A warning against history as propaganda

British historian Dennis Shemilt writes:

Cicero remarked that to be ignorant of history is to remain forever a child.  We might add that to subscribe to populist and mythic constructions of the past is to remain trapped in the codes and culture of the street gang, to invoke persuasive and partial histories that reinforce simple truths and even simpler hatreds.

History cannot be disaggregated and plundered for bits and pieces that can validly and usefully inform the present.  Its value is as a big picture (and a complex, polythetic picture) that, first, gives perspective to the present by prompting us to take the long view and to look  beyond what is happening to what might be going on, and, second, allows us to fit present phenomena within a narrative and polythetic framework.

I think that this reminds us to be cautious about the abuse of history to get us to support certain political programs.  Ideological groups in our country construct religious and secular narratives about American history that oversimplify the past.  Shemilt’s words “populist” and “mythic” go along nicely with two major narratives in American life.  The populist narrative has “the people” fighting against entrenched wealthy interests, led by heroes such as Andrew Jackson, FDR, and labor unions.  The “Christian America” narrative paints an idyllic picture of a growing nation, blessed by God with wealth and power for its adherence to Christian values until the catastrophes of the 1960s.  Yes, my summaries oversimplify these oversimplified narratives, but you probably recognize them.  The story of the United States, like the story of any nation, is complex and defies the efforts of propagandists of any ideology.  And as Christians, we don’t need to rest our identity in either of those narratives.

I don’t know what Shemilt’s religious commitment is, so he might well disagree with my next point.  As Christians, though, we believe that God has revealed that there is a “big picture,” bigger even than those that historians routinely grapple with.  It’s bigger than America and bigger even than “Christian America.”  I realize that the narrative of the triumph of God and the coming of the new heavens and earth may sound exactly like the “mythic” narratives that Shemilt wants to avoid, but in reality it’s the biggest picture possible.

Source of quote: “The Caliph’s Coin: The Currency of Narrative Frameworks in History Teaching,” in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (2000).  pp. 99-100.

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