Thursday, September 14, 2006

Does History Make You Tolerant?

In my historiography class today, we discussed what history is for. That is, not what the past is for, but what is the discipline of history for – why do we bother to study and write about the past? Both the students and the text we are using suggested many of the usual ideas. We study history to learn who we are; we study history to learn what mistakes not to make; we study history to correct falsehoods and bad historical analogies (are you listening, Mr. Rumsfeld?); we study history because it is fun. The text, however, suggested a possibility that I’d never really thought of before – that we study history to make us more aware and more tolerant of cultural differences, more accepting of people different from ourselves.

Really?

I’m not so sure about that. I think the idea is that if we learn what other people have suffered, the struggles they have gone through, that we will more willingly accept their right to be who they are, or we will be less likely to dismiss them should they not measure up to our own standards of wealth, of knowledge, of civilization. Or perhaps, if we know our own history and its less-than-stellar aspects, that we will be more forgiving of the shortcomings of others.

Maybe.

I think a person inclined to be sympathetic to people who are different might well react that way, but I also imagine a person not terribly sympathetic might react quite differently. If I know your ancestors have a long history of mistreating my ancestors, perhaps I will blame you for that. Perhaps I might want to do you harm as a result.

Americans are not a terribly historically minded people, the subject of much moaning and wailing, and I have certainly done my share. But there is a silver lining to this. Americans do not tend to hold historical grudges. We tend neither to blame nor praise people for what their ancestors did generations ago. If we did, we’d love the French and hate the British, our respective allies and enemies from the Revolution.

There are plenty of places where this is not true, regions that are overflowing with history, where ancient hatreds are the stuff of modern politics and modern murder. Bosnia, anyone? For that matter, what about Iraq, or the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis? These battles are as much fights over history as they are over modern issues, which is one of the things that makes them so intractable. Perhaps we are better off, always looking forward, rarely looking back. At least, as long as Americans are historically clueless, I’ll always have a job.

1 comment:

nm said...

I think there is one group of students who are often made more tolerant by studying/doing history. That's the students who start by assuming that everything is very simple--in which case good/bad, us/them, and other dichotomies are easy to adopt. Once they start to learn--through examining sources, needing to come up with their own interpretations, etc.--how complicated most historical situations have been, they start making room for those gray shades. At least, that has been my observation.