What is the Story of American History?

“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

History 125, Spring 2014 — Monday & Wednesday Hyland 2303

Section 4: 11:00am-12:15pm — Instructor: Libby R. Tronnes

 “The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner.  “It is not even past.”  By this he meant that humanity does not pass through time the way trains go through stations.  Rather, human societies are always moving forward, yet never leaving anything completely behind.  Thinking about the relevance the past has for us today, C.S. Lewis observed, “Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still.”

Knowing the present, then, which means understanding our present situation with its perils and its opportunities, requires knowing the past.  We know the past through the stories we tell about it.  But what makes a good story about the past?  Is history just a matter of opinion, where all stories are equally valid, or equally bogus?  Or are some stories more truthful and necessary than others?  How does one decide between different version of the past, or whose story counts?  These are difficult questions.  People disagree about the answers.  In fact they disagree so much, and sometimes with such passion, that one historian has famously defined history as “an argument without end.”

Gaining a historical perspective requires us to ask not only what the story of the 20th century is, but also: How do people construct the stories they tell about the past? How do we evaluate the stories they tell?  What thinking habits can I develop to judge the credibility of the histories I encounter?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment