Friday, December 18, 2009


My Own & As a Subject of Study

By the time I was a high school sophomore, we had world history. I was then fifteen and discovered that while I loved history, Jimmy Dickinson was probably the only other one in our whole class of sixty people that had the same regard for it that I did. The rest complained that history was boring, difficult, pointless, and stupid. History did not do any good for anyone, they said.

These attitudes surprised me, and I wondered at the vast difference between them and me: I found history exciting, far easier than geometry or almost anything else, pertinent and personal, and altogether enlightening. What made the difference?

If memory serves, I did not differentiate between subjects in my early years. Whatever I read seemed all connected, all aspects of the same mysterious need to know, all feeding the same imagination. Whether myths and legends, Oz books, stories of King Arthur or Robin Hood, biographies of authors, chemists, or explorers, The Book of Knowledge (1949) that Dad bought for us Sween kids, they all collided together in my mind. I think when we left self-contained classrooms, except for music or penmanship, and went to Junior High, discreet subjects emerged in the separated classrooms of seventh grade.

We had Miss Louella Watson for junior high social studies. She seemed old to us, plain and always dressed in blue, but I suppose she was in her fifties then. She could be stern, noted for running the silent detention room all those years. I admired her teaching, especially of American History, even if I never did grasp why Andrew Jackson was her favorite president. He seemed then as now always a roughshod spoiler to me.

She made history live for me and I reveled how different the stories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were in her class from the few incidents we had heard repeatedly in the elementary years. I remember a test of hers in which she passed out pictures each with a number; we had sheets filled with the corresponding numbers. Besides the appropriate number on our sheet, we identified the content of the picture – proclaiming the Declaration of Independence, Conestoga wagon, panning for gold, or whatever. I think I did very well on that test; at least I enjoyed it.

Study halls were in the library, a mix of all upper grades put together in one room because they did not have a class that hour. With the large number of people, probably 50-60 at a time, we were under the control of the monitor. Chiefly you could not wander until the last 15-20 minutes unless to use the encyclopedias. I was reading books in the Landmark Series in those days, rather introductory biographies and histories, but opening doors for me. After I had read a book, I wanted to check it in the encyclopedia: I would go from Americana to Britannica to Colliers looking up the particular subject, related facts and cross references. When allowed to leave our seats, other dashed for the magazines, and I went to the book stacks.

Mrs. Charlotte Whitney, the school librarian, had been the city’s public librarian when I was a younger child. However, when widowed she went to the University of Minnesota in order to be licensed for the school. Mrs. Lois Palmer succeeded her at the public library. Both these women were friends of my mother and naturally took a close personal interest in me. They were always willing to talk about what I had just read, what I thought, and then recommended related books for me, held books for me, and in the case of the public library obtained interlibrary loan for me although in those days that service was specifically limited to adults. Eventually, I was reading at an adult level and most of my book reading came from the public library or books I bought.

When I look back at it from later years, all that reading caused the turning point in my life. Though I did not realize it at the time, I was learning more from reading than I was from any class. The pivotal book became Gods, Graves and Scholars (1st ed., 1951), a book about the history of archaeology. I had thought to be a scientist, possibly a chemist: Robert Boyle was my hero, and I had written a paper on him for Mr. Duane Armstead in the 7th grade. However reading about the sciences was one glorious thing, actually doing science and math was messy and tedious. Marek’s book helped me think through my real interests so that I gravitated from science to history via the temporary consideration of my life as an archaeologist.

I wanted to be a historian. Of course, I had no idea what a historian did except write histories, but whatever it was, I wanted it. I could not get enough of history. From then onwards, I read almost exclusively histories, especially remote history – the more antique the better – along with a slew of historical novels. Waltari, Schoonover, and Shellabarger were my favorites, but also The Count of Monte Cristo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, War and Peace and other novels with a historical setting.

For fun, I was tracing the ancestry of Queen Elizabeth I, something that I dithered over for several years given that the resources I had were all secondary and limited. Recently, a friend of mine from elementary through college years and after, remembered that in high school I knew the names of all the kings and queens of England from the time of the Norman Conquest to the present, both in order and by their successive relationships. Well, we have our specialties; I could not claim the same affinity for the presidents of the United States. It was not until I had American History from Dr. Erling Jorstad at St. Olaf that I experienced U.S. history as exciting as the days of yore.

About 1955, I had discovered Machiavelli’s The Prince (the Ricci / Vincent edition, 1954, in paperback) available at the local drugstore. This was the first book I read in which someone was doing something with historical knowledge and I began to write simultaneously the novel Frivovla the Well-Attended in which Prince Frivovla reads The Prince and develops a lifelong philosophy of basilaeism (on the duties of monarchy) which she exercises through various episodes of her life.

