“The alternative to historical understanding is a kind of sleepwalking through life,” award-winning author and historian Brad S. Gregory told his Erskine audience at the 29th Annual Joseph T. Stukes Lecture Feb. 12.
Gregory, who serves as professor of history and Dorothy G. Griffin Collegiate Chair at the University of Notre Dame, spoke about “Why History Matters,” offering observations on why everyone—even students with no interest in history as a major or career— ought to cultivate historical awareness.
“I want to suggest to you the importance of historical awareness, of historical understanding, for your own life, regardless of what you seek to do with your own life,” Gregory said.
Assuring students that he would not be “making a pitch for any of you to pursue history as a career,” he insisted that “History would matter just as much, whether or not I want it to, if I had decided to become a businessman or lawyer or pastor.”
In Gregory’s view, one key element explaining why history matters is that “the present is the product of the past—not only the recent past, which is obviously related to it, but also the more distant past in ways that are not usually considered, are taken for granted, and do not immediately announce themselves.” This is true, he said, “whether we’re talking about technology, business corporations, geopolitics, or mainstream culture.”
A second key element of why history matters is that “history is defined by its relationship to time rather than by a specific aspect of human life.” Even though we arrange our schedules and order our lives in compartmentalized ways, “history leads us to see how human life is always lived as a complex, interconnected whole,” Gregory said.
“To the extent that we see these interconnections in relationship to the human past that has produced the human present, we have a perspective characterized by historical understanding.”
Gaining such a perspective often requires the abandonment of “comforting myths about the past,” Gregory said. “History begins for us only when we realize that the past has so often been so different from how we wish it had been.”
Making an important point for an audience engaged in the pursuit of learning, Gregory said that people who fail to cultivate historical awareness leave themselves “defenseless against those who perpetuate myths about the past for their own purposes,” adding, “We literally don’t know any better without historical understanding. But to the extent that we have it, we do.”
Brad Gregory has taught at Notre Dame since 2003 and previously served on the faculty of Stanford University.
He earned his Ph.D. in history at Princeton University and was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows; he also has two degrees in philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. His first book, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard, 1999), received six book awards. He was named the inaugural winner of the first annual Hiett Prize in the Humanities, a $50,000 award from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture given to the outstanding mid-career humanities scholar in the United States.
Gregory’s most recent book is The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Belknap, 2012).
The Joseph T. Stukes Lecture Series brings a distinguished lecturer in history to Erskine College each year. The fund was established by students and colleagues of Stukes, who served as professor of history (1966-74) and vice president for academic affairs (1966-71) at Erskine College.