The Magic of History

The Magic of History October 8, 2019

When I’m not teaching classes at Bethel University or blogging for The Anxious Bench, I spend much of my time parenting twin 4th graders. Which means that a big part of my life these days revolves around Harry Potter.

I’ve been eager for this day to come, and I’m especially tickled to find my daughter so taken with the character of Hermione Granger. But even “the brightest witch of her age” can’t redeem J.K. Rowling’s depiction of the “most boring class” at Hogwarts, taught by someone so tedious that he wasn’t even cast for the filmed version of the books:

Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The quotation comes from p. 148 of Rowling’s second book, in what’s the only sustained glimpse we get of History of Magic

History of Magic was the dullest subject on their schedule. Professor Binns, who taught it, was their only ghost teacher, and the most exciting thing that ever happened in his classes was his entering the room through the blackboard. Ancient and shriveled, many people said he hadn’t noticed he was dead. He had simply got up to teach one day and left his body behind him in an armchair in front of the staff room fire; his routine has not varied in the slightest since.

Normally an inventive writer, Rowling repeats one of the most tired stereotypes in popular culture when she describes Hogwarts’ resident historian as reading “in a flat drone like an old vacuum cleaner,” leaving his students “in a deep stupor.”

For a more recent example, see Asma Khalid’s NPR story last month on an address by presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren:

Nearly every promise she made to end corruption was punctuated by loud cheers. Warren’s speeches are kind of like listening to a college professor deliver a history lesson, but with a lot more energy.

Now, Khalid recognizes how Warren — who taught law school before entering politics — used a “narrative arc” that included stories from labor history to leave her listeners with a “clear takeaway” about combating corruption. Still, the implication that history professors are normally more like the lifeless Binns than the lively Warren struck a nerve with, well, history professors:

What’s so hard to accept about the stereotype is that Rowling’s “History of Magic” is nothing like history… which is itself a kind of magic.

For what else do historians do but bring to (figurative) life what is (literally) dead? Something that no spell can do, according to Dumbledore. You need a deathly hallow for that.

Sometimes we need the help of tools, too: the historian’s version of a pensieve, if you will. The first time I thought of Harry Potter in connection to history was when I saw the 2018 screening of Peter Jackson’s astonishing World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. Reporting on the computer-aided wizardry by which Jackson and his team had restored early film of the war, one journalist said it was like they had “waved a magic wand” and brought the Western Front to life.

Something similar came to mind when I attended a presentation over the weekend by my colleague Charlie Goldberg, coordinator of our department’s new major in Digital Humanities (DH). To illustrate the power that comes from historical storytelling aided by digital tools, Charlie showed two examples of 3D imaging: one used in Syria to digitally preserve 2,000-year old structures in Palmyra after they were destroyed by ISIS; the other from a German firm that created a virtual reality simulation of Auschwitz that helped bring about the conviction of former guard Reinhold Hanning.

An ancient historian, Charlie described such DH projects as a 21st century version of the Greek concept of ekphrasis, a description of an object like Achilles’ shield (in Book XVIII of The Iliad) so vivid that the reader or listener feels themselves in the presence of something physically and/or temporally distant. It’s not just ancient history: Charlie actually started with the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, whose description of J.M.W. Turner’s painting of slave traders throwing their human cargo overboard in the midst of a typhoon is a particularly famous example of modern ekphrasis.

In a sense, digital tools like three-dimensional photography simply make it easier for historians and other humanists to bring the past to ekphrastic life. But a good, un-Binns-like history teacher can work something like that magic without the aid of hardware or software.

This semester I’m teaching our upper-division survey of modern European history. As always, I walked into that classroom and wished that I could whisk those students off to France. If only I could do for Modern Europe what I do for our course on the First World War, taught on location in London, Paris, and the Western Front! Instead, I show up twice a week to a rather cramped classroom with cinder block walls and HVAC noise.

But if I do my job anything like right, something magical — something ekphrastic — will happen. If I lecture well, choose sources well, and design assignments well, I’m convinced that my students will experience moments where the cinder blocks seem to dissolve into an English field or German city, as they feel themselves immersed in the European experience of the 19th or 20th centuries. They might even feel themselves achieving what E.H. Carr called “imaginative understanding,” as they “make contact” with the minds of dead people separated from us by time, space, and layers of culture, language, belief, etc.

It’s magical. But also biblical.

I’ve sometimes told Bethel students that our history classrooms might serve as a creative response to a rather obscure instruction in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (23:42-43). It’s just one of the practices that the Pentateuch prescribes to aid in the process of remembering (“so that your generations may know”).

Trying to keep the Festival of Booths as part of his Year of Living Biblically, the agnostic journalist A. J. Jacobs builds a sukkah in his New York apartment. While at first he doesn’t see the point, he suddenly realizes that “God, if He exists, is ordering everyone—not just those with a book contract—to travel back in time and try to experience the world of the ancient Middle East. God created ‘immersion journalism,’ as my friend calls it.”

Or “immersion history.” I still wonder, as I once shared at my own blog, if “the Law here [might] encourage historians to view their classrooms as metaphorical ‘temporary shelters’ that take students away from their usual habitation (not physical, but mental, emotional, and spiritual) and a bit closer to that of those who came before?”

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