Memorizing long lists of names, dates, and events is a frustrating yet common experience to history students. We can all picture a teacher standing like a statue by a chalkboard droning on and on while giving names and dates ad nauseum. This is not a good look for history. And, I would say that it is history done poorly. If the simple mention of the word “history” makes you want to fall asleep or cringe at having to put your memorization skills to the test, then you have not been properly introduced to what history can and should be. It is what I refer to as bucket-head history. There is an old (and bad!) idea that when you take a history class, your brain is like a giant bucket that the teacher is filling up with facts and dates. This will make history very boring. The bigger problem is that there are holes in the bottom of the bucket and the information being poured in seeps out. Or, as is true for many, there is no bottom to the bucket at all and it just goes in the top and out the bottom. Learning history like this is frustrating and ineffectual. There are better ways to think about history.
We have to start by recognizing that history is not just simply the past. History is better understood as the “remembered past” (to borrow a phrase from John Lukacs). This is where C. S. Lewis’s short essay, “Historicism,” is helpful. Lewis explained that if you take one moment of time and that one moment represents one drop of water, then think about the incredible complexity of that one drop of water. That one moment is beyond our ability to grasp. So much happens in every moment in just one person’s life that it is staggering to extrapolate that one moment and every person on the planet. Now consider the past. For Lewis, it is like “a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond imagination.” Imagine that roaring stream flowing over a waterfall. The historian is the one standing at the bottom of the waterfall, holding out a cup, and catching some of the past. The question is not whether historians can know the past comprehensively (that is beyond all possibility). The question is whether historians know anything about the past at all. Historians have no choice but to pick and choose a small sample of what happened and weave it together into a narrative.
Just to be clear, as an aside, this does not make me a relativist. There is a difference between historical neutrality and historical objectivity (as Carl Trueman has said) or between absolute truth and probable truth (as Richard Evans has said). When historical fallacies are avoided and positive evidence is correctly presented according to proper historical methods there there can be objectivity or probable truth.
To make history interesting the historian tells a compelling story. This presents history as coherent and explains causal connections. The good news is that this helpfully replaces bucket-head history. But there can be a danger on the other end. It is tempting to come up with a paradigm of what is happening in history and then let this hypothesis become the grand scheme to which all historical evidence must conform. Carl Trueman, in his book Histories and Fallacies, spends an entire chapter talking about these “grand schemes and misdemeanors.” Trueman gives an extended example of Marxism and its all-explaining theory. Marxism is a theory of everything which argues all history is understood dialectically in terms of class struggle. The purpose of discussing Marxism is to show it is a grand scheme that forces all evidence to fit. A thoroughgoing Marxist believes that all actions are ultimately driven by material class struggle. Historically speaking, it is really hard to prove that, despite the elaborate schemes Marxist historians create.
The fundamental problem with such an overarching scheme of history is that it fails Karl Popper’s falsifiability test. There is literally nothing that can prove Marxism wrong because the theory is controlling of all evidence. A non-Marxist might be able to present evidence that someone’s actions were fundamentally motivated by religion or by good-will toward others, but a Marxist would reject it. They have a category of false consciousness wherein someone thinks they are acting according to religion or something else, but in reality there is an underlying explanation of material class struggle going on. You can see that Marxism twists and distorts evidence to fit their preconceived scheme (you can also see how they call religion the opium of the masses). Trueman describes it as “an all-encompassing aprioristic view of reality into which the phenomena of history must be made to fit, whether by fair means or foul” (101). It is nonfalsifiable and, ultimately, a Procrustean bed.
I don’t think most conservative Christians are tempted toward Marxist explanations of history, but we are often tempted toward other grand schemes (what my former professor John Woodbridge called “paradigmatic history”). Several examples in church history can be given: the repeated recourse to calling conservative theology a child of Scottish common-sense realism, distinguishing Calvin from the calvinists, Harnack’s hellenization thesis, assuming a strong distinction between Antiochene literal exegesis and Alexandrian allegorical exegesis, and saying that church history “fell” after Constantine and has not recovered yet. This also does not mean that we cannot use some scheme or paradigm for historical understanding. But we must see those schemes as heuristic and not prescriptive. Problematic grand narratives are often all-encompassing and utilize fanciful schemes to explain contrary evidence away. Good history is always open to revision based off further evidence and proper historical reasoning (and I’ll say it again: that is not relativism).
Good history is not disjunctive, boring history and it is not paradigmatic history. The problem with such historical schemes is that they simply do not convince many who do not already agree. Eventually, a mountain of evidence and contrary explanations will collapse such explanations. And, they are not being fundamentally honest with the evidence. A better path is to have humility enough to admit we are prone to error and our understandings of history are never above correction. And there are other practical benefits to being able think this way. It is not just historical schemes that can be paradigmatic. It is easy to skim the political scene today and realize that many (on the left and the right) basically understand politics according to unfalsifiable grand schemes (one example would be reference to the “deep state” as somehow an explanation for contrary evidence).
Good historical thinking forces us to be honest with contrary evidence and honest with the limitations of our own explanations. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is not relativism. Solid evidence can be found and can be marshaled in favor of various historical narratives. Not all explanations are created equal and not all evidence is equally strong and convincing. The root problem, though, is us. Our limitations demand some humility and caution.