This is a copy of my first History paper for my graduate history class. We were required to read a particular text introducing the study of history. The first assignment was defined as:
ASSIGNMENT I (See Gustavson Study Guide before reading)
Due: Week 5
Length: 7 Pages
Format: Essay with occasional page references (in parentheses)
Grade: 30% of Course Grade (See "Tips for Effective Essays" and "An Important Word
About Facts" in this course guide before you begin writing.)
Read: Gustavson, entire book (Preface, too), AND this course guide.
Questions to Answer:
*Please Note: Use concrete examples, preferably from history, to support generalized statements wherever possible.
This is my near final draft. I'm not entirely happy with the opening and the closing so I may do a bit more work here.
L. Albert Billings
Dr. James Jeffers
HUX501: Defining the Humanities: History
Gustavson gives an overview of why the study of history is important and not simply the focus on the seemingly dead past and shows history as the study of the causes and social forces that lead to present circumstances. These causes and forces, while having their immediate beginning in individuals, follow repeating aggregate patterns. One way to analyze these forces and the role of history in current circumstances is through the development of historical mindedness in students. Gustavson defines this as “’a way of thinking,’ a form of reasoning when dealing with historical materials and present-day problems.” (5) This skill must be actively developed in order to truly grasp history and its development is the goal of the student of history. It is also a skill that can be used in analyzing current events and their connections to the past. In this paper, I will examine the value of the study of history and examples of the social forces as discussed by Gustavson. I will also discuss the nature of historical mindedness and apply it to an event in my own experience as an example.
In addressing the value of history, Gustavson states that “History gives perspective” (2). He uses the analogy of looking out from a high place to see the influences that shape current events and culture. Another way to say this is that history gives context to individuals for the world that they inhabit. It allows people to see the whole of which their current lifetimes and the associated events are only the most visible part. The events of today will become the next history. The future will derive its events and institutions from the developing present, which is derived from the historical past. The problems faced by people today are the same problems that they have always faced with only the details changing over time. Gustavson states, “The first important idea to grasp in studying history is that the world in which we live, the contours we accept as part of our modern world are in reality the outcroppings of layers laid down in the past.” (22)
This means that the specific problems of today are rooted in the past. Past history set the conditions or processes that develop or evolve into the current environment. There is always a prior set of causes which lead to later results in a never ending chain of cause and effect. As an example there is the current situation in Iraq. This situation that the United States finds itself in is difficult to understand without the knowledge of the West’s colonial era, the creation of the Iraq from the Ottoman Empire by Britain, and then its subsequent political developments through independence, monarchy, coup and dictatorship. Ignorance of these earlier conditions leaves people without a true understanding of the basis of current conditions, which runs the risk of repeating mistakes. Gustavson makes an analogy to history being the assembly of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle (3, 18). The pieces are all of those previous events or influences that went into the large puzzle which is our world.
These puzzle pieces can also be said to be organized in regular patterns as social forces that drive historical events. These forces are not discrete events even if their immediate manifestations are discrete. For example, there is a regular pattern to the rise of all revolutions (which will be discussed below). Gustavson defines social forces as “…human energies, which, originating in individual motivations, coalesce into a collective manifestation of power” (28) and spends much of the rest of the text discussing these forces. These social forces manifest throughout history in a number of specific forms.
An example of a form is the creation of institutions within societies. Institutions embody a set of values in a specific manner and have a goal of encouraging these values in a society. They organize themselves to further these values. The strength of institutions is that they allow collective action where a lone person’s actions may not have enough impact to cause change on a wide scale. Gustavson also states that “they are a stabilizing element in society, providing, as they do, organization, order, and social pattern.” (81) Institutions provide continuity and support of the values necessary for a functioning society through the use of collective action.
