious undertaking. I believe that storytelling is inherently a moral activity. It’s about organizing events and characters and landscapes and settings so that a series of events becomes explicable in the sequence of relationships that are unfolding over the course of the narrative. And almost always the narrative has some lesson in mind. One of the beauties of history is that, although there have been moments in which historians have argued with each other about whether they are objective or not, objectivity is actually not the phrase most historians use to describe what they do. Our goal, it seems to me, is to be fair to the people whose lives we narrate. That means trying to see the world through their eyes.
One of my beliefs as a writer and a teacher is that if I’m going to argue against something, it’s morally incumbent upon me to be able to articulate the thing I’m arguing against so that a person who holds that view recognizes that I’ve done justice to their point of view and could respond, “I couldn’t have said that better myself.” Then we can begin to enter into a dialogue about other ways of thinking.
My deepest moral project is to understand the world, which is a really complicated task, and my moral conviction is that rich understanding of the world leads to better, more responsible and just actions in the world. We so often act on the basis of our own mythic conceptions; we believe our own lies, and we’re forever lying to ourselves because we want the world to conform to our convictions. Not letting ourselves do that is part of acting morally in the world.