Judging the Past

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By Andrew Nurse

One of the basic rules of historical scholarship is to avoid “anachronistic judgments.” In simple terms, this means the following: the people who lived in the past, lived different lives with different values and different obligations then do we in the present. Therefore, it would be wrong to judge them by standards that are outside the context of their lives, about which they might have known nothing, and which fails to grapple with the dynamics of the culture in which they actually lived. No less an authority than E.P Thompson warns precisely against quick and easy judgements ranged against the past in opening pages of The Making of the English Working Class.

“I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. But they lived through times of social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experiences; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain condemned in their own lives, as casualties.”

Yet, as Thompson recognized, historical writing is replete with judgement. behind the scenes anachonistic photosEven more so, more popular forms of history to which hundreds of thousands of Canadians flock annually. While visiting the Fortress Louisbourg national historic site, I listened as other visitors offered a quick word of thanks that they did not live in the mid-eighteenth century. At Sherbrooke Village, the Halifax Citadel, and King’s Landing outside Fredericton, I heard the same things. My family and students make the same judgements … sometimes too quickly for my taste, but they certainly have no problems — ethical or otherwise — expressing their views on things like the vote for women, residential schools, the place of Louis Riel in Canadian history (someone is doing something right in the local high school because my daughter not only knew of, but had views on, him) and a myriad of other subjects.

Quick and easy judgements on the past should be avoided. Judgements are judgements. We should be careful about making them in our own lives, so we should be careful about making them about past lives and ideas. I have no use for snap dismissals or hero worship. But, judging the past is part of popular history. It is something that Canadians do all the time. What we need to recognize is not that this gives us license to offer our own preferences as if they were the truth of history, but that judging the past — morally, culturally, economically, politically — is part of how a great number of Canadians actually relate to history. It is part of the way in which a great number of people think about time, change, and the meaning of change over time.

What types of judgments do people make? The short answer is: many. My mother’s father was nostalgic. He looked back on the “good old days.” My father’s mother is the opposite. For her, growing up in rural Newfoundland, the past was a time of bitter, hard, and largely unrewarding labour. Others admire certain individuals: wartime leaders or committed activists. This morning, a good friend told me — when discussing something that happened 2000 years ago — that “people do not change.” In other words, the range of human responses to any situation (fear, guilt, hope, self-interest) is constant across time.

Before we too quickly consign judgment to the realm of the amateur “history buff” or family members dragged to an historic site on vacation, we might note that historians also judge the past — despite their own injunctions — all the time. The self-appointed defenders of the national narrative (the Who Killed Canadian History crowd) reach conclusions about whether or not Riel was a traitor or, more gravely, what is valuable about the past or whose lives are important. Peter Waite, an old-style political biographer from whom I took amazingly enjoyable courses, had no compunctions about specifying when he thought a prime minister had made a good or bad decision. Social historians — from whom I received most of my training as a professional historian — had their own perspectives. For example, what drives Thompson’s narrative is, I’d suggest, its moral character. When we read The Making of the English Working Class, we knew how the story was going to end, but we still secretly hoped that the “utopian artisans” would somehow triumph. Their approach to work and society, to us, at the time at least, seemed more humane than the cash nexus and alienated labour of industrial capitalism.

In point of fact, Thompson quickly followed his warning against “the enormous condescension of posterity” with both a further warning and some specifics about the basis on which assessment of the past could be made: “Our only criterion of judgement should not be whether or not a man’s actions are justified in the light of subsequent evolution. After all, we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution we may discover insights into the social ills which we have yet to cure.”

What we need to understand, then, is not whether or not people assess the past, but exactly how their judgements are made, their politics, and their implications. After all, for those of us interested in an active history cutting ourselves off from one important way in which large number of people relate to the past seems self-defeating.

There are, perhaps, a myriad of different ways in which different people assess the past. In one short blog post, it is impossible to address all of them, or even a representative sample. What I could suggest, however, is that assessing the past — making judgements on it — might be a way to open up a wider dialogue outside of the historical profession.

An anecdote will illustrate my point: a number of years ago I found myself discussing history while watching my son’s soccer team play an away game at a nearby town. I was chatting amicably enough with some other parents gathered on the sidelines when, for reasons that I did not fully understand, the conversation turned to history and, in particular, the deportation of the Acadians. A parent who knew what I did for a living asked me my views and I indicated that I thought this was a case of ethnic cleansing. Another parent told me I was wrong and that I needed to put myself in the context of the time. No one, back then, the parent said, thought what they were doing was wrong. We cannot, the parent continued, make such judgements on the past because we did not live then and we have to understand people in their context; not judge them.

I did not actually know what to say and so took the easy way out, dropped the conversation and started to cheer on our side. Later, I toyed around with the idea of contacting this parent and correcting their perception. I disregarded the idea and, again, kept silent.  What I was tempted to do was assert my authority: look, I know more about the past than you do. What I should have done, however, was neither to keep silent nor to hold my Ph D out for all to see but to ask a question: pointed but polite. I should have asked “who do you mean by everyone?” “Do you included the deported Acadians in your definition of everyone?” In other words, I missed an opportunity; not to “school” someone who, it struck me, was apologizing for the deportation by refusing to call it what was and refusing to take a moral stand against tragedy (after all, in some way, all tragedies take place in the past, don’t they?). What I should have done was to take the opportunity to engage people in a discussion of history and the perspective that led them to see history in a certain light. We might have come to important understandings about the past regarding its complexity and the biases that mediate our understanding of it.

Or, we might not have. We might have celebrated a goal and lost track of the conversation. But, I don’t think so. Almost every day, and certainly every week, I am amazed by the interest history holds for a broad range of people. Why not, the next time we are giving a lecture at the local library or talking in line at Tim Horton’s, take the opportunity to push that interest a bit. Canadians are not going to stop judging past actions; nor should they. Indeed, I’d contend that without assessment and judgement, history becomes a bit of a boring and lifeless chronicle. Looking at how these assessments are made and being ready to engage in discussion about them both recognizes an important level of popular interaction with the past and advances the cause of an active history. Or, am I wrong?

Andrew Nurse is a professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University

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2 thoughts on “Judging the Past

  1. Tina Loo

    Nice piece, Andrew! I am teaching seminar course dealing with some of these issues and I found Roy Rosenzweig’s and David Thelen’s book (and 1st chapter) on _The Presence of the Past_ useful in dealing with some of the things you talk about, but in a US context. The other piece that got the students talking was the first chapter of Allan Megill’s book, _Historical Knowledge, Historical Error_, where he tries to distinguish “history” from other uses of the past. He has clear and strong views – and though I like what he has to say, I don’t think everyone would.

  2. Andrew Nurse


    Thanks so much for the suggested readings. I’d love to chat more with you about this some time since you seem to know more about it and find out me about your course.

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