Past historical figures are not here to tell us why their questions mattered when they lived, much less to respond to new questions from our own time. Exploiting their absence, irresponsible scholarship can easily dismiss the past as inane in its time and useless in our own. In his most recent book entitled The Education of a Historian: A Strange and Wonderful Story, American Jesuit historian John W O ’Malley makes it clear that such a conclusion should not be drawn from history. In his view, the good historian helps us understand why and how the past makes sense on its own terms.
Coming from O’Malley, that lesson is given to us by one of the most outstanding historians of our time. For many the mention of John O’Malley will bring to mind his most popular 1993 title, The First Jesuits, which has been translated into 12 languages, or his 2008 book, What Happened at Vatican II. Published just in time for the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the Council by Pope Saint John XXIII, the latter book captured global attention.
With 12 monographs to his name, four of them with field-changing impact and several more award-winning, O’Malley occupies a slot in the ranking of scholars for which few can contest. Yet, he is quick to remind us that “historians are not disembodied spirits.” So as not to be taken for a giant and descendant of the gods, he wrote The Education of a Historian as a testament to us, a witness to his grounding in humility. The book is, as he describes it, “the story of how a young man of modest background from a small town in Ohio achieved international eminence as a historian of the religious culture of modern Europe” (p. 2).
A principle that has guided O’Malley’s writing over the years is that, if he really understood a problem, he could explain it to an intelligent ten-year-old. “If I could not do that, I was shooting around the problem rather than hitting the bullseye,” he affirms in this latest book. Reading this claim of his made me think about some of his other writings. I immediately recalled his Vatican I. To my generation of Africans, Vatican II (1962-65) offered the possibility of becoming Catholic without having to renounce our Africanness. The terms “pre-Vatican” and “Vatican I” became derogatory even though we had no clue what Vatican I (1869-70) was all about. In theology we only learnt phrases and, occasionally, sentences that were taken from secondary sources for purposes of negative criticism. For me, it was not until I read O’Malley’s Vatican I that I learnt something about the council’s context and contents. In his usual simple and accessible style, he made “pre-Vatican” characters human and their questions serious.
In The Education of a Historian, O’Malley tells us how a historian achieves that level of clarity. Written for a broad audience, the book is accessible to anyone who can read (for now) English. Moreover, three kinds of readers will feel directly addressed by the book: the historian, the Christian and the Jesuit.
For O’Malley, the historian’s profession is essentially a craft. Through training the historian acquires basic skills. Through practice the historian acquires experience and devises new tools that are continually added to the historian’s toolbox. The Education of a Historian allows us to look inside O’Malley’s toolbox. It is hard to imagine a historian, master or apprentice, who would not want to discover the tools this successful craftsman has employed over the years.
I will highlight only four tools, by no means exhausting what is to be found in the book. The first, simple, yet indispensable tool is a clear mission. O’Malley describes his mission as “to help us understand where we came from – to help us understand how we got to be who we are, what we are, where we are, and thus help us deal with the reality in which we live” (p. 153). In pursuing the mission, he writes, the historian makes “the memory of our corporate past operative in our lives.” That task is not easy, not least because “a fully comprehensive understanding of [that corporate past] is impossible for us mortals.” As most historians would agree, “even sometimes seemingly simple events prove, upon examination, far more complex than they at first appeared” (pp. 174-75). This simple admission of being limited calls for significant humility on the part of the historian and, indeed, of all of us. O’Malley through his accessible style informs readers about complex matters, so that they do not dismiss with carefree abandon important events such as Vatican I.
When well understood, the historian’s mission invests power in its practitioner, so I propose the historian’s power as the second tool. The products the historian makes shape society, both past and present. People who would never go to the archives on their own initiative will view the past from the historian’s perspective. And, by virtue of their vision of the past, their understanding of the present will also change. We study history because “the past is about the present, and the present is about the past,” says O’Malley. Moreover, the past “serves as our corporate memory, and memory is what constitutes identity” (p. 2). In that sense, getting the past right is not an option we can choose to ignore, and the historian’s craft is one we cannot do without.