Much of the stability given by institutions is provided by the inertia and power that becomes attached them if they are disciplined in maintaining a focus on furthering their values. The continuity of their existence over time provides stability in a society and becomes an intrinsic part of a culture. This is a positive aspect of institutions for most people. For example, the Catholic Church and its sacraments, such as Baptism and Marriage, provide continuity to people with the actions of their ancestors through undergoing of the same rites and shared beliefs in Roman Catholic nations.
Another aspect of institutions is that they all have an additional goal of perpetuating themselves, regardless of original goals. This goal can come at the expense of supporting the original values that were the basis for the institution. In some ways, this may detract from promoting its values but it must be pointed out that any institution that does not sustain itself will not survive. Without survival, an institution cannot further its other goals. Gustavson states of an institution that it will “…constantly seek to enlarge the number of those subject to its orders and, if this is achieved, to intensify the degree of control.” (89) He also states “…’selfishness’ is the principal feature of the institutional factor in history…” (91) The examples that are given are those of the Roman Catholic Church and of monarchies. Both evolved into very different institutions from their initial structures and values. In response to circumstances, external and internal pressures and the desire to be perpetuated, institutions change.
The balancing of the positive effects of the values and continuity promoted by institutions in societies and the potential negative effects of their inherent selfishness is one of the prevailing tendencies with this social force.
Another social force outlined by Gustavson is revolution. This is especially relevant given the repeated events of the 20th century where revolutionary forces have risen to the forefront of activity in many nations and have dominated political, social and economic activity. Gustavson defines revolution as a phenomena “…in which a social or economic group is superseded in control of the state by another group under circumstances of violence.” (99) Revolutions are rooted in discontent over existing conditions in a society and the government or institutions that support them. The states that are eventually replaced are usually weak and divided in their actions. Gustavson argues that “…one must decide that a revolution usually replaces a decrepit authority with a vigorous one.” (108)
There are a number of popular ideas about revolution that have been promoted but which are not necessarily true. The popular vision is that a revolution is led by the citizens of a state rising up to violently overthrow tyranny or oppressive laws. In reality, only a small percentage of a population is committed to a revolutionary ideal. People are often indifferent or actively hostile to change. This is true even when they are unhappy with circumstances. Gustavson points out that “the passive spirit of the vast majority of the population, prevented by fear from finding expression in vocal criticism, nevertheless, by the vary massiveness of its indifference, erodes away the determination of the revolutionaries.” (107-108)
Gustavson outlines five common stages to a revolution on page 109. These can be summarized as follows: individuals publicly point to the causes of discontent while giving alternative visions to address them, groups of people engage in acts of disobedience and violence, the ruling social or economic group passes power to a new group espousing these visions, the former ruling group engages in a civil war to regain its previous role, and the new ruling group attempts to realize its vision if it retains power. The passage of power from the old ruling group to the new one can fracture into the kind of violence seen during the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror,” especially if the new group is not sufficiently disciplined or united. Over time, even with a successful revolution, there is a gradual return to previous patterns and attitudes. Very few, if any, revolutions have had an immediate change on the values of a people that remained permanently. More often, revolutions have acted as a means to continue an existing process of change deriving from the previous values of a society. It is only over generations that the larger scale changes in the values of society have occurred.
The study of history gives tools to observant students that allow them to see the analogies between current situations and those of history including the social forces at work. Students may also gain some understanding from these analogies. This understanding of processes and concepts is the historical mindedness defined by Gustavson at the beginning of the paper. He states that it has seven key features: the ability to look beyond the superficial appearance of historical events; a natural inclination to look for the basis of current events, problems, and groups in the past; an ability to differentiate the features of the dynamic forces in society; the inclination and ability to find the continuities in society from the past through to the present; an understanding that society is dynamic and constantly undergoes change; a focus on how things actually are, not how people might wish them to be; and an understanding that each event is unique and no analogy will be completely accurate.
