History Mindedness

Extracted/summarized from Gustavson, Carl G., A Preface to History, 1955

The purpose of this extract is to provide the Liaison Group, and others as necessary, some sort of basic description about what a historian is after, and a little about how these folks operate – it will also supply a bit of a bridge of understanding between the student of history, and ourselves.

We are inveterate travelers. During the summer months we take to the road in vast numbers. Many students, returning to their classes in the autumn, carry with them memories of exciting days spent in visiting different parts of the country.

The more observant individuals, in passing through various localities, must have sensed the presence of history; perhaps they have discovered that history, frequently regarded by students as book learning, is a living reality in the communities. Every city or area cherishes those events of its own past which render it distinctive, and the tourist is made aware of them through place names, highway markers, signs, and even the names of restaurants and motels. Despite the similarity of all Main Streets and the universal prevalence of neon signs and air conditioning, each town derives a certain definite character from its past which marks it off from any other place. In retrospect, the often-minted historical survivals seem to blend into the modern scene and become as real and living as the most modern building or automobile.

Although the Eastern sections of our country have provided the background for most of the episodes of national importance, the traveler to the West will also be impressed by the ubiquity of history. A tourist heading along highway will recognize the countryside, even though he may never have been there before. Memories of western movies come so forcefully to mind that Indians and covered wagons would seem natural to these hills. To the casual visitor, the past, in this instance, may be of greater immediacy to himself than the visible present.

“Today’s youth is interested in the living present, not in the dead past!” There can be no quarrel with the first half of this declaration. Anyone who has an active, intelligent interest in our own times, however, will find many problems confronting him, and the search for the answers will inevitably draw him into the past. The living present is the extension of a past, which in innumerable ways is still with us. Most of our problems, after all, originated in former decades or centuries. A person who has obtained a deeper insight into history will regard the phrase “the dead past” as indirect proof that the one using it actually has no vital interest in the present either.

We have inherited wisdom, as well as problems, from earlier ages, and we might respond to the above quotation with words uttered by Cicero two thousand years ago: “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child.” Unless we understand how present-day problems had their origins, our suggested remedies are apt to prove rather naive. Most of the more flashy panaceas that are offered are usually put forth with little idea of origins, hence the real difficulty of the problem. He who heedlessly escapes into the present will always carry with him a flat, unbalanced picture of our day and an entirely inadequate impression of the nature of the social forces which ceaselessly impinge upon us. There may be considerable truth in the famous maxim of Santayana, the philosopher: “He who does not know history is fated to repeat it.”

Even the psychiatrist goes into the past before he dares to prescribe a remedy. When he is asked to solve a personal problem, he invariably wants a case history. Just as an individual’s personality represents the sum total of his experiences, so the present appearance and conduct of nations and institutions reflect the formative circumstances of their background.

In a sense, a history student is assembling a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. He is learning how the world he lives in was put together. Thus, we study the Reformation and learn how various religious denominations came into being. In the Enlightenment we see popularized some of the ideals in which we still believe. A survey of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath reveals the evolution of the modern urban society of which we are a part. The materials of a history course, far from being a miscellany of antiquarian information, are selected for the specific purpose of showing the origins of our society and culture.

A novice in history must accustom himself to the thought that many things can be contemporary even though he is reading about the year 1850 or 1750. In such a case as the Roman Catholic Church, the year might be A.D. 750, for events occurring then may have helped to shape that Church as we know it today. Social and political institutions and human practices often have a far longer longevity than does a human life. Because they have a longer duration than a single lifetime, a study of their shapes and functions must embrace a greater time scope than our own lifetime. The human being, with his puny life span, is hut a pygmy walking among giants whose growth and decline must be measured in terms of centuries.

A person who thinks of history as dead very probably does not concern himself with much of anything beyond his own immediate environment. Although he arrogates for himself citizenship in the busy, progressing world of the twentieth century, he lives in the present moment, not in the present age. It is not mere coincidence that the student who reads the front pages of the newspaper fairly regularly is usually the one who secures the best marks in history. Such an individual has a much better comprehension of the world in which he lives. Because he has accustomed himself to dealing with its social forms and forces, the subject materials and ways of thinking of a history course are not completely foreign to him.

