Beware Lessons from History

This isn't a religious blog, but I figured I'd share an idea using passages from the Bible in honor of Easter. The message of this post isn't religious, so much as it is about one of the unexpected ways we can take wrong lessons from history. For that we're going to use a historical example from ancient scripture.

In an earlier post, I talked about one of the most oft-used historical references and how a misunderstanding of history gets the conclusions backward. The popular narrative has us looking back at the most infamous mass-murderer in history; we see him as pushing a ruthless theory based on the hubris of trying to remake humanity into his own vision; we see him coopting an entire nation into this mad vision and wonder how he got so many people to commit atrocities.

The real story is exactly backward from that. Hitler didn't push a new vision of humanity, so much as ride the prevailing theory. He didn't convince scientists to try his ideas out, so much as promise them they could push their own theory to its logical limits. And most importantly, the theory this was all based on - eugenics - wasn't built on hubris so much as it was built on fear. Why were people willing to take drastic measures? Because they thought humanity itself was on the line! Any step can be justified if you can sell the potential cost high enough.

Eugenics was wrong, of course. We know that now. But that's about all we carry forward from that slice of history. We no longer remember what it stood for or the (false) claims it made. This makes learning lessons from the history of eugenics problematic. We can't go back and live in the time period where the full context of the theory made sense to the people involved. And it's difficult to build back the intuitions they had while also ignoring new intuitions we've unconsciously absorbed just by living in the present. This is part of the reason for the famous saying that the past is a foreign country. The customs and beliefs are different, even when they speak the same language.

A Different View of Leavening

I'd like to give you another example of how this happens, but this time I'll go the opposite direction and quote Jesus Christ in Matt 16 versus 6 and 12:

6. Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.

12. Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.

I used to read these verses (and other verses about leaven in the bible) and think they were talking mainly about the capacity of leavening agents to raise breads by creating little carbon dioxide bubbles. (I still think that's part of the equation, but I'm less convinced now that it's as big a part of the story as I used to.)

Then one day I was reading about the science of bread and discovered I've been reading these verses with modern assumptions. Until recently, you couldn't buy yeast in large bricks at Costco, or even in small jars at the grocery store. 'Active dry yeast' is itself a modern invention. The idea of using a monoculture of yeast as a method of fermentation (and thereby producing bubbles of CO2) didn't become popular until the 1800's.

What did people use instead? They saved over part of the dough from the previous loaf of bread. They kept it in a cool place, feeding it every so often with more flour, until they needed to make more bread. This starter leavening itself came from other starters - possibly from a mother or a relative, but also possibly from a friend who had 'good' leavening. You could then keep reusing the same leavening over and over, saving back a little from each loaf of bread you made. Over time the flavor might change, but that's the nature of the process.

Since this process didn't involve isolating yeast - just passing down bread starters from generation to generation - the leavening didn't have just yeast. It also had bacteria growing in it, which flavored the dough. Bacteria give off acidic byproducts, which is what gives sourdough its name and distinctive flavor. In fact, it is believed that nearly all 'leavened' bread made before the last 150 years or so was some kind of sourdough. The bacterial byproducts changed the flavor of the loaf when you added them in. And, importantly, different types of bacteria could change the flavor of the bread in different ways. They might bake up the same, and look the same, but if you developed a reputation for making bad bread it was probably because you had a bad starter leavening.

The cure for a bad starter was to toss it out and start anew, borrowing from someone who had a good starter where possible. Some bakers might have a particularly good starter (if they could keep other bacteria out of it - a tall order when you don't understand 'germ theory'), which they would guard jealously, since it gave them an edge over competitors. If you could grow a bacteria-free starter, you might be the only game in town able to produce non-sourdough bread! Would you keep that starter secret, or share some of it so more people had it (in case yours got contaminated and you needed to borrow back the non-contaminated starting material)?

Now go back to the leavening metaphor. What is Jesus really saying when he says to beware the leaven of the Pharisees? He's likely saying, "Yeah they may look and act the part of a righteous person, but beware what they're hiding on the inside. Their doctrine just doesn't taste right."

We can see this same understanding changing our interpretation of other places where leavening is used, such as in 1 Corinthians 5, verses 6-8:

6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?

7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:

8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Paul here is making an analogy to the Passover command to not use leavening. I'd always read this as meaning that they just didn't have time to wait for the bread to rise, since they needed to leave exactly when God commanded. And I think that's still a valid interpretation. However, there's another interpretation that Paul seems to be forcing into the narrative - one that's impossible for modern readers to understand with their yeast monocultures from Costco. The leavening changes the flavor of the bread. If you have bad leavening, you can't get it right again on your own. You have to toss it out, or else it will change the whole loaf - and any subsequent loaves you make.

The Problem with History Lessons

I'd been reading those passages for years before I learned that nearly all bread before modern times was sourdough. That means for years I thought I knew what they were talking about when I didn't. And now I know one more aspect about it. But how deep does the 'pool of things I don't realize that I don't know' go?

The problem with the past is that it really is like visiting a foreign country. If you've ever visited somewhere outside your country, you probably experienced a few 'culture shocks'. Things you thought were normal, nobody there ever does; and some things you thought nobody would ever do are entirely normal there. Many things are just taken for granted, and it is their very strangeness to you that acts as a shibboleth to give you away as a foreigner. Indeed, the very word shibboleth comes from a technique used to identify foreigners. Some things you can't fake. Either you've lived somewhere long enough to understand it, or you have to admit that you won't understand it and you never will.

