History a 'creative process,' Norman Naimark says
Everyone's heard it: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Despite Santayana's well-worn bromide, however, history is no amulet against repetition, according to Norman Naimark, the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of Eastern European Studies.
Naimark gave his talk, "Passing the Torch: Thoughts about History, Teaching, and Mentorship," on Jan. 29 for the Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching series sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning.
"We're still going to make lousy decisions and get into terrible wars," he said. Knowing history only offers us a chance to "be better prepared to make those decisions" by making us more aware of the moral questions and choices before us.
Naimark said he supported a concept, formulated by history Professor Emeritus James Sheehan, of "history as moral science"—not to be confused, Naimark added, with moral instruction or preaching.
"History teaches about everyday men and women making decisions, society moving in one direction or another, good people and bad people," he said. History allows us to "recreate this moral universe."
But to get to that knowledge in the first place, many students need mentors, a relationship that he said was guided by "trust and affection." Naimark pointed out that the idea of "mentoring" comes from Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus's entrusts his son Telemachus to Mentor, who "helps Telemachus find his own way in life."
"We're all mentors, in some sense, at every level of the university," he said.
In his talk, Naimark distinguished between mentoring undergraduates, a brief and intense process that usually dissipates with graduation, and mentoring graduate students, developing a lifelong relationship that basically creates future colleagues.
Undergraduates "come in as kids and become young adults—it's a biological law," he said. Their university mentors must recognize that many of today's students have "really crummy secondary education that really numbs their brains." In high schools, history is frequently presented as the chronicle of a dead past, rather than a "living conversation between the past and present." With "Western Civ" classes at Stanford, "the whole idea was to undeaden them."
"There's a difference between history and economics," he said. "You don't have to convince students that economics is important—they're trying to get kids out of those classes."
By contrast, "I have yet to meet a freshman who says 'I want to be an historian.' It's considered weird, 'out there,'" he said.
"History seems arcane. As my father used to tell me: 'Isn't that just reading books at night?'"
Students are guided into history through a process of progressive enchantment—which often occurs through mentoring. As for taking history as a profession, "You have to convince undergraduates that they can do this."
The task of mentoring graduate students presents different challenges. Graduate students have to confront "the thousands of books—the wealth of information out there."
Naimark confessed that he is still intimidated by all the books "I've never read, and will never be able to read, on my own narrow subject. The sense of that is overwhelming."
"The past is huge, endless—infinity," he added. "There is no not being overwhelmed."
In mentoring, he said, "the whole idea is to give courage"—and to let students know that there is still something to contribute to the field, for history is reinvented in each era.
Naimark emphasized that, for historians, history is a "creative enterprise."
"Every generation has its own concerns. It thinks about those concerns, has conferences about those concerns." This reconsideration leads to "the notion of creating history—taking it out of nothing and putting it on paper, creating a world of the past through your own efforts."
"How can there be 300,000 books about the French Revolution?" he asked. The books' existence occurs through that process of seeing history through the lens of a new era. The task of a mentor—those "dedicated to Clio," muse of history—involves reassuring students that "they can do it better."
"Mentoring is breaking the barrier," Naimark said, and teaching future historians not to be intimidated by the weight of the past. "The truth is, they can do better than we can."