by Kevin Flatt December 1st, 2015
When I was in graduate school, studying for a degree in history, my department went through a hiring process to bring in a new faculty member. Custom dictated that each candidate’s interview include an informal question-and-answer session with some of the department’s graduate students. The questions I decided to pose to each candidate were ones I had been wrestling with myself: Why study history? Are there lessons we can learn from the past that might benefit the present? I expected at least tentative answers, but what I got instead, in nearly every case, were blank looks of incomprehension. These questions seemed not to have occurred to these historians, and they struggled to provide any kind of response.

After one of these sessions, an older graduate student took me aside. I was surprised to see that he was agitated, even angry, about my line of questioning. My questions, in his eyes, were not just odd, but indecent, violating some unspoken rule of etiquette within the historical profession. Why should these scholars have to justify their discipline, he asked? Who are you to put them on the spot in this way?

More than a decade later, I have learned that such attitudes are widespread among professional historians, at least in Canada. In North American universities, advanced training in history tends to bracket foundational questions about the origins and purpose of the discipline and treat it as a side interest pursued by an eccentric few. More broadly, however, it reflects a disdain—not taught so much as passed on by osmosis—for the idea that we can learn “lessons” from the past, as if we were people arguing about Hitler in online comment sections.

Now, in reality, under the layers of feigned detachment, many historians are deeply invested in the past as a particular kind of morality tale. As Christian Smith has recently argued regarding American sociologists, historians are engaged in their own “sacred project” of vindicating the marginalized, exposing what they see as unjust systems (whether neoliberal capitalism, white privilege, patriarchy, or heteronormativity), and subverting all potentially oppressive categories. This project, whatever it might have to commend itself, turns history into a vindication of a set of values that were literally unthinkable before the intellectual milieu of the late modern West.

Many professional historians are therefore doubly insulated from learning from the past: on the one hand, they consciously resist the idea of drawing lessons from it; on the other hand, and at a deeper, unconscious level, the lessons they do see confirm their contemporary preferences and prejudices. What does it say about our society that the very people we set apart to immerse themselves in the knowledge of the past are thus effectively inoculated against the idea that we might learn something from it?


And yet, our cultural moment makes learning from the past particularly important. Our progressive, technological, forward-looking civilization is separated from its history in several ways. First, as a secularized civilization, the contemporary West is necessarily alienated to some extent from its Christian past. Not that Western civilization somehow made an entirely fresh start in the early modern era—this would be impossible—but our inheritances from Christendom have been repurposed within the framework of the secular order, just as Christendom once repurposed the heritage of pagan antiquity. Even for those of us who continue to look for the heavenly city, the secularization of cultural elites, and through them, the mass media and systems of cultural formation, and the entire structure of most of our daily lives, renders the premodern West a foreign place to our sensibilities.

In short, the Revolution is alive and well. As a result, we are wired to sense the dangers of nostalgia, stagnation, and living in the past, but less attuned to the perils of their opposites.

Second, our contemporary culture is still suffused with themes of progress, novelty, youth, autonomy, and self-creation. All of these militate against memory and a dedication to learning from the past, since the past is, by definition, outdated and constraining: something to be transcended and shaken off. The shattering disappointments of the twentieth century—two world wars, scientific racism and the Holocaust, the blood-soaked failure of communism—have not been enough to silence the song of progress, which still sets the rhythms of our political and economic discourse. In short, Revolution is alive and well. As a result, we are wired to sense the dangers of nostalgia, stagnation, and living in the past, but less attuned to the perils of their opposites.

And, third, our civilization is in truth an extreme historical outlier due to the rapid pace of change over the past few centuries. Some of our exceptionalities are good: we have hot and cold running water in our homes, we can (at least for the moment) overcome bacterial infections with effective antibiotics, we usually eschew the use of torture, and we have created hitherto unimagined spaces for the flourishing of women and girls. Others are less good: the unprecedented extent of our exploitation of plants, animals, and the earth and seas; our broken families and increasing social alienation; our hostility to any kind of constraint or norm higher than the individual human will. In any case, taking all these things together, our contemporary Western civilization stands startlingly apart from not only earlier periods of Western history but also all other previous human cultures and civilizations. If there is any corrective wisdom to be had from this past, it is all the harder for us to reach. We live in an amnesiac civilization.


Civilizational amnesia is not only a condition of professional historians or intellectual life, however. It also forms and deforms our patterns of institutional life together— our social architecture. This is perhaps obvious in the realm of democratic politics, where few people apart from political scientists look much further back than a few election cycles, and in the business world, where the passwords of the hour are entrepreneurship, rebranding, and disruptive innovation. Amnesia’s influence, however, is also felt in more subtle ways right across the variegated institutions of civil society.

