To “Know Thyself” You Must “Know Thine History”

Many people today are invoking history—sometimes erroneously, sometimes prophetically—in arguments about our future. Historic elections, historic unrest, calls to honor this history or rewrite that one. We are reminded daily that we are literally making history every day. Perhaps more than ever fostering our students’ understanding of themselves as a part of history is crucial to our efforts to prepare them to pursue a fulfilled life.

When I ask my students to write a religious autobiography, contextualizing their personal story in US religious history, they struggle to recognize a context beyond their immediate family because they have not been taught to think of themselves as embedded in history. If students do not learn to understand themselves as not only a product of history, but potential makers of history, we have neither prepared them to fully understand who they are nor to authentically understand or make for themselves a place in this world.

In their seminal work Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith describe the white conservative Protestant idea of “accountable freewill individualism” that “individuals exist independent of structures and institutions, have free will, and are individually accountable for their own actions” (76-77). They argue that this facilitates an anti-structuralism—“the inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences” (78) that makes it difficult to see structural inequalities that disproportionately affect people in the US. 

More recently, Robert P. Jones argues that “the freewill individualism of white evangelicals has become diffused throughout white American Christianity” (See his White Too Long, 100). I suspect this idea has spread beyond the Christian majority as a part of Christian hegemony. I also believe this is one of the sources of an ahistorical reasoning central to how many of my students view themselves. This radical individualism and ahistorical reasoning create a distorted picture of the Self and of society.

A metaphor can help us understand this blind spot. Cultures (and people) are like icebergs. What is visible—language, food, festivals or skin color, personality, and behavior—make up a small part of the culture (or person). Much of what makes us who we are “lies beneath the surface”—attitudes, concepts, and ideologies—much like the hidden bulk of ice making up an iceberg. In short, without intense self-reflection, much of what makes us who we are lies hidden, and surface features are taken as constituting the whole. 

We can extend the metaphor. Our Selves are a product of biology and our personal (socialization) and social (cultural context) history. This is not to deny that we make choices, but those choices are circumscribed by our biology and history. This should urge us toward humility; we don’t know our own minds or our history (see quiz below) as well as would like to think.

For further reading: “Whatever you think, you don’t necessarily know your own mind” by Keith Frankish (Aeon) and “You are (Probably) Wrong About You” by Heidi Grant Halvorson in Psychology Today.

Image: David Blackwell/Flickr

We indeed make many choices, but our identity is more complicated. Consider religion. To say religion is voluntary in the US is too simple. It ignores the pressures of socialization. Most people in the US are the same religion as their parents. It also ignores the long history of religious coercion in the US (See David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom). Christians have shaped every aspect of US history and enjoy a privileged place in our society. Religious identity is heavily shaped by history.

Consider race. Many students condemn racism as individual choices, not socially conditioned responses, imagining they are beyond the racial sins of our past and denying structural racism (Divided by Race, 69f). In reality, race is a social category operating on many levels with real political consequences (See Joseph Cheah, Race and Religion in American Buddhism, 12). The same is true for other identities such as gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. 

We must also recognize that identities don’t work in isolation; they intersect. The intersection of race and religion is little talked about outside of academia, but to ignore the role of Christianity in stoking the racialization of the US is to misunderstand not only the history of the US, but the context for our own meaning-making efforts. Only when we learn our history can we hope to understand our Selves and our nation.

For some of my students, this individualism frees them from history, liberating them from the constraints of tradition and opening new avenues for flourishing. Others, because of the cultural dominance of White Christian America, live with the burdens of history whether they want to or not and see fewer avenues open to them. This dichotomy poses two serious issues.

First, neither will understand themselves if they fail to learn history and to understand that, as James Baldwin says, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Second, and more significantly, those who fail to learn from history will not be interested in co-creating a society that can rectify the mistakes of the past, because they see them as unimportant or irrelevant to individual development. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

At a basic level, if vocational discernment aspires to develop self-awareness, we must understand history to understand ourselves, because when we ignore history, the Self we reflect upon is a cardboard cutoff of our true Self.

At a deeper level, if we hope to live in community with others, we must grapple with the complicated inheritance of history. We cannot do that if we don’t know that history. 

Personal integrity and social solidarity require that we fully grapple with who we are—individually and collectively—and our responsibility to each other. We must reckon with the history of oppression and the unearned benefits derived therefrom. Choice is important, but not the most influential aspect of our makeup. We must account for our social identities, and their legacies, as a part of our Selves to develop a full, authentic understanding of our personhood and enable us to engage in society in a manner better suited to making the world a better place for everyone. If we are going to make history, rather than being swept along by it, we must make informed choices. 

This moment in history, like all moments of tumult, demands we make choices. Understanding our history enable us to make informed choices. Learning from our history challenges us to demonstrate integrity and seek solidarity in those choices. When we teach students to understand their place in history, we empower them to make historic choices.

Answers to quiz above: 1. 1940. The Bill of Rights only governed the national government, until the 1920s “when the federal courts began expanding the protection of the Bill of Rights to all levels of government;” the Supreme Court did not first apply this standard until 1940 (Sehat, The Myth of Religious Freedom, 4). 2. 1954, when Congress passed a law, in response to the “godless” communist threat (See The Pledge of Allegiance). 3. Yes, in 1898 a group of white supremacists overthrew a duly elected local government, killing over 100 black officials and between 60 and 250 black citizens (See this article on History.com and “The Lost History of an American Coup D’État”). 4. Yes, Japanese-Americans, slaveholders, and Native-Americans.


Matthew Sayers is Professor of Religion teaching in the Social Justice and Civic Engagement Program at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India (Oxford, 2013). Matt’s essay, “The Story of Me: A Myth-understanding of Vocation” appeared in Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019).

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