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1.1 The Proper Attitude

In History as in life in general, your attitude is everything. In other words, to make your experience with History as enjoyable and worthwhile as possible requires the proper attitude. You have to be able to place yourself in the right frame of mind and that frame of mind is one in which exploration, discovery and self-awareness are integral.

History has always gotten a bad rap in part because what students remember of their experience in history classes is that sort of mindless memorization of facts: dates, events, wars--what I routinely refer to as "the history of kings and queens." This sort of history has its place, I suppose. It does qualify as History, but of a most basic sort. A case in point: go to your local bookstore, go to several in fact, and take a look at what they have on the shelves under history. Unless you are at one of the larger stores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, or at a university bookstore, I'm willing to bet that most of what falls under History is really little more than war. We have a fascination for war--I don't know why. But, the fact remains, that for most people, the study of history means little else than the study of war.

This confuses me! All these facts. All this stuff of history crowding my mind. A number of surveys over the years have pointed to the disturbing fact that Americans don't know history. They don't know their own history. Here is a typical question from one of those surveys: Did the Civil War take place before, or after 1850? Hopefully, you did not need to find your textbook for the answer to that one. But there is a deeper issue here. To know, to have the knowledge, to have committed to memory the simple fact that the Civil War took place after 1850 is, to me relatively unimportant. After all, anyone can learn to memorize, well, anything. Is this history? What have you learned? What I would like to suggest is that you learned a fact--you have obtained knowledge. But, far more important to me is wisdom. Does the knowledge that the Civil War took place after 1850 give you wisdom? does it make you wiser? Or, are facts and wisdom gained through knowledge two distinct entities?

Some people like to read about war. For these people, it is war that "makes history come alive" (as if it needed any prodding in the first place). Military history is fascinating but, in my opinion, only meaningful (historically) when put into the context of the "other" history that is occurring at the same time. What is that "other" history? Simple. It's the history which explains why that war took place in terms of the economy, culture, diplomacy and perhaps a hundred other variables. In general, most Americans would rather be "entertained" by passively watching a film about war rather than listen to someone talk about the origins and consequences of that war.

So, this much said, what sort of attitude do we need to have when studying history? Well, the first thing is that you should not enter a history class--any history class--looking for answers. The study of history reveals that there is no clear cut answer for anything. Since understanding history is based on individual--and therefore subjective--interpretation, you must decide for yourself what kind of meaning you will attach to the topic. Go into history with an open mind. Don't expect the answer to be presented to you as if written in stone. It's not. History is not a science--it's a form of literature and the historian is little more than a writer of non-fiction.

A number of years ago I was teaching the second part of a western civilization course at a community college. We had just spent four or five lectures running through the French Revolution. The students had heard lectures on the origins of the Revolution, the moderate stage, the radical stage, Robespierre and finally Napoleon. Now it came time to review. Twenty of us sat in a circle and set out to "discuss" the meaning and significance of the French Revolution. Was it successful? was it a failure? did the Revolution come as a result of the Age of Enlightenment? was it a bourgeois revolution? I began the discussion by reviewing the "great days" of the Revolution, events like the Oath of the Tennis Court or the Flight to Varennes and people like Robespierre and so on. So, we eventually got to the point where we were discussing interpretation. Some students spoke up and said the Revolution was a success, others said it was a failure. This went on for ten or fifteen minutes until one student raised her hand and said, plain as day, "Well, which is it? Was it a success or a failure?" She sat in her chair, her pen poised to write...the answer! All I could say was, "Well, what do you think?" I immediately saw a brick wall. She didn't get it. Some of us don't. We build brick walls as a short cut to thinking. "There must be an answer. What is it? I don't want to think. I want to know." So much for wisdom.

You can avoid this trap. It's not that hard. You have to open your eyes, open your mind. Tear down the walls. Study history with a sense of wonder and enjoyment. After all, this "stuff"' is all happening in the past. Study history with a sense of engagement. There ought to be a sense of "what was it like" when you study history. Really good professors will instill this sense of wonder, that is, if they are worth anything at all. More about this later.

I've seen a great many students come and go in my own classes in Western Civilization and European History. And one thing that will help them embrace the proper attitude is that they all get a sense of historical time. Yes, this does mean that you understand what came before this or after that. You must get into the habit, difficult as it might at first seem, of putting things into historical and chronological perspective. You must make yourself aware of historical time. Look at the big picture (Europe 1100-1650) even while you are studying the small one (the Renaissance) or the even smaller one (Florentine diplomacy). You must be able to eventually "image" a timeline in your head so that when your professor rambles on about Dante, Rabelais, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, you'll have an approximate idea of how his discussion might all be tied together. I think that once you get in this habit, your appreciation for history, in a word, your attitude, will begin to show signs of improvement as well.

Another important attribute which may assist in creating the proper attitude is television and film. I mean this seriously. How else can you actually understand a lecture on say, the Black Death of 1347-1351, unless you have some real images in your head? Your textbook will contain the obligatory photographs, of course. And this will help. So too will an instructor who can really instill the terror, uncertainty and anguish of the people at that time. But, I have always found that my memories of watching Ingmar Bergman's film, "The Seventh Seal", has always helped me visualize mid-fourteenth century Europe. Think of all the films you might have seen. Go ahead, do it right now.....do any of them provide you with images of history past? Where else do our images of the past come from?

For instance, up to a certain point in time, my image of World War Two was fashioned by watching Hollywood films, you know, John Wayne, Dana Andrews, Gregory Peck and so on. Americans charging up hills toward victory. The hero, shot in the final scene, asks for a smoke with his dying breath. Blatant or subtle propaganda? You decide. The point is that I grew up with a sort of idealized--mythical--version of war that just does not stand up to the historical record. However, the images remain. "Image" as much as possible.

Here's an example before we pass on to the next section. In my introductory lecture on the Scientific Revolution I ask my students to "image" a scientist. Go ahead. Do the same thing right now. What does a scientist look like? How is the scientist dressed? What does his office look like? Is the scientist a man or a woman? Okay, what did you "image"? I'm almost certain I know what you are seeing because that image of the scientist---wild hair, disorganized, absent-minded, dedicated to truth, unemotional---are all images we've silently digested from Hollywood.

Can you successfully complete a course in history without having the proper attitude? Of course you can. But why take the short cut? Why not make the effort. Rather than go through the motions, make history part of your life. After all, that's exactly what history is--it is your life.

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Last Revised -- April 13, 2012
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