History as Progress: A Surprisingly Durable Narrative

Posted: July 29, 2010 by Scott Kistler in History

We often hear that people don’t know much history anymore.  Some studies suggest that there’s never really been a golden age (at least in America) when everyone knew our history, but I think that it is true that with pluralism and the damaging of consensus in the last 40-50 years there’s less cultural expectation that people should really know history and less confidence that there really a body of knowledge that we should know (see a critique of this mindset here).

I have noticed, though, that the progressive narrative of history does seem to stay with students.  It’s basically an Enlightenment idea that says that civilization gets better over time.  So a decent number of students in my Western Civ to 1648 course know that the early Christians were very nice, that the Church controlled everything in the Middle Ages, that Martin Luther was on the side of reason and encouraged people to read the Bible for themselves against the corrupt, unreasonable Catholic Church, and that the Scientific Revolution finally brought reason to Europe (never mind that that was what Martin Luther supposedly did).  The progressive narrative seems to like the Protestants as long as they’re challenging the enemy of all reason, the Catholic Church, but then of course science and reason come and push them off the pedestal in the 1600s.

I’m aware that the Catholic Church always gets a bad rap in this framework.  In the Middle Ages, the kings and churches actually had quite a contest which the kings eventually won.  Luther wanted everyone to read the Bible, but as far as I know he didn’t want the division and individualism that came about from this, and the Catholic Church underwent its own Reformation led by people like Ignatius Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross who believed in Catholic teachings  but couldn’t stomach the corruption.  I purposely don’t present the story of the Reformation as a story of Protestant triumphalism against backwards Catholics, but that narrative has a lot of appeal for students.  I’m genuinely glad for the Reformation, but I don’t think that triumphalism is a particularly good way to understand history.  I also find it interesting that the students seem to like the idea of the Protestants following the Bible as their authority, because I think a lot of them would disagree with the very serious way that these Protestants took the Bible.  Luther and Calvin weren’t moral therapeutic deists, which tends to be a characteristic of college-age students.  Now I’m really just speculating, though.

Maybe it’s not surprising that students imbibe the progressive narrative of history, but it’s interesting that in an era where we can’t seem to decide what to teach children that this particular way of understanding history lives on.  Perhaps it does because it’s an easy way to organize all of the various facts that we learn in history classes.  It’s probably reinforced in schools as well, but why do they remember that and not other things?

OK, I’m done rambling.

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