O’Malley speaks about the “terrorizing” power of historical knowledge, which can destroy “myths upon which people had built their lives” (p. 39). On this he advocates a line of thought held by several prominent scholars who highlight the sometimes carefully crafted falsehoods that shape societal values. In his 1983 book Imagined Communities, for example, British historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) observes that the whitewashing of past tragedies is a device commonly used in the modern construction of national genealogies. Such genealogies engender a kind of “national egoism” – to use British humanist Sir Victor Gollancz’ enviable phrase – which in turn justifies exclusion and can lead to impoverishment, war and genocide.
By exposing the real meaning of the past, the historian threatens those who enjoy privilege because of skewed genealogies as well as liberating those who are held captive by means of falsified histories. In a recent book entitled Reimagining Human Rights, American Jesuit ethicist William R. O’Neill links success in advancing human rights to our ability to expose false narratives like those that bred and sustained apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, and racial segregation in the United States of America. From this line of thought, it becomes obvious that an essential part of making the present better is getting the past right.
We also learn from O’Malley that power demands accountability, so I propose accountability as the third tool. The power wielded by the historian compels that historian to be careful about the product he or she brings to the public. The historian bears a burden of accountability, not only to us in the present but also to those in the past. Just as the good historian would not seek to ruin other people’s myths for fun, the good historian would not manipulate the past to shape a narrative to suit present partisan considerations. O’Malley contends that sectarian apologias are not products of good history. Rather, in history, the past makes sense on its own terms. This is a methodological lesson O’Malley learnt early on in his historical career. He describes it as a breakthrough at some point during his doctoral research on Giles of Viterbo (1472-1532), an Augustinian friar, a cardinal, and a Renaissance humanist and theologian. “I was trying to make Giles, a sixteenth-century thinker, answer my twentieth-century questions,” says O’Malley, indicating that the more he pursued that approach the more frustrating the exercise became. “I needed to make a radical shift: I needed to climb into his mind and learn what his questions were” (p. 73). Once that methodological shift was made, Giles made sense to O’Malley on Giles’s terms. In turn, by remaining faithful to Giles’s context and content, O’Malley became accountable to Giles.
As part of the historian’s accountability to the past, O’Malley further emphasizes the “necessity of tempering suspicion with compassion in interpreting the motivation of historical personages.” This is not just because comprehensive knowledge of everything is impossible and past personages cannot defend themselves now, but also because the present has exposed us to facts entirely unknown to those who came before us. O’Malley counsels the good historian to pursue “a judicious balance between a hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of compassion” (pp. 50, 132).
The mission, power and responsibility of a historian might make the historian’s craft intimidating. Yet The Education of a Historian is an account of one who found the craft both enjoyable and satisfying. It is O’Malley’s conclusion that, when one has faithfully and responsibly carried out the historian’s mission, the process yields “understandings of the past that are sufficient for us” (p. 176). Note that he does not say the historian has the last possible word on any one subject, not even on an individual like Giles of Viterbo. O’Malley ends his account by opening wide the possibility of continuous learning, which involves building upon or correcting what one has already achieved, whether by oneself or by others.
Throughout the book he provides ample instances of how his historical career benefited from the research and expertise of others. Moreover, he shows how his craftsmanship developed, every time becoming easier as he acquired new skills and examined new materials. An “ongoing series of insights” gave him “an ever deeper understanding of the historian’s craft” (p. 1). Jokingly he writes, “It is easy to write a book when you are plagiarizing yourself,” but then hastens to explain that his previous books gave him a clear idea of the point he wanted to make in each chapter of a new book he was writing. “Nothing speeds an author along more swiftly than that” (p. 168).
We might therefore consider as the fourth tool an observation O’Malley makes at the very end of his book: “The historical profession is self-correcting.” This is a refreshing proposition, an important item in the historian’s toolbox, which should dispel any sense of intimidation or competition. “Historians review and revise one another’s work, which means lacunae are filled and errors corrected,” says O’Malley. The task of seeking meaning from the past is, in this sense, shared by all good historians. And, even though the “understanding of the past that emerges from the process may [still] not grasp the full import of what happened, […] it nonetheless grasps it sufficiently to be the understanding we need of where we are and how we got there” (p. 176).
