Defining the Historical Past and Present

I have come to a number of conclusions during my tenure as a history teacher. Here are two:

1. Students struggle to define history. They assume it is everything that ever transpired in the past. I spend time moving them from that reference point of thinking to understanding that the historical past is predicated on an ascription and thus has normative value. Hence, it is not historical if it has no meaning; a person’s point of view and the complexity of their ascription has a great deal of weight on the value of the historical past. Further, if one cannot account for the past — it cannot be a historical past; it is just the past.

2. There is a such thing as the historical present; I like to think about history as the hitherto. Thus, the factors that have allowed complex variables to be analyzed shapes the now. But, ignoring those variables as though they are not relevant to one’s current plight is a mistake. Arthur Danto’s 1965 book, Analytical Philosophy of History, argues that “historical inquiry cannot be conceived as trying to reconstruct the past along the lines of an ‘ideal chronicler.'” Hence, this chronicler knows when things occur as they occur, and thus historians cannot construct this pattern because they construct history in the present using narrative sentences. According to Danto, it is a sentence that describes one event by referring to later events. This type of complexity found in the realm of historiography escapes students. Because students struggle with this part, they fail to grasp the macro approach of understanding the more analytical frameworks of history (Source: “The Nonfixity of the Historical Past by David Weberman). Now, this book by Danto was published well before the age of social media. In the 21st century, we are all chroniclers of history by recording the present (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). Good students will be able to grasp why occurrences in the present change and are linked to the historical past, as noted in my first point. Here is a great way to bring social media into the classroom. I have yet to do this, but the thought of creating a public Facebook page is under review. I do have colleagues that tweet and use twitter in their class.

diagram
(Diagram Source: Dr. Fred Jewel, Professor Emeritus, Harding University)

The above points are not generational. They have been true for countless generations of people who believe the historical past is irrelevant to their lives. They struggle to move beyond themselves in the present. Each generation goes through this predicament. Black students do not see why past racial events are of great significance to their current struggles. Women are unconcerned with the political ramifications of matters such as contraceptives,voting, education, or power to their lives. Both blacks and women are slow to ask why are there so few of me on my campus? So, it is my job and the job of those who see the irony of the aforementioned points to tell young students why analyzing the past is paramount toward their current plight and future conditions.

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4 thoughts on “Defining the Historical Past and Present

  1. What a great post. As a history teacher and a follower of this blog, I have thought about this but never organized my thoughts as clearly as you did here.

  2. Professor Carson. I’m working on a book on visualizations of history and I’d like to use this triangle as an image example in my book. Is there a way I can give credit to the original author/ designer? Does this image exist in any print publications? Thanks, Michael Douma

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