An architect friend recently told me about 100 year old monuments his firm re-embedded into new bridgework. The monuments remember fallen American soldiers.  The ribbon cutting ceremony in Ohio drew congressmen, businessmen, and local townspeople all hailing the bridge as a step forward, enhancing future generations of the community.  Speech after speech was made.  Local news cameras rolled, recording the event.  Sadly, it was not until everyone was packing up to leave that someone ran to the podium to say, “Oh!  And by the way, the rebuilt bridge is also to honor these men from history.”  My friend Kevin remarked, “The bridge, originally built with historical honor, had become simply an ‘Oh, by the way’ moment today.”  Obsessed with today and tomorrow we humans tend to forget yesterday.

Our concern about the present and the future point out twin problems in the study of history.  First, it is hard to assess our own time because we are too close to it.  Second, it is hard to assess someone else’s time because we are too far from it.  Our first problem in the study of history is being too close.  When Ronald Reagan was governor of California there was great upheaval on college campuses.  Shouting insults, a student told Reagan that it was impossible for people of Reagan’s generation to understand young people.  “You grew up in a different world,” the protester said.  “Today we have television, jet planes, space travel, nuclear energy, and computers.”  Without missing a beat Reagan replied, “You’re right.  It’s true that we didn’t have those things when we were young.  We invented them.”  Sometimes we can’t evaluate our own time because we are living in it.

Our second problem in the study of history is being too far away.  Barbara Tuchman, the brilliant American historian, wrote, “To understand the choices open to people of another time, one must limit oneself to what they knew; see the past in its own clothes, as it were, not in ours.”[1] It is unfair, then, to impose our present views on America’s founders, for instance, with 250 years of history under our belts.  It is also unfair to berate a quarterback’s performance the day after the game.  I wonder what mouthy sports radio fans would do if some 350 pound defensive end was about to send them into next week. It’s unfair to judge yesterday only by what we know today.

Overly concerned about today and tomorrow, a bridge ceremony stands as an example of neglecting the past.  We should remember the twin problems of history.  Being too close to our own time, we think our evaluation of what happens today is right.  Being too far away from others’ time, we think we know better than those who went before.  Perhaps it would be better to live by this motto: remembering the past helps us know how to live in the present.  For Moody Radio, this is Dr. Mark Eckel, personally seeking truth wherever it’s found.

History. Moody Radio Commentary. Summer, 2010.

Dr. Mark Eckel, Professor of Old Testament, Crossroads Bible College

[1] Barbara Tuchman, “Problems in Writing the Biography of General Stilwell,” in Practicing History, 75.

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