Down with History?

June 19, 2011

Adam Ozimek is looking for a fight. In a recent post he sought to defend the arts from being cut from public school budgets by suggesting another subject be placed on the altar in its place: history. He may be correct in his overall argument that art is more useful than history, that’s something that is difficult to measure. But I do have to defend my former profession to some degree.

There’s two things that can be said about the often repeated aphorism: “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”. First, that statement is only true for students in compulsory history courses, not historical actors.

Second, that statement could not have come from a proper historian. Historians constantly try to emphasize the relevance of their discipline, and a passionate few err by overstating its predicative ability. If the history of the world has been cyclical (and it would be easy to argue that it has) that may have more to do with individuals reading too much into history rather than too little.

True Historians study the minutia of a particular field precisely because they don’t see any practical comparison between what others might determine are analogous events. Those who do believe that an explanatory model can be developed that would provide a measure of predictability in a similar situation aren’t historians, they’re political scientist (most of whom are just mediocre historians, mediocre economists, and mediocre philosophers – take your pick).

That doesn’t mean that History is useless. History may not have a predictive quality, but it does fulfill a compulsory need to know where we came from – it satiates a natural curiosity felt by everyone to better understand ourselves. In short, it makes sense of the world around us.

Joey Ramone don't care about history - should you?

More than that, understanding why we are the way we are might give us some insight into who we are. Maybe, answering that question does in fact have some practical sense.

George Orwell certainly thought so. 1984 conveys almost an obsessive fear held by Orwell that forgetting the past, or misuse of history was a fundamental element of totalitarian regimes. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is in near constant dread (and awe) of Big Brother’s ability to erase all remnants of a democratic past in the collective memory of his subjects. Orwell is concerned that totalitarianism is born in lies, and those lies become permanent when history is re-written. Obviously we don’t live in the Airstrip One of Orwell’s nightmare, nor is there any indication that a similar distopia is on the horizon (at least so far as the West is concerned) so the application of history for this particular reason may be irrelevant.

Still, it does not mean that history is useless. History provides us with the context in which both great and terrible developments occur. No philosophical, political, economic, or artistic movement was created within a vacuum – actors’ intentions mean something (more on this later!). We cannot fully appreciate the genius or insanity of any particular achievement or action without understanding what went behind it. As Karl Marx correctly observed, each new system adopts the nomenclature of the old no matter how radical the departure. Even clean breaks from the past (if ever such a thing occurred) are not immune to historical analysis.

But this is more an argument for not eliminating the teaching of history all together, rather than promoting it as a worthwhile subject, so I’m going to take another tact.

The criticism that History as a subject receives might be related more to the way that it is taught than the discipline itself. As most critics point out, if students are only required to memorize dates, names, places, the exercise is fairly useless.

But believing that this is all that History amounts to is wrongheaded. There is a common misunderstanding that history is simply about recording “facts” and not about interpretation. History is presented as linear and unchanging, when in fact it is interpretive. There are few “facts” and even less consensus in what those facts mean. History wouldn’t survive as a popular discipline if it could be compiled in one book with each new generation simply adding a chapter to an established story. In that case it would be routine and attract the worst characters.

The purpose of any subject area is to develop critical thinking skills, and History can do that! Weighing competing interpretations and disparate evidence, understanding where to find primary material, evaluating sources, all of this is a challenge and develops skills that can be utilized within any discipline. Whether historians do the above better than any other discipline is a whole other question. Regardless of where it ranks within the Humanities as a whole, History serves the same function as law, philosophy, literature and art – it is about developing critical thinking skills. This is a worthwhile exercise regardless of one’s career path.