The Historian’s Road Map

In the days of the sailing vessel, the mariner who would bring his ship to port without disaster had to know the prevailing winds, the direction of the currents, the location of reefs and sand bars, and the nature of the prevalent storms in the region. Historical forces are to the ship of state, to organized society, what the natural forces of the ocean were to the old-time clipper. As the captains and navigators had to know the ways of the sea, so citizens of a republic need to know the social forces whose operations make up history. A ship such as the “Titanic” may blunder into catastrophe even in the twentieth century, and a nation may suffer a Pearl Harbor.

Not that history guides us with the clarity of a tourist’s road map or a mariner’s chart. The lessons of history are not as easy to discern, as some people would have us believe. Any statement in which the prefatory “History teaches us that …” is used as a springboard should be very carefully scrutinized; the accompanying assertion may be quite valid and acceptable, but the odds are against it.

History looks deceptively easy-so much so that there is a widespread idea that anyone who can read a history textbook can also teach history. Such an assertion obviously would be ridiculous for the languages, natural sciences, or mathematics. In the social studies, however, mere memorization of the hook too often passes for mastery of the subject.

Before a person can use historical information as a key to the understanding of present problems in a reasonably effective manner, he must understand certain fundamental processes and concepts-he must become historically minded. Complete competency in it requires as arduous and exacting a training as that of a physician, engineer, or lawyer. A certain familiarity with the basic processes and concepts, however, should provide the student with an ability to differentiate between authentic leader and demagogue, and it should bring him a far greater perception in judging public issues. In short, it should make him a more enlightened citizen.

Historical-mindedness is “a way of thinking,” a form of reasoning when dealing with historical materials and present-day problems. Use of it occurs to a greater or lesser extent in other fields besides history proper; economics, political science, philosophy, literature, and geology are among these. In mastering this way of thinking, a student is also enhancing his capacities in these other fields.

We may, for present purposes, list the characteristics of historical-mindedness in seven categories. In the following chapters we shall try to explain and illustrate their meaning more fully.

1. It is possible to see history on two separate planes. One is a superficial observation of the actors and events, wherein the focus of attention is upon the story or narrative in itself, the colorful and dramatic episode and the excitement of the human struggle. Historical figures seem to be making their own decisions in reasonably free will out of the resources – their own personalities. Their actions are judged according to a moral code, perhaps, or according to their successes and failures. Even as the reader enjoys the story,  however, he may become uneasily aware that his judgments are too hastily concocted because he has based them only upon the immediate circumstances of the episode. He has caught a glimpse of other factors, perhaps  unrealized by the historical figures themselves, which helped to determine the course of their careers.

The historian, while relishing the excitement of the adventure, remains unsatisfied until he penetrates into this second plane of broad causation. Here the figures on the historical stage are often to be seen as personal embodiments of powerful and terrible tensions and pressures within society. While the actor undoubtedly had alternatives to face in making his decisions, they were greatly limited by the set of circumstances in which he moved and by the resources at his disposal. Every historical figure has been forced to act within the limits of what was possible, and many a famous disaster was caused by failure to take this into account. The first characteristic: A natural curiosity as to what underlies the surface appearances of any historical event.

2. The historically-minded person knows that events do not occur in isolation; every happening is brought about and conditioned by a series of events. He will, consequently, be impelled to seek for associations between the particular episode and others which may be connected with it. In studying any present problem, idea, event, or institution, the mind of the historian inevitably gravitates in the direction of the past, seeking origins, relationships, and comparisons.

3. The natural scientist studies the forces in the physical world. He learns what they are and has developed techniques for measuring them. The student of society must try to discern the shapes and contours of the forces which are dynamic in society. They are of various kinds. The needs of different economic classes are one of the foremost, and hence an understanding must be acquired of the outlook of the so-called middle classes, of the laboring groups, and of the old-time feudal aristocracy.  Within each of these there are further differentiations, each with a varying outlook. Another type of social pressure derives from the various forms of loyalty, whether to a nation, region, dynasty, caste, or religion. The power and needs of government itself invariably exercises a major influence upon its community. The exigencies of military defense have, through all ages, played a tremendous role in determining social action.

