Complexity and Benefit

We all have met that person who has the unsavory habit of interjecting themselves into a topic or conversation so they can force in contrary evidence and set everyone on the straight and narrow. We all cringe when the proverbial “Well, actually…” rears up unwelcome. If you have spent any amount of time on social media, you know how ubiquitous this is. And how annoying. How can someone be so arrogant and selfish?  

The problem with being frustrated about this is that we are often the one to interject (or we want to) and correct the abject stupidity in front of us. Of course, when we interject it is to defend truth and set reality back on its course. If you have spent any amount of time on social media, you know the nonsense that is out there. Your correction is sorely needed. How can you let such madness go unchallenged?

We could make several observations about these tendencies, but I want to a point out how this coincides with the practice of history. Further, I think that history—done well—offers help here. Historians are usually categorized among the “Well, actually…” crowd. It’s the historian’s job to remind us that history is complex. Sure, it’s annoying. But often this is necessary. Simplistic answers to complex questions rarely satisfy. Convenient quotes often twist historical facts. And basing an action or movement on an inaccuracy breeds bigger problems. Sometimes adding complexity is beneficial.

Recently, I have come across several examples of this beneficial corrective to problematic or simplistic history. I want to present one of these in order to demonstrate how complexity leads to benefit. 

(Mis)Quoting the French

My example is from the recent book by Robert Tracy McKenzie, We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy. McKenzie begins with the famous quote from the nineteenth-century French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville: “America is great because America is good.” Tocqueville came to America in the 1830s with express purpose to observe what made American democracy tick. The above quote is one piece of longer quotation:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it probably is. It has been quoted by political figures such as Ronald Reagan, John Kerry, Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, Michelle Bachmann, Charles Coulson, Rush Limbaugh, Colin Powell, Ben Carson, and many others (see McKenzie’s prologue for more). The problem is that it’s fake. Tocqueville didn’t say it. What’s worse, as McKenzie shows, is that it is terrible misrepresentation of what Tocqueville argued. As a matter of fact, it is nearly exactly the opposite of Tocqueville’s view. That this quote is fake is a fact that historians have pointed out since at least when Eisenhower evoked it. 

McKenzie’s book is not just an effort to correct the record on the quote, that is just the springboard. Rather he shows that Tocqueville was a devout student of democracy with a deft understanding of its dangers and hopes, which he laid out in his famous book, Democracy in America. McKenzie argues that Tocqueville saw within democracy the capability of tyranny, particularly when the collective majority has an uncontrolled desire for something that the minority possesses. “In a democratic society, ‘the omnipotence of the majority’ can readily become ‘the tyranny of the majority’” (204). McKenzie adds complexity not just in a historical presentation of Tocqueville’s work but in the historical background to 1830s America. He lays out the notion of democracy that the founders held and then contrasts it with that which prevailed in the 1830s in the era when Andrew Jackson was president. While the founders held that democracy was the best form of government and also recognized that the people were not naturally virtuous, Jacksonian democracy was a faith that “democracy is intrinsically just” and that “we are individually good and collectively wise” (12). 

The complexity McKenzie offers is important. A false quote has been repeated over and over again because it was useful to someone, not because it was true. The historical facts are that Tocqueville and the founding fathers had a different understanding of democracy than the quote recognizes. In fact, he actively warned against the idea that the fake quote puts forward. The historical change to Jacksonian understanding (which McKenzie calls the “Great Reversal”) is a fundamental shift in the understanding of democracy. This is McKenzie’s purpose: to recognize the various philosophies of democracy and realize the differences between them is a shift in how trustworthy the human heart is. 

The complexity that McKenzie provides means that a view of democracy that fails to see the latent danger in the democractic system is incomplete. The founding fathers saw this danger, as did Tocqueville. They still believed in democracy as the best option available, but they were unwilling to set aside their convictions that people (even—or especially—the majority of people) have a tendency to mistreat others because their own desires blind them. Tocqueville saw this as the danger of democracy. Christians have traditionally called this fallenness. A faith in democracy to automatically produce the best result needs the complexity that McKenzie is pointing out.

I’ll leave McKenzie’s work there, though much more could be said. It is a book well worth your time. He uses this historical presentation to challenge contemporary Christians who have forgotten the theological idea that we are a fallen people. As you can perhaps gather, he will chastise politicians (former President Trump at the center) as well as Christians.

History and Virtue

Complexity has a few benefits. In most instances, not only is complexity helpful, but it is also necessary to avoid error. If someone appeals to the false Tocqueville quote, it does damage to their credibility (if one knows the problem with the quote) or it does damage to the one listening (if they accept the quote as genuine). An interjection of complexity would help. When we receive correction and someone demands we see more complexity, we should learn to accept such correction as grace. In fact, I would say this is vital even if quite difficult. Finally, when we insist on more complexity in others, we need both to be thorough (don’t correct if you don’t have your facts straight in the first place) and gentle. Proper historical practice requires we do our homework and gentleness is a virtue. In so doing, we build others and ourselves. Understanding and clarity only help. 

