Thanks to John Fea for an interesting Patheos column this week. His basic premise is that learning to study the past correctly can actually improve relationships, even your marriage. Here’s his lead in:
I am working on a new book about the importance of historical thinking to the creation of a civil society, and I was recently sharing some thoughts from the book with a group of scholars and students. After telling the group that I thought people who study the past learn the skill of understanding people who are different from them, one of the historians at the table said that his work as a student of the past has made him a better husband.
I must admit that I was initially shocked by his statement, but very intrigued. This historian told us that he and his wife did not always see eye-to-eye on issues facing their family, their relationship, and society in general, but the skills he acquired through his work as a historian had helped him to relate to his wife in a more understanding way. When he became aware of the similarities between his vocation as a historian and his married life, he realized that he needed to show empathy before casting judgment. His marriage was better as a result.
I cannot tell you what the divorce rate is among historians, but the scholar’s suggestion made more sense to me as I considered it further. As a historian, I urge my students to approach the past with a sense of empathy, understanding, and humility. I want them to “walk in the shoes” of people from the past. I want them to make sense of the world that people of the past inhabited before they condemn them for being weird or immoral. When I teach a document written by someone from the past, I demand that my students show the author of that document, even if he or she is dead, a certain degree of hospitality. These authors should be treated just like any present-day visitor that might enter the classroom.
What might it look like if we interacted with our spouses and loved ones in this way? What if we applied the lessons learned from studying the past to the person in the cubicle next to us at work? The result just might be a more civil and benevolent society defined by healthier relationships.
This approach to history is quite different from the one we learned in high school. It focuses less on a body of facts, dates, and movements and more on an engagement with the past, through the sources left behind, that cultivates virtues necessary to live in a civil society. Moreover, this approach to history does not require us to use the past to promote our agenda in the present, but forces us instead to resurrect the past—warts and all—and be transformed by the experience.
After providing an example of the kind of growth one student had (watch for a post about this example later today), Fea concludes:
If students of the past can display the kind of self-denial and discipline necessary to understand and empathize with a slaveholder, then they might be able to display the same virtues with their spouses. Christians believe that marriages can be saved through the power of prayer, the work of the Holy Spirit, and a commitment to loving one another as Christ loved the church. But perhaps the study of history might help, too.
I find that helpful. Unfortunately, my experience with high school ended with memorizing tons of facts and figures in high school AP stats many years ago. My AP exam gave me history credit here at Messiah College as an undergrad, and I didn’t need any more pure history courses. I wish that I had realized how important this kind of thought process is. This is the kind of history that I have always enjoyed. Thanks to Fea, I have a better understanding of this kind of thought process. I do think that this kind of empathetic reading of history will train us to think with empathy and understanding in our relationships with the people around us.
I don’t have time to take a history anymore, but reading Fea’s book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction may be a good start. It is up next on my pile (it is a large pile) of books to read!