4. Because the historian is profoundly aware that the past is still at work in the present, he stresses the continuity of society in all its forms. The present situation is simply a cross section of the whole story which dates back to the remote beginnings of humanity and which will be projected into the future. The historian appreciates the conservative attitude that changes, too abruptly undertaken, create more inequities than they alleviate.

5. He is also convinced that in innumerable ways society is perpetually undergoing a process of change. No government, no social group, can permanently prevent this gradual transformation. The biologist teaches evolution, and Darwin is customarily regarded as the discoverer of this theory, yet the concept of evolution was being employed by historians before it was applied to the physical sciences. Institutions, also, change their shapes and functions with the passage of time as they adjust to a changing environment. One of the most fascinating problems of historians and sociologists is the analysis of the processes whereby social changes do occur.

6.  The student of society, although he may have very definite ideas of what ought to be done (he should), must rigidly, first of all, concern himself with what is. He must approach his subject in a spirit of humility, prepared to recognize tenacious reality rather than what he wishes to find. Until the student of the physical world learned to do this, the fruit of his labors was astrology and alchemy. In the scientific method, the forces are carefully observed and measured, the results verified again and again. Only after this is done, can a real attempt be made to control and direct the forces of nature or society.

7.  Finally, the historian knows that each situation and event is unique. He can scarcely hope to discover laws in history, because the elements and factors with which he deals are too variable. History is not a science, even though scientific methodology is used as much as possible. Although the historian will have good grounds for anticipating certain developments, he can make no positive predictions. He cannot phrase his conclusions beyond the probable.

The Novice Studies History

The above characteristics are, fundamentally, attainments of the practiced mind. Even as we learn muscular skills by practice, so we develop mental abilities by conscientious and repeated use of the reactions which we hope to make habitual. Like most learning activities, historical-mindedness develops gradually, almost imperceptibly, with many errors and hesitancies. The professor, reading quiz papers of an essay nature, can note the improvement, although the student may be unaware of it.

The mentor may teach by example, but the student must do his own thinking in order to achieve historical-mindedness.  Only knowledge that is actually used will become a part of oneself. This may explain why some students feel that history consists of innumerable facts to be memorized-the dead past. They feel this way because they let it become just that by not studying it properly. The caricature of history, still widely entertained, which depicts it as a study of names and dates and battles, of a dreary succession of events learned for a test and then forgotten, is due, above all, to the student’s method of study. By memorizing only, he is trying to take a short cut to knowledge, and he himself reduces history to that level. He often stops studying at the precise point where he is finally ready to begin.

It is quite true that a history course contains a rather formidable array of facts which must be learned in one way or another. We call this orderly collection of knowledge about the past a frame of reference. This personal filing system of one’s knowledge consists of fairly detailed information about the successive important events during the development of our society and culture. A great many of the facts have to be learned on faith, relying on the assurance that these have been screened, reduced to a workable minimum, while still presenting a useful frame of reference. As the student goes on in school, he will be surprised at how many of the facts will reappear in other courses, and the earlier knowledge will begin to pay immediate dividends.

One of the secrets of the education process is that the more one knows, the more one learns.  The greater the amount of factual knowledge possessed, the easier it is to tie in new material, to associate the new with the old in such a way that it remains a permanent acquisition. Learning multiplies by a sort of mathematical progression as familiarity with the subject increases. An individual who is studying by means of associations is learning more pleasantly, more quickly, and more permanently than one who tries to take the deceptive  short cut of rote memory of the printed page.

