History Provides a Critical Thinking ‘Toolbox’ for Students: An Interview with Ortal-Paz Saar

tags: historians, What Im Reading

Ortal-Paz Saar is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of History and Art History at Utrecht University where she specializes in religious studies and Jewish cultural history. 

What books are you reading now?

Yesterday I finished A Pale View of Hills by Katzuo Ishiguro, which I read slowly, so as to “save” it for as long as possible. It is a true masterpiece, from every imaginable point of view. It could make a very good horror film, meaning an intelligent, not a scary one. As it is, the novel makes you shiver because of the things it does not say, somewhat like Giorgio de Chirico’s painting “Mystery and melancholy of a street”. Before that I read Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, a historically-set novel with moving and convincing characters. I came across it by chance in the bookstore, while looking for a novel by a different Sarah, Sarah Moss, whose Ghost WallI enjoyed very much.

What is your favorite history book?

If you mean “history” as in “non-fiction”, then Gideon Bohak’s Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (2008). Bohak was my PhD supervisor and is a true intellectual whom I profoundly admire. He also happens to write exceptional academic prose: clear, pleasant to read, and full of humor. 

When reading fiction, I tend to notice the historical setting, and I often learn a lot from novels – good ones encourage you to go and read more about a period.

Why did you choose history as your career?

I started out as a classical archaeologist but fell in love with magic-related artifacts during my MA studies, which led to a doctorate focusing on manuscripts and history. For me, historical research is fascinating in a way similar to a detective investigation: you have clues, some of which are misleading and others fragmentary, and you need to piece together an image. You strive to achieve an accurate one, although history (especially pre-modern periods) precludes certainty.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

To be historian you probably just need to study, find a research topic and work on it. To be a good historian, however, you need to have curiosity, imagination, passion, and the courage to go against the current if you believe you are right. Come to think of it, one needs those qualities to be good in every profession.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

Tough question. I do not recall any positive (high)school experiences with this subject. At Tel Aviv University I had several good teachers, and particularly liked Prof. Israel Roll, who unfortunately passed away in 2010. He had a very systematic method of teaching, clear and easy to follow, whether he was teaching about classical art, excavations in Pompeii or sites in Israel. I can still remember many of his classes, and think the students appreciated him.

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

Both memorable and rewarding: adult-education courses in which the participants were people from all walks of life and different religious backgrounds: an orthodox Jew sitting next to two Muslims and several atheists. My lectures were about the major world religions, and I will always remember the warm, respectful, and friendly atmosphere at those meetings. 

What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

If we want to maintain history as a subject worthy of being taught even when increasingly more historical information can be found online, we need to seriously think about its raison d’être. We need to ask: What does history really teach us, why is it needed today? These questions seem to be even more pertinent when we talk about ancient history – why should people care about what happened more than two millennia ago? I do not often come across discussions on the philosophical aspects of this discipline; maybe because people working within the discipline love it, so they do not stop to ponder on its future or its relevance. They climb the mountain because it is there. However, I find it important to pose these questions, both in class and among colleagues. 

One of the things I often tell students is that I would like to teach them critical thinking, and that history provides a toolbox they can take with them once they finish the course. This is increasingly important in the age of fake (news-, deep-, you name it). It may not be long before distinguishing true history from its other forms becomes impossible, and worse: irrelevant. My hope is that we, and the student generations we help shaping, will be able to prevent this.

On a less serious note, I hope that someone will finally invent the time machine that history lovers have been dreaming about for so long (suggested reading: M.R. James’ “A View from a Hill” -- and anything else by this author).

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

None. I am not a collector, and tend to get rid of things that clutter my space (books are never clutter, of course).

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Rewarding: the fact that my work and my hobbies coincide. I go to work each morning feeling happy about the hours ahead. This is probably one of the greatest blessings one can ask for. Frustrations? None so far.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

One word: digitization. Two words: digital humanities. I remember writing my PhD and using microfilm images of Cairo Genizah manuscripts: black and white, poor quality, and the microfilm machines were constantly breaking. Only a decade has passed and those manuscripts, fully digitized, can be viewed from any laptop, in excellent resolution. Secondly, the rapid increase in the use of DH techniques and methodologies has brought to light historical patterns previously unseen, enabling people to ask questions that were unconceivable before. 

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

Not just history-related: “The broader your horizons, the more points of contact you have with infinity” (attributed to Blaise Pascal). I use it to justify spending time reading interesting (but irrelevant) things when I should finish writing my monograph on epitaphs that reflect Jewish diasporic identity.

What are you doing next?

Finishing that monograph, of course.