History as an anchor for faith
So much for lessons in historical method, which are focused on the historian. The Education of a Historian also offers lessons in what good history does for us all. As we read the book, we get a sense of an author who is relaxed in the present and optimistic about the future because he knows the past. This remains true even when he narrates earth-shaking crises that unfolded right before him. O’Malley was in Florence during the great flood of 1966, in Detroit during the catastrophic riots of 1967, and in the Boston area “where he with shame and horror witnessed the emergence of the clerical sex-scandal there, the origin of a scandal that soon rocked the Catholic church.” But he was also in Rome reworking his dissertation for publication during two of the sessions of Vatican II, and he was back there when Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were being renovated in the 1980s (pp. 3-4).
The book is also O’Malley’s generous sharing of himself with his readers, clearly detailing how his life came to be entwined with his historical profession. “Despite its specific focus,” says he, “my book perforce reveals me, a human being dealing with the challenges of life, including recurring self-doubt” (p. 4). So, in the book we read about O’Malley’s childhood, especially about his relationship with his parents as their only child, and with his extended family. We read about interactions in his immediate neighborhood and in school. We read about the death of O’Malley’s mother and about his father’s second marriage. We read about O’Malley’s decision to enter the Society of Jesus, about what that decision by an only child meant for his parents, and about his subsequent training as a Jesuit. We read about the impact the Society of Jesus had on his career as a historian. As such, any reader who seeks to benefit from an account of another person’s journey of life will find the book helpful. It is in that sense an edifying read, not because of any startling interventions or revelations experienced by its author, but because of its familiar ordinariness. The book leaves one with the impression that nearly anyone could become an O’Malley.
O’Malley’s narrative gives his readers a view of him as he interacted with persons and events in his life, some of them small and others big, some trivial and others serious, and how each played a role in making him the person he describes in the book. His love for gelato inclined him to studying Italian history rather than German, for example, and a crisis in the Society of Jesus in the 1970s and 1980s made him refocus his research on the Jesuits. No matter how it presented itself to him, the present became a window he could use to view the past. As we read his story, we can almost hear him insisting with us that, if we are to understand the past, we better take our present seriously.
Finding God in all things
Although O’Malley says the book is not about his relationship with God, it turns out to be an account of how he found God in nearly everything around him. The concept of finding God in everything comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. In its most simplified sense, the concept refers to God’s faithful presence to us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Some circumstances come as pure chance or situations we would have never chosen to be in. Yet, even in these, God reveals God’s self. This theme cuts across O’Malley’s narrative as we hear him tell us “how chance encounters changed [his] life and scholarship and sometimes changed them substantially” (p. 3). He recounts several such occurrences, which opened doors to significant achievements.
Autobiographical as all memoirs are, The Education of a Historian is obviously subjective. But this is also true in a positive sense about much of what O’Malley writes. Playing an active role in the history he produces is what makes him an accountable historian. The notion of objectivity, which sometimes is overemphasized in scholarship, is here tempered with personal accountability. No matter how much we try, no one can extract oneself from oneself in order to treat a subject like a disembodied spirit. O’Malley shares the details of his life with us because he believes that “every understanding that a historian has of the past is colored by the historian’s own personality, prejudices, and experiences” (p. 175).
While this admission allows him to take justified pride in what he has achieved, it also makes him profoundly humble. His is never the only view, much less the final view, on anything. On the basis of his findings he could say with a sense of proud confidence: “I knew what I knew and knew that I knew.” On the same basis he could also say: “Knowing what I knew made me aware of how limited the scope of that knowledge was and thus made me painfully aware of the vastness of what I did not know” (p. 77). From the same source he received lessons both in justified pride and in humility.
