Crane School Blog: Focus on Learning

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Reinhart Koselleck
Louis Caron

Of the many odd things that I studied in graduate school, none was more engaging to me than the intersections between the history of medicine and the history of political thought. At the time I thought this was interesting on its own merits. I could never have guessed that in 2020, the politics of medicine would become critically relevant. I should like to reflect one those intersections and to explain how they inform my instruction of students in United States history...

Of the many odd things that I studied in graduate school, none was more engaging to me than the intersections between the history of medicine and the history of political thought. At the time I thought this was interesting on its own merits. I could never have guessed that in 2020, the politics of medicine would become critically relevant. I should like to reflect one those intersections and to explain how they inform my instruction of students in United States history.

A bit of background. The graduate curriculum at Cambridge is really not a curriculum at all. There are no mandatory classes, no required tests to take. One is expected to be fully self realized even before one has written a thesis and earned a degree. But there are any number of elective seminars, and I shall never forget the discussions and readings I engaged in surrounding the topic of the history of ideas. Of the many memorable authors who pioneered this field, a German scholar named Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006), sticks in my mind. Very few English speaking historians know about Koselleck, but in the world of German academics he was kind of a big deal, for he was one of the founders of a field known as Begriffsgeschichte. Loosely translated, that word means “conceptual history.” But for Koselleck conceptual history was inseparable from a history of semantics, a history of how words were used in different ways, and to mean different things, at different moments in time.

One of his major theses was that this shift in meaning and usage was occasioned by moments of crisis. That word, in turn, had a particular pedigree for Kosseleck. He adapted it from the late Roman medical thinker Galen, who described (in Greek) Krisis as a moment of crucial change, either from a state of health to sickness, or from sickness to health. Adapting the word from Galen, Koselleck intended to convey a sense in which in moments of acute crisis (political, social, economic, or otherwise) languages and meanings change, because so too does the world in which they are used.

Koselleck knew a bit about crises and change himself. He was born into a Germany newly humiliated by the first World War, and joined the Hitler Youth and then the army during that nation’s dangerous descent into fascism. Following Germany’s defeat, he was part of a prison work crew directed by the Soviets to “clean up” the death camp Auschwitz, before being imprisoned in Kazakstan for more than a year. He did not begin his scholarly career until the 1950s. His politics are, like so many other German thinkers of his own time, a huge source of debate in terms of understanding what his work should mean now. What is unquestionable is that these experiences disillusioned Koselleck, he remained totally cynical about the human potential for progress.

I am not so cynical. And I happily adapt Koselleck’s fundamental insight that political language changes in moments of crisis to my own ends as a Crane teacher. It is moments of serious national or even global crisis that fundamentally change how people talk about the world. Over the next few weeks we will be investigating the impact of the Great Depression on American political and social life, but we will also be drawing stark contrasts between the ways in which American political leadership responded to that crisis, and the ways in which other countries—especially European countries—responded in kind. 

And though there were many tales of caution from the 1930s, there were (and are) innumerable opportunities for change that our students can see for themselves. Should the government be more involved in the economy, in providing medical care, in ensuring a basic standard of living for its citizens? Should we as citizens in turn be more actively involved in shaping how government reacts not just to a crisis, but to our own every day existence? 

These are difficult questions, to which there are not clearly right or wrong answers. The current situation is a tragic one, and on a personal level it is a source of constant anxiety, of sleepless nights spent worrying about conditions over which I have little control. But for our future generations, this situation is also one of unparalleled potential. One thing is clear. Your children will be at the forefront of a generation that gets to choose how we turn tragedy into triumph, to reveal that this pandemic is not something that happened to us, but something that inspired us to do better for each other and for the world. 

Louis Caron '97
Upper School History Teacher

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Reinhart Koselleck

Of the many odd things that I studied in graduate school, none was more engaging to me than the intersections between the history of medicine and the history of political thought. At the time I thought this was interesting on its own merits. I could never have guessed that in 2020, the politics of medicine would become critically relevant. I should like to reflect one those intersections and to explain how they inform my instruction of students in United States history...