In this week’s first column, “The Enlightenment didn’t change everything,” I explored how vaguely gesturing at histories of “The Enlightenment” does a disservice to the present. There was no magical transformation in human neurobiology in the 17th and 18th centuries. No sudden shift from a time of mystic thinking to an era without. Enlightenment myth has messy beginnings and endings, with precursor eras just as full of critical thinkers, and a legacy steeped in superstition.
More to the point, though, secular folk tend to invoke Enlightenment myth today to claim that we’re falling from rationalist “grace”. This is terrible historiography (the study of how histories are created), and even worse human behavioralism. There was no golden age of reason. We’re the same basic human beings today as ever, with the same leanings as ever toward groupthink, leader-worship, and a longing to think for ourselves.
Is there a role in today’s conversation for our histories of progress? Even the messy ones, like those we find in droves in the Enlightenment myth? Absolutely. But we need to be careful when exploring our histories. Wielding them as bludgeons against the present won’t help. They’re tools, shaped by humans come before us and re-shaped by us as we use them.
So in today’s Tooling Around, let’s think about the best ways and reasons to bring our messiest of histories to bear on today’s conversations.
Give these questions a try, but feel free to add your own!
1. When do you use history in your conversations? Is it always to counter an argument? Or more to set up an idea, a theme, or a context?
2. What do you look for, when learning more about history yourself? What’s a major red flag for you, that a given author’s view of history is painfully blinkered?
3. How much has the interpretation of a favorite historical event changed in your lifetime?
4. What do you think about how today’s public speakers, journalists, activists, and politicians use histories of progress? Do any examples of good usage stand out?
5. Okay, we can’t go without at least one fun component. Would you please do us the honor of sharing your favorite little-known historical fact?
Add away, Shoptalkers! Better histories await.