The importance of historical perspective

Abel Alves – History

In the Ball State Department of History, we teach students how to present the narrative that makes the most sense of the evidence. We teach the quest for truth.

We are not the heroic frontline workers who contribute in healthcare and at supermarkets. We are “only historians,” but as historians we try to attain a sense of perspective through reflection on human memory.

We may not be wise, but we strive for wisdom so as to act thoughtfully and, hopefully, compassionately in society and even in nature itself.

For the last two months, we’ve been looking to our leaders and our scientists for guidance about how to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic’s spread so that healthcare is not completely overwhelmed and unable to help those in most need.

To confront COVID-19, we need technology, of course, but also historical perspective. In other words, we need the humanities.

To that end, I’d like to share with you how the humanities faculty at Ball State are using their expertise to help our communities better understand the pandemic.

In the classroom

  • This summer, we’re offering a number of online classes examining the impact of COVID-19 from various perspectives, including the human context.
  • Students in philosophy professor Kevin Harrelson’s course will examine the global response to the pandemic through history, philosophy, and literature. You can learn more about this course on the Ball State website, in the Muncie Star Press, and by listening to Prof. Harrelson’s recent interview on WFYI public radio about the history of pandemics.

In everyday life

  • History professor Jim Connolly and English professor Pat Collier have spent the last few years engaged in a project entitled “Everyday Life in Middletown.” You can read more about it on their website. Now, in a collaborative effort, Ball State University Libraries Archives and Special Collections, the Everyday Life in Middletown Project, and the Muncie Public Library are asking community members to document life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • You can get involved in this project, too, by telling your story. Learn more on the Ball State website.

In our reading

  • If you are interested in the history of what came before COVID-19, the classic remains William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1977). It’s important to remember, in the words of the book’s publisher, “the history of disease is the history of humankind.”
  • You also might like to check out Prof. Collier’s recent thoughts on Albert Camus’s The Plague on the English department’s blog.

Remember: those who suffered Justinian’s Plague in the sixth-century Byzantine Empire, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the demographic devastation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas after 1492 and the Global Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919 did not have the capabilities and the historical memory that we have today.

Thank you for letting me share my musings with you.