Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Why a rabbi teaches Jewish History, Part II

In Part I, I talked about why I teach classes about Jewish History. In the Comments section, we entered a debate about the practical benefits of studying history as it is usually taught in the one-shot class format.

I came across two relevant items the other day:

This from the Chazon Ish's Emunah uBitachon (פרק א, סעיף ח); the translation is mine:
Chronicles of time and histories of the world guide a wise person a great deal in his path; such a person establishes the basis of his wisdom on the events of the past.
However, because people love to be creative and to speak publicly, many falsehoods have collected in the books of these events; people do not have a native distaste for falsehood, and many people love it and treat it with friendship. Therefore, a wise person must sift in the books by these authors in order to accept the truth and winnow out the deceptions.
Here there is great room for imagination; it is the nature of imagination to hasten and speak a sentence quickly, before the intellect has been able to prepare the scales of justice, to weigh the matter appropriately. Imagination passes its judgment in a moment, whether from truth or from deception.

And then this from the New York Times, regarding the work of two economists in assembling data on centuries of economic disasters:
Like a pair of financial sleuths, Ms. Reinhart and her collaborator from Harvard, Kenneth S. Rogoff, have spent years investigating wreckage scattered across documents from nearly a millennium of economic crises and collapses. They have wandered the basements of rare-book libraries, riffled through monks’ yellowed journals and begged central banks worldwide for centuries-old debt records. And they have manually entered their findings, digit by digit, into one of the biggest spreadsheets you’ve ever seen.
Their handiwork is contained in their recent best seller, “This Time Is Different,” a quantitative reconstruction of hundreds of historical episodes in which perfectly smart people made perfectly disastrous decisions. It is a panoramic opus, both geographically and temporally, covering crises from 66 countries over the last 800 years...
In the past, other economists often took the same empirical approach as the Reinhart-Rogoff team. But this approach fell into disfavor over the last few decades as economists glorified financial papers that were theory-rich and data-poor.
Much of that theory-driven work, critics say, is built on the same disassembled and reassembled sets of data points — generally from just the last 25 years or so and from the same handful of rich countries — that quants have whisked into ever more dazzling and complicated mathematical formations.

The two pieces both highlight the value of studying history in order to determine proper future behavior, but from two complementary approaches. The Chazon Ish points out the need for עיון, for examining the data, filtering it, studying it and so developing greater understanding. But the economists note the need to make sure we assemble proper data, taking a בקיאות approach to ensure that we are working with sufficient material from which to draw our conclusions.

Neither approach stands alone, of course. I bring them here not to contrast them, but to underscore my message from Part I: Learning history by attending a class here and there, or reading a book on occasion, does not serve the goal of gaining wisdom from history. Such superficial attempts may do more harm than good.

In order to gain the benefits of learning history, one must commit to real study. Like most other fields. This is why I say that my reasons for teaching History are not for the inherent value of studying History, but rather for the secondary benefits of deepening my understanding of Torah and of drawing people into more general learning.

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