History a story understood by what is left behind, we live it every day

Today I’m writing not about educational institutions, but about the substance of education, specifically history, the basis of most of the

liberal arts.

I taught German cultural history for years and students would sometimes tell me they didn’t like history. I responded, “That’s like a fish saying it doesn’t like water. We live within history. It is

our element.”

I don’t mean to be coy. I know those students meant the discipline of history, not the reality of history; the way it is taught, but not the way it is.

But get this: there is no “way it is.” There is only the discipline of history, understood in a broad sense of people [even non-historians] talking or writing about what happened.

What’s past is past. What’s left is words and artifacts. And so history, as Napoleon said, is nothing but “a fable agreed upon.”

Or not agreed upon! History persists as a discipline not just because things keep happening, not just because new knowledge is found, but because the fable, the story, keeps getting tweaked by historical discussons with new perspectives.

Calling history a set of “stories” no more devalues it than calling the natural sciences a set of “theories”

devalues them.

“Stories” and “theories” are not mere fictions, they are powerful and authoritative fictions. Both history and science are based on the communion of thinkers. Going to a university gives you an opportunity to get in on that conversation.

This academic year marks two big, related stories of twentieth-century history: the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Seventy years ago this week, the “Big Three,” the leaders of the Allied powers fighting Nazi Germany, met at Yalta on the Crimean peninsula [which is now making history because of its role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine].

When German defeat was virtually certain, Joseph Stalin of the USSR, Winston Churchill of Great Britain and Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States met to discuss the disposition of Germany after the war.

The Allies had decided to demand an unconditional surrender. They would not negotiate with the German government, but assume military rule over the

defeated country.

The Soviets had occupied most of Eastern and East-Central Europe as they drove the Germans out. This became the Soviet sphere behind the “Iron Curtain” [Churchill’s term] during the Cold War, which lasted from 1948 until 1989.

After cooperating to defeat Hitler’s fascist state, the US and the USSR became enemies in a forty-year standoff.

It is no coincidence that the victors of World War II became the permanent security council of the United Nations.

After defeating Germany and Japan, they were in a paradoxical position of both throwing their weight around and trying to create a structure intended to ensure peace in the future.

Well, fellow fish, that’s a very brief introduction to a couple of the currents we swim in.

How’s the water?

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