Reading History: Hedgehogs and Foxes

Bill Roden

Hughie said our WWI American Doughboys arrived in France carrying broomsticks. 

I was nine or ten and he an Irish veteran of the Great War. He fought in a decorated British unit, the Royal Irish Rifles, a regiment with a history going back several hundred years and still in action abroad.  Born in Ireland in 1896, Hughie was a welder who worked on the construction of the Lusitania and witnessed Harry Houdini being locked in a sealed container and dropped over a bridge in his hometown of Belfast.

As an infantryman, young Hugh saw the German war ace, nicknamed the Red Baron, in his bright red, tri-winged fighter plane with his Flying Circus while Hugh hid under a shattered tank. He said he always knew when a soldier was dying when he asked for a cigarette.

I grew up with a somewhat skewed view of this small part of history. There was no discussion about general or global causes of the War, just Hughie’s resentment that the Americans arrived two years too late with substandard weapons. His unit had been up to their knees in mud in France since 1914. We did not get there until two years later. 

Hughie was our family’s lifelong boarder, paying ten dollars a week in rent and serving as a de facto “uncle” to my sister and me. He was Irish, to be sure, but a devoted Mason, an Orangeman, and an Ulsterman. Nevertheless, when he went to the local New Jersey bars at night or out on St. Patrick’s Day, he wore the Irish green. I guess he did not want to confuse anyone. 

Vacationing in London a few years ago, I watched a television program about their Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945. Here were photos of British Bobbies standing at attention along side German storm troopers guarding British municipal buildings. One Bobby could be seen nonchalantly giving directions to a German soldier at an intersection. 

These vignettes bring me to my rather strange topic: do we want our students to be hedgehogs or foxes? Of course, I refer to Russian philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox: an Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History,” written in 1953.[1] 

Berlin borrows the Greek poet Archilochus’s metaphors when he says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  To Berlin, the hedgehog thinker knows or believes a single theory or vision while the fox explores unrelated facts, contradictory, albeit connected in some way but not related to any principle or theory. Berlin discusses how War and Peace attempts to bridge the two ways of thinking with Tolstoy oftentimes hiding behind the fox while inwardly subscribing to the hedgehog’s view, but this essay tells us more. 

Berlin characterizes Tolstoy as going a step further and decrying the overemphasis upon heroes, leaders who allegedly were credited with changing history or greatly affecting its outcomes. Instead, Tolstoy points to the frontline, muddied ground soldier as playing a more realistic role in changing history than a Napoleon. 

Berlin quoting Tolstoy is a reminder of Plato citing Socrates. No one knows who is really talking, but it does not matter. What is important here for students is identifying the historian’s appropriate role: not laying out causes of the Civil War, providing reasons for Booth’s assassination effort, reckoning when the Civil Rights era began (or ended?). Berlin opines that we need a sort of data collection of the facts or actions that took place. 

The hedgehog approach, however, seems to have been the significant one writers of history texts take and have taken over the years. That is, limiting the cause of the Civil War to slavery, projecting their own reasons why we entered the Vietnam War or suffered through the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. Tolstoy said history is like a deaf man replying to questions that nobody puts to him. Students need to ask their own questions based upon their personal data collection. They will find that, as with that muddy soldier, experts do not know all of the causes for any event, for the reason they do not care to recognize them: 

When Tolstoy contrasts this real life—the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individuals— with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction. (Berlin, p.40).

We may take comfort in our own individual sources for “causal determinisms,” be they religions, mythos, or what our mothers told us, for to do otherwise would result in chaos. It is hard to follow our life’s journey without some kind of roadmap. That is all well and good. 

As academics, however, we should recognize before our students do, that history or life has no destination, goal or outcome. As another 19th century Russian thinker, Alexander Herzen, aptly observes:  “Life, fortunately, has no libretto, improvisation is always possible, nothing makes it necessary for the future to fulfill the program prepared by the metaphysicians.” Life merely is. 

Students, however, need to be cognizant of what influences their theories of history or of life, for that matter. Here, Berlin seems to caution against the “liberator”: 

…one who does not so much answer your problems, whether theory or conduct, as transform them—he ends your anxieties and frustrations by placing you within a new framework where old problems cease to have meaning, and new ones appear which have solutions, as it were, already to some degree prefigured in the new universe in which you find yourself. (Berlin, pp. 144-45)

I find Darwin to be such a person. His discovery or invention of evolution affects not only how we view history, but also how we view life. In other areas, students can find their own histories and not necessarily be “liberated” by oftentimes-overweened thinkers. Instead, they become agents of their own education, find experience is the best teacher, and assert ownership of both the content of what they study and of their education. 

I echo similar words found in the introductory materials from the Department of the Comparative History of Ideas Program at the University of Washington. Last year “CHID” students traveled to Berlin to view that city as a site for “exploring multiple histories and memories looking at the urban landscape as a type of media” (UW department website). The trip is an opportunity for them to truly engage in dialogic research and ask questions. As the website notes: The questions are the content.”  

Perhaps students can finally create their own definitions of “diversity” and not be married to a particular one. The narratives of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Cornel West, or Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s are not the only stories of or parameters for understanding race discrimination. What about discrimination in the Middle East also tied to color on one’s skin or ethnicity?  Students can also explore diversity of thought and of attitudes and find they might not be linked to skin color. 

In the classroom, we can alert our students to what these Russian writers and Berlin were attempting to explain. And that brings me back to Hughie and those poor folks in the Channel Islands. It is important to students trying to find their place in our global community to understand things from the “other side.” They should know about the muddy soldier, that Hughie was not your stereotypic Leprechaun Irishman. No, he was an Orangeman. Few Americans know what that means, as they are equally unaware of the Ulsterman, or the Irish “Troubles.” Perhaps viewing a made-for-TV movie they stumbled upon the Red Baron (as I did in London when viewing that documentary on WWII and the Channel Islands), but those are accidents. They need not be. 

Professors can present students with the raw data from history to produce future “foxes,” free from quick fix theories leading to inevitable, concomitant thinking in other areas: management practices, better sex, losing weight, and countless esoteric theories about history and philosophy. They might even find out why Hughie and the British soldiers felt resentment toward our Doughboys for bearing inferior rifles arriving two years after the war started. Students might become aware of life under Nazi rule while in the British Empire and the compromises real men and women made each day to survive. Surely these life experiences affected attitudes, biases, and ultimately, positions on foreign policy. 

The chaos of war, shell-shocked soldiers seemingly hypnotized, city-sized mazes of muddy trenches, and trench foot would stand in clearer relief than maps on the History Channel with a stereotypic broadcast voice over of the “logical” steps military leaders took. Students would develop their own histories and retain them by studying the records, the letters and memoirs about what was really on board the Lusitania that caused this “innocent,” luxury ocean liner to be torpedoed; why Houdini spent his life publicly defrocking false physic mediums all the time secretly hoping a real one would be found who could contact his deceased mother. 

Students learning from those who were there and constructing individual histories would change the study of history. It would handily displace easy to accept causes for historical events and offer instead heretofore untold chronicles, perhaps more insightful to students.  Perhaps they will find their own evidence that Hughie’s free will was predetermined, as they sort through what made him climb on board that troop ship in Belfast harbor heading to France.   

[1] Russian Thinkers, 2nd ed., Isaiah Berlin, Penguin Books, 2008.

Bill Roden has served in higher education as professor, dean, college General Counsel, President and Chancellor. He recently returned from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where he spearheaded a successful US accreditation effort for campuses of the UAE's Institute of Applied Technology. Bill also retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the JAG Corps. He currently teaches online for a law school in California and consults for higher education. Email: [email protected]


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