In order to become historically minded students must work with and develop the mindset outlined by those characteristics. These skills are not obvious and must be worked with over time in order to develop proficiency. To use them a historian works from a frame of reference, which is an orderly collection of data about a historical period. The historian looks at the relationship between ideas, events, people or pieces of data and attempts to see how they fit into a whole through associations. As new data is discovered, new relationships to the data in the frame of reference are examined without becoming overly caught up in the details of the facts.
A historian studies the outline of the whole as a relationship between the pieces, not simply a list of fact and dates. From this developing frame of reference, a skilled historian will then actively ask questions, examining the data from as many viewpoints as possible. This process of active thought and questioning is essential to history. The active use of the mind to study and question the data, not simply to memorize it, is necessary to integrate it. As Gustavson says, “Only knowledge that is actually used will become part of oneself.” (10)
Referring back to what I have written on social forces and on historical mindedness, I can apply this mindset to my experiences professionally. I work for the Microsoft Corporation, which was recently sued as a monopoly violating antitrust statutes by the United States government. I worked at the company throughout the trial and paid strict attention to it.
Superficially, this trial seems like a relatively simple problem unless you are a lawyer for either side. It is about the application of an existing law and the arguing of whether evidence shows that Microsoft broke the law or not. From this point of view, it looks to be simply another bit of arguing about the tactics or actions that businesses take today.
Applying historical mindedness, it is a little more interesting as a case. The first principle of this view is to look beyond the superficial appearance of historical events. The second principle is to look for the basis of current events in the past. Using these principles, I can look at the role of antitrust law and popular attitudes in the legal case. Antitrust law has a particular place in American history. Its creation was part of a reaction to abuses that occurred in the United States during the late 19th century by corporations such as the various railroads. Before these laws, monopolies operated in a much freer environment. Eventually, with legal pressure and public outcry, it was recognized that their special nature required a different set of laws to apply to them. This led to the crafting of federal laws to curtail the abuses of monopolies. These laws, first created in 1887 and extended through the early part of the 20th century, applied immediately to monopolies on physical resources. They were extended over time and have now been applied to an Information Technology (IT) company which has control over non-physical resources.
The American view of monopolies and their previous abuse were a factor in the Microsoft case along with the company’s actions. This was simply because of it being an antitrust case. Popular comparisons were drawn in the press between Bill Gates and the “Robber Barons” of the 19th century. It can be said that the legal basis of the fight, the analogies between Microsoft and monopolies of the past, and between Gates and monopolists like Andrew Carnegie are examples of continuity with the past. The same kinds of problems occur again and again. The fifth principle of historical mindedness states that society undergoes change and is not static. It could be said from this that there was no actual continuity with history. This would mean that the trial was simply an attempt, for political or economic reasons, to make a link where none existed and to apply monopoly laws meant for different kind of problem in another era to a different kind of problem today.
Certainly, elements of both of these viewpoints are true. It is true that Microsoft is legally a monopoly. The courts upheld this during the trial. However, it is also true that it is a much different kind of monopoly than those that existed in the 19th century when the end to end production, transport, and sale of certain goods or services was completely controlled by a single entity. In examining this, I am reminded of the seventh principle of historical mindedness, that each event is unique and that no analogy will be completely accurate. The importance here is to see the connections and analogies between events today and those of history.
I find Gustavson’s approach to be a refreshingly different viewpoint than the one taught in my own primary education. That form of history seemed to be only concerned with lists of facts, dates, and chains of events without understanding of issues. It ignored much of the interrelationship between events over time, social forces, or the cyclical aspects of history where reoccurring events are driven by similar forces. Gustavson’s orientation to history, through the principles of historical mindedness and through the examination of social forces in reoccurring forms, gives students of history a valuable set of tools. His emphasis on the active questioning of assumptions and ideas and the relation of them to a frame of reference provides an approach to history that allows a better understanding of the nature of historical events. The value of Gustavson’s tools of historical mindedness is that they allow students to apply the lessons of history to current events and to see the reoccurring patterns in society.
Gustavson, Carl G. A Preface to History. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1955.
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