Academia · History

Connecting with the Past: Caution, Inspiration, and Consolation

When I was first starting out as a history grad student at George Mason University, I was a teaching assistant to an astute and witty professor who warned me against the teaching technique of lecturing to one’s students whilst costumed in the garb of the era to which you are referring. Historical costumes tend to be heavy on the frills, feathers, lace, leather, armor plating and assorted jingly bits, and the effect, he said, was more often comic than impressive. It tended to alienate students, rather than draw them in.

Besides, by costuming him or herself like a resident of some bygone era, the history professor basically turns herself into a walking anachronism. This is not like heading to something like a Renaissance festival, where everyone else will also be cheerfully indulging in anachronisms—this is parking your car and trudging slowly across the vast parking lot of a modern university while dressed like a 15th-century Flemish merchant’s wife. Your students will be wearing sweatpants, and you will be wearing a wimple.

I think that dressing up to teach history, and similar tricks, also reinforces the stereotype that history professors are bookish, socially awkward types who like to barricade themselves away from the cruel glare of modern society and daydream about the Battle of Roncesvalles. Someone who truly wishes that they lived in the past will have little success in connecting with students in the present. Fortunately, most of the history professors and grad students I’ve met are actually quite sociable and engaged with life outside the past.

I don’t teach history because I wish that I lived in the past, because I feel that I was “born in the wrong era,” or because I loathe the modern world. Clearly, the modern world has its share of problems (just like every historical era before it, ha), but if you proclaim that you would rather have been born in ages long past, you are either lying, insane, or haven’t adequately thought things through.

Would you really be willing to give up the benefits of modern medicine, for example, and risk dying in your mid-twenties from a minor wound that became infected, an epidemic, or during childbirth in a horrible and prolonged way? Would you be happy if you never went more than a day’s journey away from your home village in your life, unless it was to go to war or for similarly unpleasant reasons? Despite all the kitten pictures and meaningless fluff on the internet, would you really be willing to give up a source that places such an array of knowledge at your fingertips? Medieval Europeans seeking information about the Far East eagerly devoured Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels, which were of questionable accuracy, but today if you want to know something about China you can look it up in seconds, or just travel there yourself in a matter of days, not years.

Marco Polo on his travels to the Far East, French, 14th century.
Marco Polo on his travels to the Far East, French, 14th century.

I find the past endlessly fascinating. I love to contemplate what it would have been like to be a Teutonic knight facing off against fearsome Mongol invaders in Poland in 1241, a follower of Sabbatai Zevi in the 1600s who had to make sense of his supposed Messiah’s conversion from Judaism to Islam, or a refugee at the end of World War II returning to the bombed-out cities of Europe. However, I’m also glad I’m not any of these people.

I am undeniably a child of the modern world, as much as I dislike the relativism, consumerism, and self-obsession that runs rampant in it. I’m fairly extroverted, and have several non-history-related hobbies. As a female, I’m grateful that the modern world offers me the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. in a subject I love, rather than automatically be written off as intellectually inferior because of my gender.

If I am content with the present, why do I study the past? For me, there are three main reasons, which I would summarize as caution, inspiration, and consolation.

Caution is the most basic reason: it is summed up by the reliable truism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History warns us against hubris, intolerance, and against antagonizing the common people, the military, or women. It teaches the observer to expect the unexpected, and never to assume that things are perfectly safe, secure, or under control, as we never know what invaders might be just over the horizon.

History inspires us in that it frees us from the claustrophobic boundaries of our modern lives, reminding us that the world is bigger than simply our home, our daily commute to work, our desk, and our office. Reading about the past is much like reading someone’s travel diary, except that the movement is through time, rather than space. The inspiring qualities of history are why many people do find themselves wishing that they lived during another era, or at least that they could visit safely as a tourist. The experience of being a Roman commander, leading his apprehensive men into the strange forests of uncivilized Britain, or of being a Venetian merchant about to explore the mysterious lands of the Far East, does hold a certain visceral appeal. At the end of the day, though, I’d still like to go to sleep in my own bed, where I can be reasonably sure of waking up the next morning.

A Displaced Person arrives at Ellis Island in the aftermath of World War II. It seems easier to sympathize with people in the past when we can see that they're like us.
A Displaced Person arrives at Ellis Island in the aftermath of World War II. It seems easier to sympathize with people in the past when we can see that they’re like us. From the Catholic University Archives.

Consolation is the highest of the reasons for studying history. Paradoxically, connecting with the past can also help us to connect better with those around us (even with our lovely students), and, inversely, if we cannot manage even to connect with our neighbors in the present, how will we ever manage to empathize with and understand the experiences of those in the past?

The study of history is an antidote to the loneliness and existential terror to which we, as isolated moderns removed from the support of the traditional community, are particularly vulnerable. Studying history reminds us that we are not alone at our individual laptops, with our neuroses, or alone on a crowded street with no one to talk to. Rather, hundreds or even thousands of years ago, men and women were sitting by their campfires at night wondering, much like us, “Why me?” and “How do I make sense of all this?” This sense of shared experience and struggle is both comforting, and a good reminder that it’s not All About Us. We are deeply linked to the past. Someday we will be part of the past. That should put our angst about the momentary difficulties of the present into perspective.

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