My severance package from the job I held for a little over a year post-graduation was a book, a present quite fitting for my next step. The Educated Imagination (forgive but don’t forget this title) by Northrop Frye (an old-time English comrade perhaps?) broadly “explores the value and and uses of literature and its study in our scientific age.” That age is the Canadian 1960s, and yet almost everything Frye says in a lively and even gregarious tone still holds true to my experience as a student of American history in the 21st century. And while ole Northrop is largely concerned with the suckers in the back of the high school Literature class moaning “When am I ever going to use this?,” (Oh 2009, how distantly you still echo!) I think you can substitute college for high school and History for Literature and roll through his argument just as well.
This argument is that there are three levels of the mind and three according uses of English for each:
1) the level of consciousness and awareness, and thus the language we use is that of ordinary conversation and monologue;
2) the level of social participation, the working and technological language of teachers and preachers and politicians and journalists and scientists, and here the language is that of practical sense and scientific terminologies;
3) and then the last and the best, the level of the imagination, which produces the literary language, poems, novels, and plays.
Ole Northrop lays this down in such a way that you’re happy to be on the same page with him, but then he goes on, saying that literature (and he’ll throw the rest of the arts in too just to keep the painters and musicians happy) is the only thing that can inhabit that last and best level of the mind and of language. This is where I cannot get down with Ole Northrop and his heavily drawn lines between his firmly anchored levels of the mind.
History, for me, should skirt between the practical and the literary languages. Good history should give you the facts, but it should also elevate your mind (and ideally your spirit) in the way that good literature does. Northrop argues that that historian is “judged by the truth or falsehood of what he says…but the poet never makes any real statements at all. The poet’s job is not tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that is always taking place.” And I disagree, strongly. The place of history, (do I dare?) the place of the humanities, is to first teach what happened, then once given this fact, have the student realize that he knows and will carry this fact, able now to apply it to his own life and times. Teaching history can and should tread the line between the practical and the imaginative, between “The civil war began in 1860 over the issue of slavery,” and “Here is the legacy of slavery in our own times and what we should do about it.”
I’m putting down ole Northrop, who I really do think of as a pal after reading these radio talks (even though I couldn’t talk with him about William Blake or even literary criticism, such fearful and bizarre worlds), but he says so many other good things that left me smiling like mad in the Honda dealership where I sat reading this and drinking bitter black coffee for several hours. The best and the greatest was this:
“The world of the imagination is a world of elsewhere. The world of the imagination is a world of unborn or embryonic beliefs: if you believe what you read in literature, you can, quite literally, believe anything. So one of the most obvious uses, I think, is its encouragement of tolerance. In the imagination our own beliefs are also only possibilities, but we can also see the possibilities in the beliefs of others.”
If literature gives us the chance to experience other possibilities through the gift of tolerance, then certainly history does. Literature is not a dream world, the perfect and imagined, it also lives in the world of the bad, where the good does not always triumph and we can’t help but to feel angry or discontent. History is the same. But from history, there is such a chance to learn, to see mistakes and look forward to not making them again! History, while diving into the realm of the imagination (and doing a few laps in the land of 20/20 hindsight), is able to move beyond the facts and data that make it appear to utterly useless to so many.
There is such practicality to history, such value, and such creativity: a remembrance I hope not to forget. I often tend to agree with the criticism that academia is insulated, having known so many professors absorbed in research that to a (somewhat) surly undergrad appeared, well, useless. And of course, I have known great professors, doing research for more than just self-satisfaction and teaching in the hopes that their students will take the history and sociology lessons further than to the next test. This is what I need to remember and repeat, coming from ole Northrop himself:
“The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in. Obviously that can’t be a separated society, so we have to understand how to relate the two.”
And how? To teach history well.