History, Imagination, and Sympathy

In the early thirteenth century, Francesco Petrarch, the “Father of the Renaissance,” was a man with a problem. His father, wanting his son to be successful and secure, had sent Petrarch off to school to study law. Petrarch, however, wanted nothing to do with law and began instead to read Greek and Roman classics. Martin Luther had the same issue. Hence students today considering study of the humanities in the face of parental wishes face a very old problem. My own father, before sending me off to college, advised that I study either law, medicine, or engineering. He was, perhaps understandably, concerned when, at the end of my first semester, I proudly announced that I would become of history major. Overall, he took it rather well.

Me: Dad, I’ve decided to become a history major.

Dad: You’re going to be living in a cardboard box.

Me: I don’t care, I’ll be doing what I love!

Dad: That won’t pay the bills.

Me: I will inspire students with a love of learning.

Dad: You’ll have no retirement savings.

Me: Social security will be there for me!

Dad: (descends into hysterical laughter forcing conversation to end).

My memory may have embellished this slightly (or maybe more than slightly) over the years, but certainly parents are more comfortable with their children as doctors or lawyers than history students. One of my challenges as a history teacher is to make clear the value of history to skeptical students and sometimes more skeptical parents. A first move is to point out that history teaches critical thinking. History is, in a sense, a science. The historian considers a range of evidence, assessing what hypothesis it best supports, and what further material may be deduced from what is currently known.

But history goes beyond that. History, at least good history, as I tell my students is not just about learning a series of facts about the past. If it were, they would justly consider it a waste of time. History, however, is not just a science or a work of reason and deduction. It is also a work of imagination and still more, of sympathy. It attempts to get past the bare facts into the mindset of past people, looking at how they saw the world, what things meant to them: the task that Chesterton called the subjective side of history or “the inside of history.” And so, history is a work, not only of imagination, but of sympathy. To try to to see the world as past people saw it.  There is nothing more painful than reading a history book by a writer who hates his subject.  As Foucault put it, “there are times in one’s life when the question of knowing whether one can think differently than one thinks and see differently than one sees, is absolutely essential, if we are to go on thinking at all.” Or again, Peter Brown’s remark that “understanding is no substitute for compassion.” Hence, history is not only a work of reason, but of imagination and sympathy in a way that science is not.

These are skills badly needed today when it sometimes seems that both reason and sympathy are on the decline. Arguments that take place in the public sphere seem often to make little use of reason and much use of insults and cheap slogans. It is, as Chesterton said, the man who is least willing to argue (according to the rules of logic) who is most willing to sneer: hence recently there has been so little argument and so much sneering. Nor is there much sympathy today or attempt to get behind the mere facts of what an opponent thinks and see the world, for a moment, as he sees it. The skills of a good historian, reason, imagination, and sympathy are too little used and too much needed in the modern world.