A Professor’s Journal: ‘The past is a foreign country’

Sometimes I forget as a professor of history how difficult the study of history often is. In “The Past is a Foreign Country,” the historian David Lowenthal likened the study of history to a study abroad experience. The past is so different from the present, just as visiting a foreign country for the uninitiated is such a different experience from living at home.

According to Lowenthal, “however faithfully we preserve, however authentically we restore, however deeply we immerse ourselves in bygone times, life back then was based on ways of being and believing incommensurable with our own.”

“The past’s difference,” he writes, “is, indeed, one of its charms: no one would yearn for it if it merely replicated the present. But we cannot help but view and celebrate it (except) through present-day lenses.”

People did do things differently back then. So, the problem for the student of history is to try to figure out what they did, what they thought, how they lived and then to make some sense of all that for ourselves, for our own situations. Making a connection with the past is sometimes hard, sometimes easy.

Surely, a study of the presidential administrations of Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt will help us put into context George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s uses of power in more recent times. Surely, a study of the beginnings of the Great Depression of the 1930s will give us pause, warning us of similar trends in our economy today.

But sometimes, students of history must simply admit that we just do not know, that we just cannot understand fully, how folks lived in the past. I know that I have learned to state those three words often in my history classes: “I don’t know.”

In “The Everlasting Man,” G. K. Chesterton wrote eloquently about the limits of doing history. “The other day,” Chesterton wrote, “a scientific summary of the state of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words ‘They wore no clothes.’ Not one reader in a hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had once been worn by people of whom everything has perished except a few chips of bone and stone. It was doubtless hoped that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet.” “It is not contended here that these primitive men did wear clothes any more than they did weave rushes,” Chesterton concluded, “but merely that we have not enough evidence to know whether they did or not.”

Sometimes, we have to admit that we just don’t know.

Marie Taylor, a great musician and an inspiration to me, sent a quotation along to me. In her thoughtful email,

Marie wrote that “tonight, I opened a new box of Celestial Seasonings natural tea. For whatever reason, the following quote was included. I thought of you and decided you might add to your ‘archives’ in case you haven’t already read it.”

I have indeed added the quote to my archives, burgeoning file folders filled with quotations, clippings and articles about the study of history. Now, I add the quote as a fitting end to this column:

“To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.”

However difficult the study of history, however like it is to visiting a foreign country, just think of the refreshment and the excitement we always receive when we travel abroad.

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.