This is the problem with history lessons. Nobody who teaches them lives in the past. Even those who lived through the historical period - those still alive today - have been contaminated by living too many years in the present to give an accurate portrayal of what it felt like to live back then.

Does this count for just ancient history, or does it count for modern history, too? At the beginning of this post I mentioned the problem of eugenics, and how that history has been misremembered in modern times enough to transform it from a theory rooted in fear to an ideology of misplaced aspiration. That happened in less than 100 years. But how many years does it really take to forget something that everyone took for granted? How many technologies can you name that disappeared since the 1990's, but that had a huge impact; and how many more can you name that didn't exist before the turn of the millennium?

A short list of tech that disappeared or dramatically diminished:

  • Pagers
  • PDAs (technically a 2000's thing - before that it was personal planners and desk calendars)
  • dial-up internet (can't be on the phone at the same time)
  • VCRs (remember to rewind your video rentals or get a fine)
  • incandescent light bulbs (remember changing the light bulb every few months?)
  • portable CD players (with anti-skip technology!)
  • floppy disks (until ZIP drives came along! better hope the person you're sharing the document with has a ZIP drive reader, though; don't want to plug your expensive portable drive into one of their serial ports)
  • 35mm film cameras (don't want to waste those last 3 pictures just to finish off the roll, but you want to get the film developed to see how the other pictures turned out - or give them to someone you promised them to)
  • faxes and memos (for getting information around to everyone)
  • address books (except for the phone numbers you call the most, which of course you've memorized and will never forget)
  • stopwatches
  • payphones (carry around some change, just in case; if your car breaks down, though, you'll have to get a lift somewhere so you can call a tow truck)
  • home phones (just remember not to talk too much on those long-distance calls across the country)
  • paper maps (or getting really good directions from your friend, which turned into MapQuest and printing off the directions)
  • alarm clocks

And that's just technology! There are plenty more topics, like pop culture, 'recent' scientific discoveries, broadly-held misconceptions, political ideologies, etc. Too much of what we think we know is filtered through the lens of current experience. We think we remember a lot more than we do, but sometimes it's the important details that make the difference between understanding a subject and not understanding at all.

That doesn't mean it's pointless to study history. I was thrilled to learn about leavening agents and how much that aspect of pre-modern life affected everyone. It changed my view of history that small amount, and helped me appreciate the passages quoted above in a different light. The point isn't to throw up our hands and despair because we'll never 'really' learn history. The point is to approach the topic with a little more humility when we remember that for all we do learn, we may never truly understand history. It's impossible to learn the everyday things everyone once knew but have since forgotten.


  1. I had also never known the point about leavening either, despite reading it hundreds of times. That is very interesting, definitely a twist on my understanding. I think it was in response to a comment you made on my blog but did you catch what I said about Journal of Discourses? If not I'll post it over here. Something similar happened there.

    1. I didn't catch that over on your blog. Repost or send a link.

    2. Something you said about historical reconstruction jogged a memory, which you might appreciate. I’m sure you’re probably familiar with the Journal of Discourses. Which for years was considered an completely accurate recording of many of the speeches from the early days of the LDS Church. I had kind of assumed that they were put together in a fashion similar to the Ensign Conference report, but in reality it was just one guy who recorded the speeches in shorthand and then published them. Well it was an obscure form of shorthand, and one that these days no one knew how to read. Until some researcher at BYU (as I recall) managed to teach herself to read it after diligently searching out some old books on it, and what she discovered is that there were numerous differences between the shorthand record of the talk and what they guy actually put out. Stuff like changing ‘heart’ to ‘mind’ but also inserting words, phrases and even whole passages:

      In other words even when we think something has been accurately transmitted down through the decades it has often been changed in strange and bewildering ways.

    3. Interesting writeup. She's careful not to ascribe motive, indicating she's probably also a careful historian, but she brings up some good points about ideas of historical accuracy. The application of scientific ideas to history had a number of effects that I think we generally consider to be good but that can sometimes be bad.

      For example, we want to see the exact text of a speech, so we're mortified that it was altered for publication. But why shouldn't it have been altered? Rambling extemporaneous passages should be replaced with something coherent (even if it wasn't in the original speech) to make the book engaging to a general audience. It's not like they were publishing books to obscure online forums, or to collect dust in a library. If it was worth publishing it needed to have a wide audience - otherwise we wouldn't get it at all.

      Indeed, some of the passages that were omitted are comprehensible if you squint at them a bit, but they don't look like they're expressing a well-composed idea - nor should we expect all the discourses to be that way. Or the problem might have come in the shorthand note taking. What if Watts got tired at the end of a speech, or of multiple speeches? What if he wasn't robotically engaged in faithful and accurate note-taking the whole time? We don't have the recordings, so we don't know, but Watts probably did. Should he have done a faithful transcription anyway, for future historians, or should he have made up for it in the print version the best he could?

      To make money on the thing he probably to pad the length a bit. Changing things from active voice to passive voice, and many of the other changes, look like they were almost universally designed to make the thing longer. But if there are two worlds - one with a faithful reproduction of the shorthand and one with the JD as it stands - the only one where we end up with anything to talk about is the one that's commercially viable to Watts, and valuable to the people he's producing the book for.


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