Dean’s Corner: Why Study History


Time is fleeting. It seems especially so as we grow older. We cannot slow it down or stop it. It’s always moving on. We are literally unable to stay in a moment. If we think about this, it’s rather puzzling. Poets dedicate a lot of verse to this mystery.

But time is puzzling in another way as well. As much as we anticipate pleasurable and joyful future events, we also like it if most things, even good things, come to an end. It’s natural. We have had a good day, but still look forward to a good sleep afterwards. Even when we spend an evening with a friend, we still treasure the time to go home and be alone for a while.  Even when we spend several days on a vacation, there is the joy of coming back to our familiar environs.  And similarly, even though we might really enjoy our entire College experience, there is still the joy of finishing, graduating, and moving on.

Why is everything so transitory? Can’t we just completely enjoy the present moment of anything we are doing? Can we put a halt to this seemingly endless deferral of time?

Perhaps the experience of being in love is the one thing that slows down this constant movement of time. We seek in love something that we genuinely don’t want to defer or end. Love of friends, family, and spouses, as well as love of ourselves and, ultimately, God.  Even love of animals, hobbies, and many other activities. Could this solve the puzzle of inability to want to stay in the present? Is this the way by which we can overcome our need always to move onto something different?  

Lots of people seem not to be moved by the reality of love, though. For whatever reasons. When young, we really don’t think of such things. I certainly did not. Or maybe we have never experienced love in these ways.  Or maybe human loves are simply never that profound.

One of the ways that we can lose our grasp of, and striving for, love is by our misconception of time.

A healthy person believes that bad things and losses in time will eventually end and the future can always be better. Regardless of the uncertainties of the future, the healthy person can live in the goodness of the present and the remembrances of healing and improvement that have emerged from past sufferings.

For a depressed person, though, time can become an enemy. Things are perceived always as able to stay or become worse. Endings are either too frequent or too frightening; present waiting is for endings that never come. A depressed person often lives, then, too much in either regret of the past or anxiety towards the future.  He is unable to feel a past that would assure them that bad things do pass or are at least an occasion for learning how to make things better.

What does all of this reflection have to do with a blog about liberal arts?

Well, liberal arts study cannot completely explain or solve these difficulties and puzzles about  time. But it does purport to educate us about them. And this has significant impact on our lives.

The liberal arts study of time involves history. History in this sense is not simply the memorizing of a set of facts nor assignment of historical causes and effects. These of course have their place in the study of history. But the key to a historical study is the construction of temporal narratives. 

20819143_10154830428412227_941634001161744019_oA narrative constructs for a series of real or imagined events a beginning, middle, and end. As such, historical narratives, which work with these events, lie outside of time since time itself never has clear beginnings and endings — there is always more before a beginning and more after an ending.  So, the student of history does not just pick a truth about the past to apply to the future,  but rather the starts from a desire for a better future and then looks at possibilities in the present for rethinking past events, even bad ones, in light of that. The student of history needs to do this continually, since contexts always change. The historically grounded person is thereby creative. The historian constructs narratives towards good goals. The student of history is thus keenly  aware of the power for good that lies in the past. 

In the broader sense of liberal arts, one does not have to study the discipline of history to be a student of history. History can be applied to a multitude of areas such as literature, philosophy, economics, science, art — just to name a few. In a broader sense, anyone who re-reads a book or novel is being a student of history.  In each case, we are moved toward seeing how the future can be better.

For example, when I’m asked why I chose to study philosophy, my answer is simple: philosophy texts were the one kind of readings that not only did I have to read them over and over to understand them, but also that I wanted to read them over and over. I’m re-reading again texts that I first read four decades ago. I see new details every time. I realizing that I missed something for the ten times I re-read the text is neither frustrating nor demeaning, but rather satisfying and energizing. It’s like a gift that always propels something new. A new history, a new narrative of the same text. My future understanding of more of the text draws me back to it. Elsewhere, I have called this the pearl of great price. My re-reading is a historical act that also draws me together with others who are also historians of the text. And it also makes me want to share these texts with those who have never read them.  Together all of us make a new future of these texts.

So, it is because of repetition of reliving and reinterpreting the past together that we are able better to trust the future, and not be a slave to the past. That is how we grasp love: as something we do in building the future together with others.

So, at Duquesne we are all invited to be students of history, no matter what discipline we are in. We don’t solve the puzzle of time, but trust to find time and repetition of the past to be life giving and love expanding.

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