With everything that has happened since last November, many Americans, including those of us with a serious interest in history, have at times felt tempted to bury our heads in a good book and to tune out the world around us. This is understandable, and hardly unique to historians. Many have reacted differently, of course, and now more than ever feel called to engage in their civic community. We all deal with things in our own ways. Even as some feel called to confront the challenges of the day, others may look to the apparent comfort of the past and immerse themselves in it. In moderation, this is no problem. However, if treating the past as our private getaway becomes our primary way of engaging with it, we leave ourselves exposed to the traps of mythology, irrelevance, and storybook simplicity.
In general, I think treating history as an escape is more common for history buffs and amateur historians than for professional historians, if only because few people want to make a career out of their favorite means of escape. History buffs also have the freedom of approaching the past without the scholar’s sense of professional responsibility. Nonetheless, I have heard comments from both groups alluding to the appeal of history as a distraction from the present. Maybe you’re a reenactor looking to immerse yourself in the past for a weekend. Perhaps you’re a retiree looking to hearken back to the nostalgia of your childhood. Or possibly you’re an academic or public historian looking to bury yourself in research to avoid thinking about the many challenges facing academe and our country.
While it is especially important for professional historians to resist the allure of escapism (indeed, it one of their key duties), this habit can undermine the best intentions of even amateur historians and history buffs. These groups should not be held to the same standards as professionals, of course, but there are downsides to treating the past as a casual indulgence. This approach predisposes us to learn about just the parts of history we want to hear, and not necessarily those we need to think about—merely reinforcing our same old beliefs. It’s a bit like reading The Great Gatsby to escape to the glamour and drama of the 1920s upper crust, while overlooking (intentionally or otherwise) the book’s critique of those same ideas.
The irony is that many of the people who make the prosaic claim that we should learn from history are the same who so often seek to use it primarily as a refuge. Unfortunately, the two practices are mutually exclusive. Escaping to the past for pleasure and distraction precludes our capacity to explore it with the nuance and attention to detail required to extract the most important lessons. That’s why I’m often aggravated when people claim they love history because they like stories. Stories may be an important way of engaging with the past, but there are reasons that popular history books, historical fiction, and films are regularly panned by academic historians: the best stories require us to abandon the infinite complexities of the past in favor of finite narratives and characters that can be better appreciated by the audience.
I would never suggest that we abandon all hope of enjoying immersing ourselves in history. In fact, Concerning History will be featuring a collaborative post this Wednesday about our favorite ‘guilty pleasures’ in television and film. What’s more, I truly believe that reading and watching history for leisure and escape can be an essential element of self care during these troubling times.
But if someone reads the same type of unprovocative works repeatedly for nothing other than distracting themselves from the present, they soon come to a point of diminishing return. They may learn something in one Gettysburg book that another omits, but in general the books will cover the same ground with occasional interpretive differences. And as always, the question of relevance arises: how does this information allow you to enhance the world around you? It’s okay if that’s not your purpose in thinking about the past, but be honest about what you want to get out of history.
There’s nothing wrong with eating chocolate for pleasure (in moderation), but we need to have our broccoli too. Pretending the two mix is just asking for a disgusting helping of chocolate-covered broccoli.