In ch. 2 of Why Study History? John Fea explores several types of “usable pasts.” While some struck most of you as quite valid as you wrote your response papers, one that was generally unpopular was the notion of past as an “escape from the pressures and anxieties of modern life” (p. 33).
JOHN: If you always escape to the past to avoid your problems then your problems will never go away. Sometimes you need to face your pressures of life head on and try to correct them. I see this with some of my friends from high school. The first year of college they will go home a lot of the time because they feel safe there. That is ok to do time to time but they also need to try and deal with their anxiety about college. There are many ways to make the past useful and I feel we need to take advantage of those ways.
JAKE: I think this point contradicts the idea that we should be using history to influence our world today. McKenzie draws on this point, that history should not be understood in a passive sense. He says, “A dismissive attitude toward historical truth robs history of its greatest potential benefit to us a disciplined study that helps us to see the present more clearly” (McKenzie, p. 171).
Fea cites the example of a Twilight Zone episode. Can you think of a specific example of historical escapism in popular culture? Can you see any benefit to the past as a source of escape? (Do you ever do this? Do you think you’re more or less prone to this kind of escapism as someone who’s especially interested in history?)