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How Could They Think That? The Problem of Worldview

Historical texts are not a clear lens that zooms in on the past to tell us faithfully how the world really was. Rather, as lenses they are chipped, cracked, and fogged, laced with errors, omissions, prejudices, silent assumptions, and preconceptions. They don’t reflect the past so much as refract it. Early primary sources are more like a kaleidoscope than a microscope: they fragment and rearrange the past rather than transparently reveal it.

The first European witnesses of North America saw through eyes spectacularly different from our own. They surveyed the rugged landscape and smelled the pungent odors of the new world through different beliefs, desires, and values than our own. Even the best-educated, for example, didn’t know that the earth moved around the sun, and couldn’t explain what caused thunder and lightning. They could not even tell time, since their only clocks were a few behemoths in monasteries which measured only the passage of hours; minutes, in effect, did not exist. The fastest most people ever traveled was a brisk walk; “miles per hour,” could they have heard the expression, would have meant nothing to most of them.

The first explorers and settlers not only lacked our modern information and frames of reference but they possessed distinctly medieval ones. Unlike us, they had detailed knowledge of the night sky, since they lacked convenient artificial light. In the hours of darkness and sensory deprivation preceding sleep, they became familiar with fears and fantasies that we lost when we banished silent self-awareness with electric lights and televisions. As a result, magic, reason, dreams, and superstitions blended together in the way they viewed the world around them.

Our scientific world view was not shared by seventeenth-century New Englanders, for example, some of whom knew-with as much certainty as we know our own common sense facts-that they could be possessed by the devil; and who consequently, with eyes wide open and in good conscience, tortured to death their neighbors who appeared to be possessed. Nor was it shared by Native Americans, who confidently believed that they influenced human events by the ritual communication with spirits.

In using textual sources, one must be on guard for such differences in outlook. The point is not to say who is right and who is wrong. The point is not to take our own assumptions for granted. To project our world view onto the past tells us more about ourselves than about history. To properly understand the words of the people who passed over this landscape long before us, we need not just the scientific method but also (and more importantly) imagination.

Despite the well-known maxim, the past is not another country. We cannot go there to see for ourselves how things were done. The best we can do is to look carefully at the language surviving from the past, at these texts that bob like scraps of flotsam and jetsam on the surface of an unfathomable sea. In doing this, the techniques of anthropology, psychology, and literary criticism can be as valuable as those of science. We should look into historical texts not just for facts, but also to see the stories into which our predecessors fit their observations, the metaphors with which they grasped or created relationships, the names with which they organized and made sense of their world, and the values they held as they attempted to transform it.

To do this, we need not just to accept or reject these texts but to interrogate them. How could the author have believed that? Where did those ideas come from? What else must he have believed if he thought that was accurate? What must he have desired to think that such a thing could be true? Questions like these will ultimately lead students to ask where their own beliefs, desires, and values have come from, and what stance they should take not just toward their past, but toward the America that surrounds them today.

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