Usable Pasts: Escapism

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?)

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9 thoughts on “Usable Pasts: Escapism

  1. I think looking more generally escapism is dangerous no matter what you’re escaping too. Using the past to avoid problems will only make the problem worse because you will no longer have a desire to even confront the problem but rather to escape into the safe place called the past. Both Jake and John talk about the negative of this escapism in society but even in the discipline of history there seems to be a contradiction to this escapist idea. One recurring theme in our study of history is the use of the stories and narrations for moral reflection. Moral reflection would, when properly used, allow one to learn from the mistakes of others not only in practice but in belief and to exhort us to a better and deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. However it would almost be easier to gain this escapist attitude as a historian because we are immersed in the times we study, and this is something we must be aware of and attempt, with all possible objectivity, to remove ourselves personally from our study.

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  2. I’m glad Collin has mentioned “moral reflection” in his two comments today! If you aren’t sure what he means by that phrase… John Fea discusses it in ch. 5 of his book, which you read before Spring Break. You can also find it in ch. 8 of Tracy McKenzie’s book, where he offers it as a more humble, educational alternative to “moral judgment.” (See especially pp. 181-85 of The First Thanksgiving.)

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  3. I think it is especially easy to fall into escapism when studying the past because it allows somebody to construct an alternate scenario based on one fact being different. It might be if only I had taken that job then I would have a more successful career, I would be in a better city and be much happier. We convince ourselves that if that if the outcome of one event had been different are lives would be better. This is dangerous for two reasons. First, our lives probably would not have greatly improved by the change of one event . When we construct these scenarios we usually make this plan of what we would do to be happy. The thing is life never follows our plans, and even if that one scenario had been different, it still would not be the thing that brings us happiness. Secondly, escaping to the past is dangerous because there is so much to escape into thinking about how things could have been different is not limited to current events or even our life times but can be anything we choose.

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  4. I too regarded the use of the past as a form of escape as a particularly problematic. But, I wonder at the extent to which this view is impacted by precisely this idea of usefulness that is popular, but highly critiqued in the modern world. Should moral reflection, and thereby finding some use, always be the lens from which a historian views events as important? Is viewing the past through a mindset of escapism actually get more at the authentic core of the event when it is enjoyed for what it is without having some more noble end in mind, such as the forming as identity or inspiring the future? Fundamentally, this goes back to the question of whether the past should be used as an explicit warning or at the very least an implicit source of individual moral reflection as opposed to viewing history as a reanimation of events to simply be enjoyed for themselves alone.

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  5. Escapism is a really easy way to fall into studying history. Yet, it does not help you to use the past in a way that is constructive and challenging. You are not being challenged by the past, if you are seeking the past.

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  6. I agree that relying on the past as an escape can be dangerous to how one relates in the present, but are there any ways that escaping into history can be positive? To a point, is escapism useful to studying history? In my senior seminar history project, I have found it helpful to immerse myself into the time period or event that I am studying, to consciously assume the mindset of the time period to produce empathy and better understanding of primary texts, and to remove my own biases and present critical thinking for a period of time. Can this be considered escapism, or is it just a form of scholarship? Where is the line? Can certain interests or practices in history (in scholarship or recreation) be misunderstood as escapism? Can using history as an escape from problems give one a different perspective of the problems they are facing, perhaps helping them to see a bigger picture?

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  7. I think that Escapism can create dangerous habits for our present day society. We cannot keep referencing back to the past as an example of what life should be. While past cultures can give us valuable insight and guidance, it’s our duty as the next generation to keep progressing and moving forward. The past should not be used as a crutch that we can lean on and put our total reliance in but instead a stepping stone towards making our own mark and attempting to make the best of our culture today.

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  8. I agree with both John and Jake, that there are real problems with escapism, and I too, believe that it is a dangerous thing to go to the past every time something bad has happened in your life. Some situations may bring the feeling of running back because it may feel comfortable to try and find an emotional connection with someone who is going through the same things or gain knowledge from the past, but the amount one can grow as an individual is so large if they stay and face the problem. This philosophy doesn’t just work with individuals, but it can work with schools, businesses, anything that could face hardship.

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  9. Escapism is a dangerous side of looking at history. As Lauren mention above, one can use escapism as a form of putting one’s self in the shoes of those in the past. But the reason why I think that this form of examing the past does not qualify as escapism but rather just seeking to understand context is because with context one always keeps in mind today. With escapism one does not look to come back to the present but rather live in the past.

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