Take, for example, our churches. (I draw examples from North American evangelicalism both because that is what I know best and because, notwithstanding its considerable virtues, it may be the form of Christianity most susceptible to institutional amnesia.) Over the past thirty years an emphasis on novelty has come to dominate our worship services, with the longevity of the latest worship song continually dwindling toward the brief shelf life of a hit on the Top-40 charts. Every decade or so a revolutionary new “model” of church growth and vitality—the Willow Creek model, the Purpose-Driven Church, the Simple Church— sweeps away existing patterns of congregational life. Indeed, in recent years hosts of evangelicals have been led away by supposedly cutting-edge “emerging” or “postevangelical” movements that would immediately have been recognized by their grandparents as barely warmed over Protestant liberalism. Even churches with a relatively robust inherited sense of historical continuity have been drawn into the current of relentless change, novelty, and reinvention.

I am overstating things, of course, and there are many exceptions and counter-currents— one thinks of the remarkable resurgence of interest in the Puritans and early church fathers right now taking place among influential Baptists, for example. But most evangelical readers will recognize what I am talking about. Taking the point further, there is little doubt that similar symptoms of Revolution could be discerned in the recent history of schools, trade unions, libraries, and family farms. Contemporary universities, for instance, are often caught in a dialectical struggle between two parties attached to incompatible visions of revolutionary change. One party is mesmerized by market-driven innovation, especially when it incorporates technological developments like MOOCs (massive open online courses), conforming the institutional patterns of university life to those of the business world. The opposing party bitterly resists this “corporatization” of the university, but it does so in order to protect its own radical agenda of using the classroom to subvert the cultural heritage of the premodern West at every turn and making campuses training grounds for political activists and social engineers. Neither side cares much about the historical DNA of universities, or the Latin (and usually Christian) mottoes emblazoned under their coats of arms.

The restless tide of late modern amnesia thus continually washes against our institutions and, unless they possess a certain solidity, erodes their foundations. For those of us who care about the health of our social architecture, how do we resist this erosion? And, just as importantly, how do we go beyond mere erosion resistance—which can too easily degenerate into curmudgeonly stubbornness— to the constructive task of building resilient institutions that remember forward, harnessing the memory of the past for the visions of the future?


We could do worse than look to Václav Havel for some cues. A Czech playwright and dissident who later became the first post- Communist president of Czechoslovakia, Havel lived most of his life in the shadow of another totalizing revolutionary narrative, that of Marxism. When Havel was still a child, the Communist party, backed by the Soviet Union, seized power and began constructing a totalitarian state that sought to absorb or control all of life in accordance with its ideology. He witnessed the failed attempt to break free of Soviet domination in the “Prague Spring” of 1968, and experienced the repressive power of the regime in many forms, including surveillance and harassment by the secret police and several stays in prison. He witnessed the sudden collapse of Communism in 1989 and was catapulted to national leadership when he was elected president late in that year. Havel, therefore, knew something about the difficulty, and the importance, of remembering in the face of a particularly sinister brand of Revolution. Examples of his thinking about memory, both as a dissident confronting a regime that cared little for either memory or civil society and as a statesman attempting to lead his country into a new era, are worth examining.

In a 1984 essay called “Politics and Conscience,” written a year after he was released from his longest imprisonment, Havel contrasted Communism’s Revolutionary point of view—supposedly total, rational, and objective—with a kind of particular, local memory embedded in traditional social institutions. His example of the latter was the traditional Czech family farm, the grunt (a word derived from the German Grund, meaning ground or foundation). Havel writes,

Certainly, the family farm was a source of endless and intensifying social conflict of all kinds. Still, we cannot deny it one thing: it was rooted in the nature of its place, appropriate, harmonious, personally tested by generations of farmers and certified by the results of their husbandry. It also displayed a kind of optimal mutual proportionality in extent and kind of all that belonged to it; fields, meadows, boundaries, woods, cattle, domestic animals, water, roads, and so on. For centuries no farmer made it the topic of a scientific study. Nevertheless, it constituted a generally satisfactory economic and ecological system, within which everything was bound together by a thousand threads of mutual and meaningful connection, guaranteeing its stability as well as the stability of the product of the farmer’s husbandry.
We see here Havel’s respect for the accumulated memory deposited in the very fabric of society. The point, for Havel, is not that the family farm was perfect, but that it was an intricate structure developed and refined over generations, embodying a kind of historical knowledge. The attempt to replace it, in a revolutionary moment, with a rational system based on a “scientific worldview,” according to Havel, was a kind of forgetting of this embedded memory, doomed to unleash a host of much worse problems, social, economic, and environmental. The fact that this is exactly what had happened in the collectivization of agriculture in the 1950s only adds poignancy to his argument. Remembering the family farm, respecting the embedded memory that it represented, was a form of resistance against the destructive pretensions of an amnesiac regime.

