Usable Pasts: Inspiration

As I read your response papers this week, the most popular “usable past” that came up was John Fea’s idea of the past as a source of inspiration (or caution). Three examples of that theme…

SHAWN: I see the past as a useful notion because why else do we have the ability to remember the past. It is useful because we have to past to remember and try not to repeat in the future. We see the past and learn from our mistakes so that when we move on in to the future we make bigger and brighter choices. …[John] Fea shares with us the idea that the past inspires us. Giving an example of how soldiers storming the beach at Normandy to William Wilberforce helping to end the slave trade to many more heroic things. Fea goes on in this section to expand this idea of being inspired and share that as we see these heroic events in the past us as humans get inspired and many times want to be better. While we see the past as a positive and heroic place, there still are negatives that are from the past that we dislike. Fea shares that the past is a useful “cautionary tale”, because it is filled with people and things that we do not want to repeat.This idea of hero is not secluded to someone famous, but to anyone in your life that you deem as a hero.

DUSTIN: [John] Fea talks about how people are able to use the past as a source of inspiration and motivation for present day life. He gives the example of his student Christina and the inspiration she received for her senior art project on Thomas Paine. Christina was able to not only find inspiration from the words of Thomas Paine, but also, it gave her the motivation to do her final art project on something that she was passionate about. History is full of figures and events that we can look to for guidance and also to serve as a reminder to the mistakes we have made in the past, “Whether it is inspiration or warning, we can all draw lessons for the present by studying the past” (Why Study History?, p. 33).

NELSON: …I grew up not knowing much of my family history; because of this I put a great emphasis on knowing the past, remembering it. In that sense the past is useful, it helps one understand how they got there. Perhaps more importantly to me is that the past is a source of motivation for me. Fea describes it as the “Inspirational Past.” Writers like Frederick Douglas inspire me to treat others equally, thinkers like Martin Luther King Jr motivate me to act peacefully, and other men like Hitler serve as a warning of what evils man can do. As Fea puts it, “Whether it is inspiration or warning, we can all draw lessons for the present by studying the past” (p. 33).

Is there a particular individual, group, or event from the past that you find especially inspirational — or cautionary? What problems do you see with the past-as-inspiration? How might McKenzie critique the idea of a “heroic” past? (see ch. 4 of The First Thanksgiving)

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7 thoughts on “Usable Pasts: Inspiration

  1. Looking at the past for inspiration is something that is very common and I think equally as common is looking for caution in the past. Seeing the mistakes of others provides opportunities for people to reflect upon their own lives and situations they may be facing. The danger of creating a heroic past is that if you build your argument or even your motivation and inspiration on a single event or the past more generally is if material comes to light that may discredit that individual you can lose the entire foundation of your beliefs. The past is gone and there it is not possible to know 100% what happened and who or what was involved. We have emphasized in the class how when we look at the past we never see it perfectly clear it is always like looking through murky water, and to use information that we can never know (until we get that Time Machine) for 100% sure is dangerous because our perspective and how we see and interpret the past can change based on new evidence or even our understanding of old evidence. I do like how Dustin quotes Fea about drawing lessons from the past and I think this is one of the main uses for the past, that is moral reflection, but to claim fact from what we cannot know can be very dangerous.

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    • Collin, I like how you mentioned that it is important to keep heroic historical figures in perspective. Finding all inspiration from one individual can be devastating if evidence is discovered that discredits who you thought that individual was. This is especially interesting with historical religious figures. We discussed this idea in a class on the Reformations that I took last semester. Martin Luther is often either seen as an extreme, whether that be as an angel or a demon, and it feels as though his humanity is disregarded. It is interesting to look at how other historical figures have been inspired or cautioned by him throughout history.

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  2. Looking at the past in an inspirational way is something that everybody does, and everybody has a certain part of history that is there go to point of inspiration, but I think the inspirational past also has many things to be cautious of. Whenever something is used a lot it starts to get worn down. When a commonly used shortcut through a woods will soon be beaten down into a path, a child’s favorite stuffed animal usually has to be patched up because it so often played with and many public statues’ noses are very shiny because people always rub them. We also wear down and distort the past. We become nostalgic about certain events and we dramatize certain events in order to get a better warning or more inspiration from it. In the end we are not drawing inspiration from the Declaration of Independence, or the founding of Bethel but rather from the narration we have constructed around these events. One event is rarely completely good or completely evil, but the best way get inspiration is to think in absolutes and this is what our narrations do. I think this okay to do at certain times, and it something that I probably do, but the cost of doing this is that it hinders us from thinking historically.

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  3. McKenzie presents an interesting critique of the heroic past that introduces some caution into this use of history as a source of inspiration, especially as it related to Christians. First, it is important to avoid endowing human characters with divine attributes given the fact that all have fallen short of the glory of God despite living even the most admirable of lives (McKenzie 74). Secondly, he cautions against “imputing authority where God has not granted it” (McKenzie 74). This applies to the use of the history of Christianity and great members of the faith as a source of imitation or guidance when Christians should really be looking to God’s authoritative example given in the Word that is not clouded with human judgment as to whether or not a particular action is consistent with how Christians are to called to live their lives.

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  4. I completely agree with your response Shawn. Fea’s point of inspiration with history is like you’ve said, to remember the past but to also inform those after us to learn from possible mistakes from those before us. Although we may emphasize certain events close to our hearts to either build off of or learn from the past, we shouldn’t be bias when discussing those events and be picky.

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  5. I agree with Shawn’s response on how the past can be useful to the present. The more we educate ourselves on the past, the less likely we’ll be able to repeat it. There is nothing really wrong with being inspired with the historical figures of the past. It does make history a little more interesting and enjoyable if you can connect with it. On the other hand, I definitely agree that we should be cautious when looking into the past. We tend to be so focus on the positive stuff that the historical figures have done, that we forget about the negative things that have happened as well which are just as important. Although there are some things from the past that we don’t agree with, it shouldn’t be an excuse for us to avoid learning about it. Learning about it will actually help us avoid it in real life. I may sound a bit repetitive, but I do think that we should admire the positive events that occurred, but never ignore the negative events.

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  6. Reading through these posts, I gravitated towards Nelson’s response. I really liked how he saw history as a way to find inspiration in many different forms. With his Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Hitler example, it showed that he’s looking at this topic with an open mind. His use of Fea’s quote on page 33, “Whether it is inspiration or warning, we can all draw lessons for the present by studying the past.” This, to me, encapsulates the overall idea that studying the past has significant power in affecting the present day. By including inspiration, warning, and lessons, Fea takes into account the possibility of finding multiple interpretations of events that are good, bad, and indifferent. I also believe Aiden had an extremely profound thought when saying, “In the end we are not drawing inspiration from the Declaration of Independence, or the founding of Bethel but rather from the narration we have constructed around these events.” This showcases the importance of our interpretations of historical events. Changing perspectives alters our narration which is the present-day explanation of the events. That narration is what we cling onto and find inspiration in, whether it is positive of negative. Overall, the past is an amazing outlet to find inspiration from, especially when understanding how many functions inspiration can have.

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