Perhaps the biggest problems with allowing complexity are that it is hard and it cuts both ways. We are just as susceptible as anyone else to want things to be simple. But good history is complex. It requires us to build virtue. Patience, humility, love of truth, love of others, and grace are all intellectual and social virtues. They are also central to good history. And this is my point. History done well builds virtue. Complexity, when offered or received well, is a benefit.

Thinking Sensibly about Unicorns

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Nearly everyone agrees that history is necessary subject in school. We all agree that it is helpful to know history. But the truth is that we do not always agree on what it means to “know history.” Maybe a better way to say it is that we do not always agree on what it means to think historically. Books, books, and more books have been written on this subject. I want to mention just one piece of this puzzle, and also unicorns.

One famous article by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke distill historical thinking to five basic sensitivities. These “five C’s of historical thinking” are change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. If someone can weave these sensibilities into their thinking process, they are well on their way to good historical thinking. The categories are not too hard to understand. The problem is that they are unnatural and thus hard to learn.

When trying to understand anything we take our frame of reference (our knowledge, experiences, and habits of mind) and apply it to what we are confronted with in order to make sense of it. When someone travels to a new place they can make sense of a lot of what is happening, but definitely not all of it. This understanding can be complicated if they do not know the language. It can be complicated if the dominant religion is different. It can be complicated if we know nothing of the history of this location. It can be complicated for many reasons. If you live in Minnesota (which I have for about 16 months as of writing this) it takes some time to learn in what ways “Minnesota nice” is different than other kinds of “nice.”

61q8hSE8AhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_We begin to overcome these potential misunderstandings by assuming we do not know what all these things mean (I’m still working on the Minnesota nice one). This is where we can apply the five C’s. The fact is that good historians are almost never satisfied with quick solutions when a new problem arises. They have the developed sensibility to think patiently and “cultivate puzzlement,” as Sam Wineburg mentioned in his widely referenced book: Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. The main point is that when we approach something new and different we have to realize that our frames of references are pretty limited in comparison to the vastness of human history. Epistemic humility is a basic assumption. We have to keep asking questions so that we can build a thick understanding of something. Hard questions almost never have easy answers. We cannot begin to truly know something until we first agree that we do not know everything about that thing. When criticized, many in our day like to retort that “you don’t know me!” And, based on the five C’s of historical thinking, they are probably right. Here Wineburg is pure gold: “Paradoxically, what allows us to come to know others is our distrust in our capacity to know them, a skepticism about the extraordinary sense-making abilities that allow us to construct the world around us” (24).

That brings me to unicorns. Wineburg relates a story from the travels of Marco Polo where he was confronted with a new animal. He did what we all do, he tried to make sense of it through his frame of reference. He was confused by this new type of animal, “which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo…[and] a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead. They do not attack with their horns, but only with their tongues and their knees; for their tongues are furnished with long sharp spines.” Polo concluded he had seen a unicorn. The problem was that “they are very ugly brutes to look at…not at all such as we describe them when…they let themselves be captured by virgins” (quoted in Wineburg, 24). Polo’s problem was his frame of reference had to be expanded. To actually understand what he was seeing required he not assume he had a wide enough frame of reference to understand. Again, Wineburg is right: “Our encounter with history presents us with a choice: to learn about rhinoceroses or to learn about unicorns. We naturally incline toward unicorns—they are prettier and more tame. But it is the rhinoceros that can teach us far more than we could ever imagine” (24). We ought to cultivate the historical sensibilities that help us see the things of the past that are unusual to us. Without them we see unicorns instead of rhinos. This is what it means to understanding history on its own terms.

You may notice that throughout this article I explored rules of historical thinking and applied them to thinking in general. That is because these ways of thinking are really helpful in our general life. A little humility, a little sensibility about the unusual, and a little more patient, deliberate thinking would go a long way. That is the heart of why history as a subject has long been considered necessary to nearly every level of education. It is more than just the events and people of history that is important, it is the ability to think well about history that we are after. Good historical thinking is a necessary skill, but it has to be cultivated.

Review: A Little Book for New Historians by Tracy McKenzie

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Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History (IVP Academic, 2019), 115 pages.

In this little book, Tracy McKenzie contributes to IVP’s “Little Book” series by giving a helpful introduction to the study of history from a Christian perspective. On the one hand, this short work can be read as a classroom textbook in the sense that its readers will be challenged to do history and do it well. In part one, McKenzie walks the reader through a basic definition and understanding of history before discussing the need and the benefits of historical training. In part two, McKenzie walks through the best practices that accompany history done well.

On the other hand, this book can be read as an invitation for transformation. In a sense this is the well-discussed difference between getting training and getting an education. I’ve completed a lot of school and one thing that has helped is my test-taking ability. True and false questions, multiple-choice, short answer, and fill in the blank can all “be beaten” in my thinking (which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them). I learned at an early age that being good at taking tests will translate quickly into getting good grades. But that doesn’t always mean that I’ve learned as much as my grade shows. It’s also why essay assignments were more difficult, they force you to think and show that you are thinking. In history class, it is easier to discuss dates and names than it is to discuss what we think went on, how we can defend our understanding of the past, and what wisdom can be gleaned from our endeavor.