When a student memorizes names or an outline, he is preparing to study. He is like a student in a laboratory who is getting his materials ready for an experiment When the latter has completed his preparations, he does not abruptly announce that the experiment is completed. The beginning history student, however, is prone to quit once he has the materials for thinking things out. He ought to force himself to sit quietly for a while longer, seeking associations which he can make, known knowledge which will help him remember the new material. If he cannot relate it to his historical frame of reference, let him apply information from other sources or from personal experiences. The contemporary scene frequently lends itself to comparisons, and here is where a student who reads newspapers and magazines will have a decided advantage.

It may be objected that there is not time for such a procedure. The truth is that there is not time for any other method except this one; the student is actually learning, whereas otherwise he is only cramming for a quiz. The process will take a little longer at first. The beginner will very quickly, however, learn to combine the memorizing and thinking in such a way that both will require less time than a single one did formerly. This is what the top-grade student has learned to do. Much of the knack to studying history is to be found in knowing what not to learn. The beginner wastes time and energy because everything seems of equal importance. Only as greater perception develops will he be able to separate the more significant statements from material necessary to a balanced narrative but not vital in itself.

The real objection is often not with the time element but with a  more intangible obstacle. Genuine thinking along intellectual lines may be rather painful to the novice. The situation can become intensely frustrating. A person may alert his nervous system and order his mind to dunk. Nothing happens. He fiddles with his pencils, combs his hair, cleans his fingernails, goes for a drink of water, comes back, fills his fountain pen, and combs his hair again. Still no thinking. In these desperate circumstances, rote learning of the assignment offers an avenue of escape which also conveys the comforting illusion that the material is being mastered. (It is rumored that some students do not even bother to do this much work. Such academic hitchhikers ought to be abolished and frequently are. These are the ones who permit the seeds of knowledge to fall on barren ground. Far from moistening the soil with the sweat of labor thereby allowing the seeds an opportunity to germinate, they are apt to hold up the hard pellets and vigorously maintain that they are dead!)

The trick lies in knowing how to put the mind to work by providing something for it to think about. Asking oneself questions will accomplish this elementary and necessary purpose. This is the equivalent of cranking the old-fashioned motorcar, but it will start the wheels turning. A sporting element may be added to the project by attempting to guess what the questions of the instructor will be, then, with the book closed, attempting to answer them. While the initial queries in any session will undoubtedly be of the who-what-when variety, in order to check if the major points of the assignment have been absorbed, the questions ought eventually to broaden into such considerations as causation, motivation, and comparison. One might select one of the historical figures in the assignment and try, from memory, to visualize his career. Have any other men resembled him in ideas or deeds? What ideas or events spurred his actions in a certain direction? Was he a prime cause for a historical movement or just an accidental figurehead? And here we meet a certain idea of the age. Why was this idea so popular then? What are the reasons for the success of a certain movement? Which of these reasons was probably the most important? How did the various social groups in a country probably line up in a particular crisis?

As this procedure becomes habitual, the questions will increasingly and spontaneously suggest themselves during the initial reading of the text. The questions will emerge out of natural curiosity, rather than as the result of compulsive preparation for classroom discussion and tests. Comparisons and contrasts with his own environment will stimulate the student, and, while he is analyzing the problems of earlier generations and trying to understand their behavior, he will gain greater comprehension of his own society. Finally, he will discover that the nature of the subject is, broadly speaking, creating certain general patterns in his own thinking-those categories which were listed in the preceding section.

The development of historical-mindedness and the learning of a frame of reference go hand in hand; an adequate frame of reference is necessary for thinking along historical lines, while practice in reasoning through the various episodes will cause facts to be more surely remembered. Only knowledge that is actually used will become a part of oneself. As was stated earlier, historical-mindedness is created in very much the same fashion as other skills are developed, by practicing them until they become second nature. No formula has been developed, or ever will be, whereby proficiency is suddenly achieved. When one learns to play tennis, bowl, skate, or dance, the movements are awkward and embarrassing at first. There are many angular gestures and much waste motion. The piano teacher does not expect a finished performance by a new pupil. Nor does the history professor expect a student to develop his own thinking overnight. He does often wince at the childish, naive explanations that the novice in a history course will perpetrate, but he rejoices, as the course continues, if the student begins to manifest a more mature understanding of historical events and movements.