Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Use and Abuse of History

“Yeah, but what are you going to do with it?” Perhaps the greatest challenge facing a history major, or any humanities student for that matter, is explaining to people why what you do is useful. My first response is usually casual self-deprecation. More often than not I get off there and am not required to muster more of a defense than “I enjoy it.” I do truly enjoy it, but I often wonder whether I’m actually pursuing something worthwhile. And perhaps it’s a wistful desire to make myself more useful than I actually am, but I think a stronger grounding in history could do everyone a bit of good.
It’s not that people don’t know history. I’m sure you can find enough bright-eyed youngsters to tell you who was the first President of the United States and what year we landed on the moon. But what troubles me is that people are able to capitalize on a lack of historical knowledge in order to advance their agendas. I don’t really mean to point fingers (I really want to, but that’s not really the point now, is it?), but there are certain groups who use what can charitably be called misinterpretations and uncharitably be called lies about history to garner support for whatever they happen to be pushing this week. They can do this because people don’t know the history that really matters.

Unfortunately, the history that really matters isn’t easy to teach and it isn’t particularly sexy. Dates and names are easy and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would call history sexy (although it can be pretty sexy if you know where to look and some of it is actually pretty relevant to a whole host of discussions in modern society). History that truly demands to be learned falls generally into what is termed social history. How people lived; what they believed and valued and decided in their daily lives; how social conventions changed over time. In this somewhat nebulous category lies the direct and indirect causes and seeds for the world we live in today. The grand narratives of statesmen and hallowed laws of ages past are arguably important, but it is how they played out in bedrooms and classrooms and restaurants that truly shaped us.

I am an unrepentant believer in the power of education and knowledge to shape society. In knowing more we become better equipped to improve the lives of our fellow human beings. That is a bit grandiose and possibly too abstract to act as the foundation of an educational system, but if you take an honest look at the educational enterprise today that’s what most of it is about. The hard part comes in realizing that every avenue of study can contribute to the service of humanity. It’s not that history needs to be made relevant, it is relevant. We just need to take a moment to stop societally devaluing it and recognize that we are all a product of our history. If we are ignorant of where we’ve come from, if we don’t know our starting points, how can we know if we’re going in a direction we’d be proud of.

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