This difference between training and education is the key to good history. McKenzie calls this historical consciousness. “Historical consciousness isn’t information we possess or a skill that we practice, It’s a mindset that changes how we see both ourselves and the world” (39). If we do history well we better ourselves by learning to loose ourselves from the tyranny of the present and listen well to the wisdom of the past. The personal takeaway is that the skills learned in this sort of education easily transfers to nearly every other endeavor we can imagine. “The academic study of history is less a gateway to a particular occupation than a stepping stone to lifelong learning” (35).

This leads me to think about of how this impacts Christians, which McKenzie discusses in a couple chapters. Studying church history means that we will learn dates and names from the Christian past, but it is more important that we learn to think better and learn to learn from the deceased among the communion of saints. They will seem odd and hard to understand because of our distance from them. We need to learn patience, humility, and the need to suspend judgment until we can weigh the various pieces of data within the suggested interpretive scheme. One simply cannot do history well without the famous “five C’s of historical thinking” of change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity (88). These critical thinking skills prove helpful in many arenas. They make one a better and more conscious thinker in general. It is no surprise that history majors in college go on to a great variety of successful careers. And for the Christian-would-be-historian, McKenzie says the one who employs these skills well “should expect to increase in historical knowledge, thinking skill, and consciousness, but you should also hope to grow in humility, charity, and wisdom” (105-106).

Sound thinking about the past means that “hot takes” or the “gotcha” quote tweet are not what we are after. Patient thinking, humble wrestling with people and ideas very different than our own, and cautious conclusions are just a few of the traits we are after. For someone interested in learning what history is all about, this book is as good a place to start as any. Its wit, brevity, and smooth prose make it easy to read through. And for the more experienced historian, the same qualities make this truly a refreshing refresher course. I will return to this book again for sure.

My Reason for Writing

Like many others, no doubt, I have thought for some time about having a blog. It’s up for debate, but I think starting a new one makes sense. And so here I am. But before I go on, I feel a need to explain how I’ve worked through my reasons for starting what many others seem to be stopping. This apology is more directed at myself than anyone else, but you are welcome to join the ride.

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One reason often given for writing a blog is publicity and/or extra income. I don’t think these are bad things at all. In my PhD there were many classmates who did this sort of thing to showcase themselves for potential jobs. The job market for theological studies PhDs who want to teach is pretty dire so anything that helps your chances makes a lot of sense to me, though showcasing one’s ideas can also turn off potential suitors (I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing either). In the publicity vein, I also had a friend encourage me start a site like this and build my visibility so that I could get free books to review. I like free books and everybody needs to work, but those aren’t really my motivations (though you can still send me free books).

On a couple occasions I spent time looking into blogs and seeing how to do them well and weighing different options and features, etc. I found that sort of exploring tiring. Which will probably explain the many blogging “errors” that this site has and will have. I am also a fairly inconsistent and finicky blog reader. Some blogs that write regularly are still part of my habitual reading, but most are not. Same for most blogs that rarely or irregularly post. I’m looking for content and so I evaluate certain blogs (or journals or websites or papers) that I feel I can trust to give good content. If I get something from it, then I keep reading. When it comes to friends’ blogs I generally follow irrespective of content because I simply want to know what their minds are up to. All that to say: I am not really starting this so that I can become anyone’s regular read, but I hope some will read this. Also, I have no intentions of following a regular schedule. Posts will appear for other reasons.

A better (for my defense) reason often given for blogging is that it helps encourage regular writing, which is an excellent exercise in and of itself. In this regard, I am indebted to my dad who saw a similar need in his own life as a pastor several decades ago (well before blogs were a thing) which led him to write and disseminate a monthly paper. He would often quote Francis Bacon who said: “Reading makes a broad man, writing makes an exact man.” I find the sharpening value that only regular writing supplies the most convincing reason to start a blog.

But I haven’t started before. Probably the reason that pushed me over the edge has more to do with the station of life I find myself in right now. I’m done with my schooling (theoretically), which has left a hole. While I get the opportunity to teach and write on occasion, I don’t get to sit in a classroom (or library or office) with my prof and classmates like I used to and digest material regularly and, more importantly, informally. That is what I miss the most, especially in the areas of my specific academic interests. I still have research projects along with teaching and smaller writing opportunities, but I’m looking for something a little different. My hope is that a blog will help to fill this perceived need. I work at a seminary right now and so I get some opportunity to do this, but my primary responsibility is to recruit students, not to teach. And so, I hope it gives me a good place to do some informal (though hopefully still serious) musing. And having my own blog gives me freedom from various constraints. Which is good, because I would rather make this open ended.

And so, in an effort to force myself to sharpen and in an effort to create space for cogitation I am giving this a shot.