I was interacting with a Wealthy Donor Type(TM) the other day. One of those captains of industry, square jawed, golf-and-gym lean, high and tight haircut, trophy spouse (nice lady, tho) and oozing confidence.
I’m not sure how the conversation turned in this direction, but as I was about to comment, WDT pronounced “Well, there’s no real point to studying history before World War II anyway.”
I think the British expression “gobsmacked” might describe my reaction, but before I was really able to say anything or think of anything to say, the conversation had turned to sports and I was blessedly free to drink my bubbly and focus on hors d’oevres (which were tasty. I approved.)
The problem is that the idea stuck. I have always rather uncritically accepted history and histories as important. I am married to an avid military historian, one of my besties is a political historian, and I madly, madly admire the work of many urban historians.
This acceptance is a combo of my spouse and the influence of two of my favorite professors: Erling B. Holtsmark in Classics at the University of Iowa, and David Schoenbaum in History, also at the UI–and a specialist in WWII history, Israel (nation-state history), and one of those take-no-prisoners professors who demanded that undergraduates read a whole book every single week.
I loved them. The past is a foreign country. It was, for years, the closest I was able to come to traveling. And I very much believe that critical race scholars are right in that narratives matter, and that our histories are very, political, and representation and visibility matters a great deal. I read historians of color because they have the goods that other people are not going to get in the same way.
So my enjoyment notwithstanding, I alway assumed that even my rather undisciplined approach to reading history was edifying. It was, after all, humanism, just like all my reading in theology. But only after WWII?
What have I been doing, reading all this history over all these years? I’ve been trying to understand the world, the west, what humanity came from, what we’ve done, and why we’ve done it.
At the same time, I was also watching “Hitler’s Circle of Evil” about the men (and women) who ingratiated themselves into Hitler’s circle, and every single one of them was, in fact, evil. I really can’t count how many histories of Nazi Germany I have read over the years, seeking answers, and after watching this documentary of these selfish, bigoted, self-important people and all the harm they caused, I realized: I’m never really going to understand in a way that lets me feel like I know how we might stop it happening again. If we can’t understand, what’s the point?
After multiple days of feeling grief over what seemed to be a permanent nihilism, I told my dear husband about where my head was at. When I quoted the “There’s no point to studying history before WWII” part, he snorted. “That’s just lazy.” We tried to think of places where one might break history in a similar way. As in, there’s no point to learning anything before X date. And we wound up arguing about Alexander. (We don’t argue about normal couple things.)
Dear husband said that if I wanted more of a sense of mastery, I should specialize and focus more than I do. But I don’t want to specialize. I already have a specialty in urban and planning theory. I don’t want to do that with other things.
I finished reading off some very interesting fiction (The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley–go read so we can talk about it.)
And I decided that I shall continue the endeavor, even though I shall never understand it all, even though humankind and the world will remain mysteries to me. I picked up the excellent (so far) Armageddon and Paranoia by Rodric Braithwaite, timely and well-written. But not reassuring.
Why am I doing this again?