What is the particular responsibility of the professional historian in crafting a creative response to the challenges of our times? How might an intimate knowledge of and familiarity with the past aid in forging a new concept of global citizenship in an age when—ironically—economic and financial globalization seem to serve only to increase social fragmentation and foster renewed tribalism?
Historians are continually frustrated by the public’s profound misunderstanding of the past. I refer not to simple ignorance, which can be overcome, but to a widespread misunderstanding of what history might contribute to contemporary society and a conception of global citizenship.
I seek to demonstrate to students that things are the way they are not because they have always been that way, but because human beings—at some point in time—decided to think and act in a certain way. In other words, institutions and ideas that are thought to be eternal and immutable, such as sex, marriage, the family, the nation-state, the economy and religion, are human and social constructs and therefore eminently mutable.
In every class, I try to explain two fundamental ideas: Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico’s fundamental concept that verum esse ipsum factum. The Cave, I point out, is far too similar to the very classrooms in which students sometimes find themselves, while Vico tells us that the truth is understood through creation and invention and not merely by observation. Vico insisted that we can truly know only that which we have made: human history.
In the invigoratingly diverse classroom, I remind students of Ignazio Silone’s insight from his bitter satire, The School for Dictators (1938), that “a deep knowledge of history renders fanaticism impossible.”
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