As was mentioned earlier, other readers who will feel directly addressed by O’Malley are Jesuits. In fact, this category could be expanded to include all religious men and women, especially those in the Ignatian spirituality family. In former times, novices and young Jesuits in training were treated to selections from Lettres édifiantes et curieuses (Edifying and Curious Letters), usually missionary accounts of great and miraculous occurrences in far-off lands. We need not mourn the passing of this genre since it probably would not edify many a contemporary novice. Yet, there remains room for learning through someone else’s story, especially from one further ahead in religious life. The ordinariness of O’Malley’s account strikes me as a genre that might just fill the gap.
The day I received my copy of The Education of a Historian I also received an email from a young Jesuit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, who shared his passion for history. Because of that passion, he found himself grappling with serious questions. “I honestly do not know where to start and how to engage with the discipline,” he said, then added, “I am trying to understand how this interest could be serviceable to the Society of Jesus.” I cannot think of a better gift to send to this young Jesuit than O’Malley’s book. And there could be several others like him out there.
The book will also speak to Jesuits and other religious in a more general way. Many will be interested to learn how O’Malley conducted himself when, after doctoral studies, he was assigned to a ministry without any prior consultation. In fact, from his account, few of the services he rendered appear to have originated from his own suggestions.
His soul is revealed by these simple words: “In my Jesuit life, the habit of daily meditation I learned as a novice at Milford is even more important to me. It has daily nourished me and centered me, no matter how dark things might have seemed at any given moment. It has enabled me to deal even with the darkness I found within myself. That is why I cherish those thirty to sixty minutes of prayer every morning and make sure that nothing in my schedule interferes with them” (pp. 173-74).
Finally, there is a special message for seniors too, especially those who find retirement hard. We are probably familiar with the statement “pray as if everything depended on God; work as if everything depended on you,” which is often attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo and sometimes to St. Ignatius of Loyola. Scholars have argued that the injunction is actually misunderstood. A correct interpretation of Ignatian spirituality would lead one to work as if everything depended on God and pray as if everything depended on oneself. The difference is subtle but critical.
“The usual version […] easily leads to an implicit worldview in which there are two spheres of activity,” argues William A. Barry, SJ: “our ordinary world that goes on as though God had nothing to do with it, and a supernatural world where God acts and from which God occasionally intervenes in our ordinary world.” According to Barry, when we pray as if everything depended on us and work as if everything depended on God, a completely different spiritual attitude guides our lives: “I give myself wholeheartedly to whatever enterprise I am assigned and do everything I can to make a success of my work. But I do not so wed myself to that enterprise that I am totally identified by work or my place there or the people with whom I work. My identity comes primarily from my relationship with God acting with purpose in and through me. Thus, if the enterprise fails, or if I am assigned to another work, or if I am no longer capable of carrying on the enterprise because of failing health, I am not destroyed and can, like Ignatius, but perhaps not so easily, recover my equilibrium through prayer.”
The Education of a Historian reveals John W. O’Malley the person. It shows that the author never so wed himself to the historian’s craft as to surrender himself to its trappings. This becomes abundantly clear when we read about his decision to retire: “I prayed for light. I spoke with friends. I of course consulted my provincial, and I had a number of conversations with my superior at Georgetown.” Then, “I resigned my position at the university and on June 12, 2020, I moved to our Jesuit retirement community in Baltimore” (p. 171).
After such concluding words from the author himself, all I need to add is that it takes someone of O’Malley’s caliber to achieve so much in less than 200 pages.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.9 art. 9, 0922: 10.32009/22072446.0922.9
 J. W. O’Malley, The Education of a Historian: A Strange and Wonderful Story, Philadelphia, Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2021.
 J. W. O’Malley, The First Jesuits, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1993.
 J. W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2008.
 J. W. O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2018.
 See B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on The Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983.
 See V. Gollancz, My Dear Timothy: An Autobiographical Letter to his Grandson, London, Camelot, 1952, 292.
 See W. R. O’Neill, Reimagining Human Rights: Religion and the Common Good, Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 2021.
 W. A. Barry, “Jesuit Spirituality for the Whole Life”, Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 31 (2003/1) 14 and 26.