The following is the last segment of my 2013 Heyburn Lecture, delivered this month at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. Previous segments are below.
In affirming the power of history, I want to spell out two things I’m not talking about. The first, a common misconception among non-historians, is that history is about facts. In some sense, of course, facts matter: they’re the very tissue of history, the stuff of which it is made. But facts alone are never sufficient, which is to say that facts almost never tell you the truth. For one thing, facts are always finite: you never quite have enough of them when it comes down to things you really want to know. Simultaneously, facts are so plentiful that there’s always the question of which facts are being used, and how. Sometimes, when I talk with my students about an essay assignment, they will tell me what they want to “prove” in their papers, at which point I correct them: in history we prove nothing. All we can really do is try to persuade each other about the way the world really works.
So don’t put your faith in facts. Which brings me to the other kind of historical knowledge I’m not particularly interested in pressing here, one that modern historians really do see as central to their craft: making arguments. For the last 125 years or so, actually, success in my profession has been about constructing an interpretive version of American history, an analytic model, for which to understand a particular person, place – or, especially in recent decades, process. That version or model, constructed with conscious awareness of other, competing ones, is meant to be understood as resonant: the case study standing in for a larger whole. It is understood that the successful, which is to say persuasive, historian makes such arguments using the language and methods of reason, logic, evidence, and other precepts of the sciences from which modern historical writing has borrowed so much of its prestige. Do that and you will be described with highest term of term of esteem in the profession: influential.
Of course, I, too, am engaged in an act of persuasion, and I too hope you’ll see a logic in what I say here that you can apply to many more things than I happen to talk about today. But I understand my role here a little differently than those in the academic history business. It’s taken me a while to figure this out, but I think I’ve arrived at a place where I see my job as something closer to a village elder relating pieces of family lore. The stories I tell – and, yes, I do think that stories are, as they’ve always been, the very core of history – are not be original, complete, or objective. I acknowledge that you have other members of the village (other teachers, parents, friends) who see the matter differently, and I encourage you to seek them out as well. But if I do my job right, you’ll want to hear my version of the story, because it will help you make sense of your experience in the broadest sense: who you are, where you’ve come from, and what parts of your heritage can inform what you do or don’t do next with your life.
Your job in all of this is to learn how to listen. That may sound like I’m telling you to be obedient children. I’m not. And I understand that there are few things more difficult to actually sit still and remain attentive while some old white guy drones on for a half-hour when there are so many other things you would rather be doing. Honestly, you have my sympathy. And I know I lost some of you in this lecture a long time ago, and I don’t blame you. But if you’re still with me, and if there’s anything you’re still willing to hear from me, it would be this: Listen actively. Give people – teachers, little sisters, big brothers, supermarket checkout clerks, whoever – a chance to have their say. More than that, ask them questions based on what they say. And ask yourself in a non-snide way: What does any of this have to do with me? Are their dreams much different than mine? Are their circumstances much different than mine? If you’re really paying attention, the answer is not likely to be obvious. And the payoff will be this: in ways that are impossible to foresee, there will be, now or later, some shard, some story or premise or memory that will buck you up, inspire you, give you hope. Your challenges will always be unique, and yet at the same time never quite unprecedented. They may also prompt you to ask some potentially useful questions, like: what are the things I like and care about the most? What am I good at? What do I really need? Given when and where I am, and given the resources at hand, how am I most likely to get what I want?
To at least some extent, these are questions you’re already asking yourself, even if they’re not exactly informed questions. Though we Americans have always liked to think of ourselves as free agents with the power to choose our destinies (a phrase I’ve always found rather odd), we of course are all products of people and forces not of our own choosing. We have mothers and fathers; we hail from particular places; we have inherited racial and religious (or non-religious) backgrounds. Part of what it means to grow up is to self-consciously sort out these inherited dimensions of our identities, accepting, rejecting, or adapting them by our lights. This is one of the first things we do when we bond to our mates: we relate our histories in terms of our choosing. This of course is an ongoing process: to live is to revise, and we live after our deaths to the extent that our survivors continue to revise us on their terms. But – and this is crucial – implied in the word “revision” is an understanding that there remains some essence that makes our memories something other than entirely new.
We need that. We need to believe in the reality of past experience as something that is not entirely a product of our imaginations. Without it we feel rootless. Even when, as is sometimes the case, we experience our history as oppressive, as a trap, we may still find value in having something to fight against, a storyline to reject. Insofar as we ever break free from a history that haunts us, our liberation takes the form of finding a different history, an alternative precedent, which we can adopt as our own. This is why the recovery of lost characters, the recognition of people who heretofore have not been considered part of the story, can be such an important dimension of history: it gives the past a sense of relevance, the present a sense of tradition, and the future a sense of possibility.
This is a sunny, pragmatic way of putting it. But then a sense of optimism about history is something of an American family trait. In our seemingly bottomless confidence in our own malleability, we like to believe that the past, too, is subject to change. We may be a little foolish in this regard; we may even be wrong. But if, as the great American philosopher William James once said, truth is what happens to an idea, perhaps we can go on believing it for at least a little while longer. No one has proven we can’t.
But it’s hard to use a past you don’t know you’ve got. That’s what history courses are for: not to teach you things you’re likely to forget, but to remind you that you do have a history, that you’re part of something larger than yourself. Some parts of the stories you’re told will speak to you more directly than others; some you may find boring or repellent. Not everything I say is interesting, because it reflects my own configuration of memory, forgetting and ignorance. But part of knowing who you are is knowing who you’re not, and that can’t really happen unless you listen to what someone else is saying. That’s what schooling is: a process of paying attention.
Which is why it can seem so taxing. What it really should be is an investment. One you believe is worthwhile. Cash in the bank, fluency in a foreign language, the ability to operate a weapon: these may be the things that allow you to survive. But a sense of history: that will allow you to live.
Okay, so that’s the end here. I don’t know if you will live in interesting times, Miltonites. But, whether or not you do, may you, in the words of the immortal Taylor Swift, dream instead of sleeping.