A sense of History

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A Sense of History: Some Components
by Gerald W. Schlabach

All students who graduate from a liberal arts college should take with them an indelible awareness of the following:

1. Some things happened before other things.
Studying history is much more than the memorization of dates. But if we get things out of chronological order, we'll inevitably get a lot of other things wrong too. Imagine that we are in a new city trying to find "408 N. 5th St.," but vandals have taken down the signs for 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th streets and rearranged them in random order. We'll probably fail. Neither can we expect to succeed in the study of history if we think Socrates was Aristotle's student, and they both argued with St. Paul when the Christian apostle preached in Athens. 2. Some things only happened in certain places.

Athens is in Greece, of course. It may be nearer to Jerusalem than some people think, but the two cities are on different sides of the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, geography is as basic to the study of history as is chronology. Time and space are the most basic units of historical study because they are the most basic units of historical existence. We must respect them both. For a human being to exist in a "place," however, also means to exist in a particular community, society, and culture. When the third-century Christian apologist Tertullian asked, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" he was not denying that there were routes for travelling between the two. He was not talking about geography. He was insisting that Greek philosophy and Christian theology grew out of very different cultures or worldviews. He may have been wrong to exaggerate their differences -- but he was right to expect differences. To expect and recognize cultural differences is also to exercise a sense of "place." 3. Meanings and definitions of words change.

Let's say we read the word "virtue" in an English translation of a text that the Christian thinker Tertullian wrote 200 years after the birth of Jesus. Later we read the word "virtue" in an English translation of a text that the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote 350 years before the birth of Jesus. Should we assume they mean the same thing? No! If nothing else, we must should remember that Tertullian wrote in Latin, whereas Aristotle wrote in Greek. So we can't assume that the words behind the English translation meant exactly the same thing. (If you are studying a foreign language while in college, you should already know this. If you aren't studying a foreign language -- why aren't you?) More importantly, words get their meanings from the times, places, and cultures in which people use those words. (Remember points 1 and 2?) Aristotle was both reflecting and deliberately changing the meaning of "virtue" that he had learned from other Greeks, such as the ancient poet Homer. Tertullian and other early Christians had rejected some of the Greek virtues entirely, and modified the meaning of others. So there is no way to understand the meaning of words except to read them in context -- noting how they are used, associating them with related words, learning as much historical background as possible, and so on. Lesson: there are no short cuts to reading, and reading carefully. We reluctantly allow ourselves a huge short cut when we use English translations! What more can we ask? Hint: unless you really want to aggravate your professors, never begin a history paper with Webster's definition of "virtue" or any other word. 4. Where there is no record there is no history.

Professional historians get as frustrated as their students over this one. Sure, stuff happened before human beings started leaving artifacts and writing things down. And sure, a lot more stuff happened afterwards that nonetheless left no trace. So we'd like to know more. We'd like to fill in the gaps. But we can't draw conclusions where we don't have evidence. Sometimes we can make educated...
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