Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Study History?

John Fea, Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Baker Academic, 2013. 182 pages. ISBN 978-0-8010-3965-2

John Fea is the  Associate Professor of American history and chair of the history department at Messiah College. He is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Fea in his book, Why Study History provides the reasons why everyone should study history. He also presents the nuts and bolts of the discipline of history. The book is motivated from his survey course in American history. Many of the non-history majors in the course do not really want to be there. Early in the semester he attempts to persuade these students why they should study history. This book is intended for history majors and anyone who might be interested in history.

Why Study History includes eight chapters. The author in the first chapter explains what historians do. Fea notes, "Historians are always driven by the sources--they cannot make things up--but they do have the power to shape the their narratives in a style that might be described as 'artistic' " (3). Historians uses the records of the past to create a narrative of what happened in the past. History books does not just fall from the sky. Historians use both primary and secondary sources in writing about the past, but the emphasis in on primary sources. Primary sources are directly related to an event or a first-hand source, for example, diaries, autobiographies, reports of events as they are happening. Secondary sources are sources that are not directly related to events or second-hand sources. A biography on Franklin Roosevelt written today would be a secondary source. In addition, the author says "that history is a discipline that requires interpretation, imagination, and even literary or artistic styles" (29). One might say that history is both a science and an art.

In chapter two Fea states that historians are searching for a "usable past." He means that how is the past meaningful to us today. He claims the "past reminds us who we are." Without our memory, we do not have any identity. The past is also used to teach us how we are to live today. It provides guidance for our life today by inspirational examples from the past. It also creates community. We learn about common themes that bind us together with other citizens.

Chapter three analyses how the "past is a foreign country." For example, "the past often forces us to confront characters or events that seem utterly strange to us. People in the past burned witches. People engaged in human sacrifices" (48). In other words, values we hold today might be different from the values people held in the past. This strangeness of the past cautions us from distorting the past by emphasizing too much the similarities between the past and the present. We can easily force our own views on the past and not see it for what it really was. WE must also be sympathetic in attempting to understand the past and not let our own views hinder us from understanding the past.

Chapter four discusses "providence and history." Many Christians believe they can see God's hand in the past. They think they can view the past with a God-eyes view. There is a danger here. Humans are finite and are not God. We are unable to see events just like God. This danger often distorts the interpretation of the past. Fea notes, "I can imagine that a providential history might be useful in helping a religious congregation or some other community of Christians make sense of the way that God has led them through the days, months, and years. Such a providential history would obviously be celebratory in nature and be written to encourage the faithful with the things God has done. But such providential history must always be written with a sense of humility and a commitment to the mystery of God" (82-83).

Chapter five discusses certain tools from Christianity in studying the past. Some of these are the image of God, "the reality of human sin," "an incarnational approach to the past," and moral reflection. The author believes that the teaching of God's image in humans and the reality of sin can be helpful in using the study of history to create "a more civil society and a more compassionate Christian faith" (107). A good point he makes in this chapter is that historians are story-tellers. Too often  students think history is only about dates.

Fea's Why Study History? provides many excellent reasons to study history. He shows that the study of history is not only for history majors. In addition, he shows how the study of history can make us more human.

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