Six years after “Politics and Conscience” was published, in 1990, Czechoslovakia was in the midst of a sudden change. Communist regimes had crumbled or were crumbling throughout the Eastern bloc, and Havel had just been elected president. On New Year’s Day, he took to the airwaves to address his country. Along with frankly addressing the dismal situation of the country and the enormous work to be done to dismantle the Communist system, Havel looked to the past for signs of hope.

Our first president [Tomáš Masaryk] wrote, “Jesus, not Caesar.” In this he followed our philosophers Chelčický and Comenius. I dare to say that we may even have an opportunity to spread this idea further. . . . Masaryk based his politics on morality. Let us try in a new time and in a new way to restore this concept of politics. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community. . . . We are a small country, yet at one time we were the spiritual crossroads of Europe. Is there any reason why we could not again become one?
The road glimpsed but not taken in the past could become the road taken in the present.
Leaving aside the political vision sketched out here—arresting in its own right—we see here another one of the uses of memory. Even in this revolutionary moment, Havel had sharp enough eyes to see in his country’s history building blocks of integrity and courage amid the rubble of war, foreign oppression, and totalitarianism, building blocks that could serve as the cornerstone for a new Czechoslovakia. The road glimpsed but not taken in the past could become the road taken in the present.


Our task, thankfully, is not as immense as Havel’s. Our society’s amnesiac currents are not as absolute nor as totalitarian in their pretensions as those of 1980s Czechoslovakia, nor does our social architecture require almost complete rebuilding the way Czechoslovakia’s did in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, we too live in an atmosphere hostile to memory, and the two types of remembering demonstrated by Havel are instructive for our own situation.

…we will prefer change to take the forms of development of what is good and reformation of what is not, both of which are oriented by memory.

As dissident, in his appreciation for the institutional memory of the grunt, Havel points us to the importance of respect for traditional arrangements as an essential characteristic of the social conservationist. Rather than taking the attitude that the accumulated institutional patterns of the past—whether in the university, the church, the state, the family, the sports club, or the farm—are merely obstacles to rationalization and progress, we must patiently discern their particular beauty and value. The particularities of this task will necessarily vary greatly from one corner of civil society to another. But in general, we will take care to preserve institutional memory, telling our stories frequently, mentoring newcomers effectively, ensuring where possible that leadership changes are successions rather than takeovers, and reviving worthwhile customs that have fallen into disuse. Most of all, we will root ourselves firmly enough in memory that we are not blown away by every wind of fashion breathed by our revolutionary culture. Of course, all organizations must change over time, but resisting our cultural predilection for revolution as a mode of change, we will prefer change to take the forms of development of what is good and reformation of what is not, both of which are oriented by memory.

As statesman, in his attention to the past as guidepost for the future, Havel points us to the importance of remembering forward. As social visionaries guiding our institutions, we must not seek to create ex nihilo (a vain pursuit in any case), but instead look to the past for the resources with which to build the future. Not that we should ignore the failures and evils of the past, including those for which we or our organizations have been responsible—itself an important kind of remembering, one that Havel also understood. But we must also search for the best things in our histories, the Masaryk moments, and hold them before us as sources of inspiration and hope.


But how do we know what should be conserved, what should be developed, and what needs to be reformed? How do we know which elements of the past are the ones that should direct our path to the future? Here we run up against the most significant limitation of memory: history does not contain the principles for its own evaluation. History can tell us what has been, but not what should be. Apart from a framework of values, it is descriptive rather than normative. We must look outside it. As Christians, this is where we will find submission to Scripture and the historical community formed by obedience to Scripture indispensable. This is true regardless of what part of the social architecture we find ourselves engaged in conserving or building.

In our search for scriptural direction we need to be reading, not only Comment, but also the City of God—and it may be obvious, but bears repeating, that above all we need to be reading Scripture itself.

Here too a type of remembering is important. C. S. Lewis, in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” remarked, “Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or Mr. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.” That was seventy years ago; today we would expect such a group (if Protestant) to be studying Francis Chan or Joyce Meyer or Brian McLaren or John Piper, or even N. T. Wright or Jamie Smith; but the point stands. In our search for scriptural direction we need to be reading, not only Comment, but also the City of God—and it may be obvious, but bears repeating, that above all we need to be reading Scripture itself. After all, it is here, among the God-breathed pages, that we will find the truest history, the truest memory: the great cosmic Story of God’s creation, its fall, and his mighty work of redemption in Jesus Christ. It is this Story that will not only straighten and make sense of our small, local memories and stories, but will one day overthrow rival narratives, including the grand narratives of late modernity.
KEVIN FLATT is an associate professor of history and Director of Research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. His book After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada was recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. He is currently fascinated by the history of secularization, Christianity in the modern world, and the changes in Western societies that took place during the 1960s.