Rethinking History

Culturally mature perspective—particularly with the inclusion of the concept of Reengagement—makes possible a deeper and more meaning-filled understanding of history. Reengagement invites us to revisit not just certain of history’s facts, but also modern notions of what constitutes history. Oscar Wilde wrote, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” Cultural Reengagement invites—indeed demands—that we rewrite history. The fresh perspective it provides not only rewrites the facts of history, it rewrites both what we mean by history, and our understanding of ourselves as participants in history.

We could say cultural Reengagement makes us kinder toward the past—and often it does. But it can also make for much harsher judgment—idealized projections don’t easily survive the vantage it provides. In the end Reengagement helps us to see the past more accurately, to better recognize the particular gifts and blindnesses that have accompanied each chapter in culture’s story. Dissolving of cultural amnesias provides a clearer and more richly complex, if not always so handy and self-affirming, picture of what has brought us to where we are.

Reengagement and the broader perspective it provides alters our conventional modern picture of history in at least four ways. First, it helps us identify projections and biases that may distort our view. When we romanticized the connection with nature we find with early-stage peoples (or idealize the sensibilities of any other cultural stage) what we see is far from reality.

And our perceptions have been no more historically accurate when we’ve denigrated those same peoples as “pagan” or “heathen.”

Reengagement also helps us more deeply appreciate the realities of times past. Even when projection does not play a major role, the sensibilities that define modern thought results in much that is most important being missed. The lens provided by a rational/material worldview is able to describe only the most surface layers of history’s full richness and complexity. History, in today’s classroom, too often becomes little more than a chronicling of leaders, wars, and inventions. What we miss is often exactly that which is most essential not to miss if we wish to make sense of the values, motivations, and worldviews of pre-modern peoples (including ourselves prior to the Industrial Age). Our modern understanding of history is, in the end, limited when trying to describe the past to the same degree—and for the same reasons—as Modern Age definitions of intelligence are limited if we wish to capture cognition’s full complexity.

In addition, Reengagement reveals a more dynamic and richly systemic picture of history. This comes naturally from what we bring to the process of seeing. At the least, Reengagement helps us better put past events in context and sheds new light on how one moment of history ties to another—insight that can radically alter how we interpret events. Along with this, spheres of understanding that we may not have treated as major historical variables—such as art, music, religion, moral belief, and the life of the body—come to have renewed importance. Good teachers of history have always used contributions from these various spheres to help make history come alive. And the best of historians have gone further, noting patterns and relationships. But with Reengagement, these added ingredients stop being condiments and become explicit parts of the main meal. They derive new status as “core curriculum.”

Finally, Reengagement gives history a new narrative depth. It helps transform history from a chronicling of events and beliefs to a multi-faceted study of human purpose and our relationship to it. Such depth has also always been a part of well-told history. But consciously bringing more of ourselves into the story changes the equation. History becomes more directly an inquiry into who we are as storytellers and makers of meaning. It also, by implication, becomes as much about the possible nature of meaning in the future as it is about the stories that have brought us to where we are today.

The concept of Reengagement also suggests a “historical” reward beyond history itself. It makes the study of history an important “hands-on” tool for acquiring culturally mature capacities. Just as bridging polarities or deeply engaging the complexities of intelligence can bring us closer to culturally mature sensibility, so, too, can a sufficiently deep engagement with where we have come from. Each provides a way to make contact with the fullness of our creative complexity.

A way I’ve personally drawn on history in this sense helps link these reflections. Its inspiration came from a series of college classes that introduced me to music from around the world. While today it is not uncommon to hear music from far flung parts of the planet, back then this was a rare and special experience—each morning, with other students, listening to sounds that we’d never before encountered, but that were deeply rooted in time and culture.

What I heard greatly moved me and provided many insights important to the later development of Creative Systems Theory.

When I directed the Institute for Creative Development during its brick-and-mortar years, once each year I did a presentation that drew on those insights—what I called “An Evolutionary History of Music.”

Over the course of a day, I played music from each of culture’s creative stages and through story, description, and dance engaged people in the underlying sensibilities of each stage. It became an anticipated event.

My intent in doing this elaborate and lengthy presentation was to involve people in history in a way that might help dissolve the amnesias that have protected us from our full creative natures, and, in this way, to support culturally mature understanding more broadly. Participants described the experience as bringing history alive in ways they had rarely felt. They also found that it gave them some of the most powerful and immediate appreciation for the larger—whole-box-of-crayons—complexities on which future human understanding and choice must be based.