Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Speaker For the Dead

In Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, the main character Andrew Wiggin serves as a Speaker for the Dead. He tells over the life stories of those who had died not to praise or condemn the dead but simply so that those hearing could understood what the deceased stood for and how they understood themselves. The motive of the speaker is that he believes that there is an inherent value to human existence and that by honestly seeking to come to an understanding of an individual one can come to a greater understanding of humanity as a whole.
I see the historian as serving a similar function for modern day society. We are the stewards of the knowledge of societies and worlds that are dead and buried. Their values and all that they stood for are gone and there are few who would even understand them. (Just as our society will one day pass from this earth to be inherited by people who are incapable of even understanding our values and what we stood for.) The historian’s task is to serve as a speaker for those who can no longer speak for themselves. Not out of any present day agenda, but simply because he believes that human beings have intrinsic value and that by honestly coming to terms with human beings, even those no longer here, we can come to a greater understanding of present day humanity. This is not to say that the past repeats itself, but simply that it gives a context with which to place ourselves.
The historian studies the past, but more than that he lives in the past. If the past is like a foreign country then the historian is like the intelligence officer who has spent decades living in the country he studies and has more of this country within him than that of his native land. While this intelligence officer may never become a native of the country he studies, he will never again be able to truly be a native of the country of his origin either. Not that I believe that historians are infallible oracles from whom the past radiates through. Just as a person today cannot embody anything more then just a perspective of this world so to the historian is simply an expression of one amongst many legitimate perspectives on the past.
My goal in teaching history is to challenge students by forcing them to come to terms with the fact that there were sane, moral people who thought in ways that go against everything my students have been taught to believe. For example most societies in history have tended toward hierarchy in their structure and in particular they have been patriarchal. I take it for granted that all of my students believe in equality and in women’s rights in one form or another. I would want to bring about just a glimmer of a crisis of faith; that just for a moment my students should wonder whether it is we who are wrong and Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Maimonides who are right. Not that I want my students to stop believing in equality. On the contrary I want to make them stronger believers. I would want them to go from simply spouting dogma about equality to actively accepting it, fully aware of the price they pay in doing so.
Ultimately being a historian involves being both a liberal and a conservative. The historian is a liberal in that he actively seeks to challenge the status quo. He lives with an open mind and with the possibility of other ways of living ones life. On the other hand the field of history, unlike any other field of study besides for religion, is built around defending tradition, the conservative action par excellence. Not to say that the historian necessarily wants to replicate past ways of living in the present. That being said, if the historian did not believe that there was some real value to traditional ways of life he would have chosen a different field.

Postscript: Those who know me well would realize that my way of thinking is ultimately rooted within this contradiction.

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