In 1957, I attended a Luther League assembly in Minneapolis and browsed the books being sold there. I bought Now or Never: some reflections on the meaning of the fullness of time by Walter Charles Schnackenberg, who was then a professor of history at Pacific Lutheran College. This 79 page booklet, selling for 50 cents, was number 4 of volume 1 in The Fullness Series, published by the International Young People’s Luther League. When I look back at it now, I am astounded that in those days, the Evangelical Lutheran Church aimed this kind of literature at teenage readers, despite the advanced concepts and German quotations. I had never read or imagined anything like it.

Schnackenberg warns in his preface that this book covers a difficult topic in a manner that is difficult to accomplish. Nevertheless, “this contribution seeks to lay out some working hypotheses on the approaches to the bastion of meaningful truth; it seeks to provoke discussion of relevant problems among interested Christians; it seeks to furnish for young people, directly or indirectly, a few signposts which will indicate where the battlefield is located, and to point out some weapons of the Christian faith which might be suitable in the struggle against disillusion and frustration as we find it in these times and these places.” Whew! I doubt that I knew at that time what “hypotheses” meant, but my practice for years had been to list every word I did not know and look them up. Besides the vocabulary, I could not guess what all the fuss was about. Weapons? Disillusion? These times?

Schnackenberg gave me a definition of history in the universal sense – all that has happened – and of history in the professional sense – concern with the past of what has happened and its sequence to the present, but not with the future that is outside our knowledge. Qualifications followed: not only is knowledge of history in its universality impossible, but human reduction of history into a subject of study is also necessarily limited. Here comes the part that has stuck with me all these years. History is the interpreted fragment of the discovered fragment of the recorded fragment of the selected fragment of the remembered fragment. Of course, I know now that the remembered fragment is prone to error and partiality, depending on viewpoint.

From that reading, I humbled myself in the face of all history that I took as the study before me and as the universal of all the history of existence that loomed behind me. I did not call history discovery at that time, but daily discovery was my experience. The larger part of Schnackenberg’s task in illuminating the “historical situation” puts history as the sequence in time within its eschatological and Christian contexts. I believe that I accepted that explanation without fully realizing its import, but such an account moved me along to further consideration of the philosophy of history.

Enamored as I was of Nietzsche as a college freshman, my reading of him included The Use and Abuse of History, translated by Adrian Collins (1957). Nietzsche’s contrary views always startled and made grasping them difficult so that I spent a lot of time with him that first year of college, even wrote a long paper on him to inform and resolve my thinking and to practice research reporting based on sources. Even then I was not sure of my own understanding. However, clearly just as in Thus Spake Zarathustra where Nietzsche expects more out of life than the ordinary, in this essay on history, he wants more enlightenment, utility and impact out of history. Nietzsche found the historicism of his day stultifying without transformative value. “Only strong personalities can endure history; the weak are extinguished by it” (1957, p. 32). Living up to Nietzsche’s visions proved quite a challenge.

Next came the call of Hegel’s Reason in History, translated by Robert S. Hartman (1953). By reading Hegel, I came to a fuller understanding of the Nietzschean reaction. Though Hegel declared that we must take history as it is, for him theory and theology overflowed that history and the evolution of history as a process. He failed to engage my attention and thought as Nietzsche had. When I read Hegel’s statement “World history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom – a progress whose necessity we have to investigate” (1953, p.24), I thought, Yes, very well; I will continue to investigate. I stopped reading Hegel at that point and began my investigation, continuing unto this day.

My classmates had not stumbled into the adventurous discovery of history as I had. No wonder: textbooks and teachers constituted their exposure to it. I was on the path of intellectual exploration, a never-ending quest. In existential terms, I understood history (universal) as our nature, a nature far more mysterious than could be grasped but the only study worth a lifetime of effort (learning as our profession), always unfolding, always new, refreshed.

Many years later, after I had quit employment, a new Commissioner came to head the Minnesota Department of Education in a Republican administration. She professed a love of history and brought her old history books along with her into office. At that time, history was one of the state curriculum standards under development. As the controversies of what was valid played out in the standards revision, the Commissioner railed against revisionism in history. For her, history was fixed, unarguable and official. Too much Hegel, I thought; not enough Nietzsche. Obviously, she never read Schnackenberg.

For more context on my formative reading experiences, click for the post Acquisitions.

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© Copyright 2009 by Roger Sween.