Where to Start
My doctoral adviser was Thomas Bender, at NYU. He once wrote an essay ("Making History Whole Again") – published in the New York Times Book Review (Oct. 6, 1985, pp. 42-43)-
that I still often think about. It talked about the problem of how to create an overall narrative to history when we had broken history into so many separate tracks: one history of women, another of gender, another of blacks, another of Indians, another of workers; another of shopping, etc.
His critics felt he was trying to role back the clock to the days of books about DWM (dead white men) but I disagreed. He was not saying the new histories were bad but, rather, that we needed to find a way to add all of the parts together into a new whole – a most daunting task.
Being here in France I see that essay and that problem in a new way. As you spend time here, you quickly realize the flaw in studying parts of French history – Charlemagne; the wars with England, Joan of Arc, the Sun King, the Revolution; the two World Wars. Those events took place within a culture, a way of living. Yes those famous people and events matter; but to really know what they meant here, you need to understand bread, and farmers, you need to see stone Cathedrals rising above lands where, to this day, no building is as tall. You need, in other words, to understand a coherant society in which events took place.
I do not mean France is eternal and changeless – as I wrote a few days ago, the presence of immigrants, Africans, North Africans, mixed kids and families here is striking – but I do mean the highlight tour of French events seen through American eyes only makes sense for the youngest readers. After that, we need to find ways for young people to sink into another culture, and to see the world through its eyes.