Why does History Matter?

A friend recently re-posted an old piece from The Onion, in which the nation’s “His­to­ri­ans Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Hap­pened In Past Before Mak­ing Any Big Deci­sions.”

historianI asked my grad class to blog about why they’re tak­ing a his­tory class, and why they think it mat­ters, so it’s only fair that I do the same.

Does his­tory mat­ter? Every cou­ple months there’s a news­pa­per arti­cle about how lit­tle peo­ple know about his­tory–here’s an exam­ple, in which the Brits make fun of us for know­ing noth­ing. 1

Amer­i­cans don’t know basic facts about their his­tory! to which I’d say mostly “so what?” Most peo­ple don’t need to know any­thing at all about his­tory to func­tion per­fectly well, and if they need to know some­thing spe­cific, they can eas­ily and quickly look it up. You don’t need to know about the war of 1812 to sell mort­gage bonds or work at the Ama­zon ware­house. Deep knowl­edge of the acts of Ben­jamin Har­ri­son is of prac­ti­cally no value to any­one. Ide­ally, I think every­one should have a Ph.D. in US his­tory, but ide­ally, I think every­one should know every­thing. What’s good about know­ing his­tory as opposed, say, know­ing physics or gram­mar or music theory?

A Famous HistorianHis­tory rarely if ever helps you “avoid the mis­takes of the past,” because con­di­tions in the present are never quite the same, even if they can be made to look sim­i­lar. Any his­to­rian knows that most “bad” deci­sions either only turn out to be bad in hind­sight, or else could eas­ily have been good deci­sions if one or two things ran­dom had turned out dif­fer­ently. It’s not like there is some stan­dard of “good” that his­to­ri­ans guard in a vault, against which all acts are mea­sured. Hav­ing his­to­ri­ans on your deci­sion team is not, I don’t think, likely to help you avoid mak­ing mistakes.

But his­tory is really good for strength­en­ing argu­ments. Why did we have to “take out” Sad­dam Hus­sein? Because his­tory shows you can’t appease dic­ta­tors! Pro­po­nents of the Iraq inva­sion con­stantly invoked Win­ston Churchill, Neville Cham­ber­lain, and the “appease­ment” of Hitler. But at this moment, it’s very easy to say that knowl­edge of the past failed to pre­vent us from mak­ing a stu­pid mistake.

AskTheHistorianAnd of course, in 2003 there were lots of peo­ple using the evi­dence of his­tory to argue against invad­ing Iraq, talk­ing about the futil­ity of nation build­ing and the ungovern­abil­ity of his­tor­i­cally arti­fi­cial states. It’s not that one side was wrong and the other was right: it’s that his­tory was equally use­ful to both sides. If you do what The Onion sug­gests, and lis­ten to his­to­ri­ans, you are going to get a range of opin­ions, pretty much exactly the same range of opin­ions you’ll get from non-historians. It’s good for strength­en­ing argu­ments, but not par­tic­u­larly good for assur­ing good decisions.

So what’s it good for? I’d say it’s good for offer­ing you alter­na­tive ways of think­ing. His­tory is a repos­i­tory of the astound­ing cre­ativ­ity and resource­ful­ness of peo­ple. It’s a record of the mul­ti­ple ways peo­ple come up with to solve basic human dilem­mas. It shows how mal­leable we are, how pow­er­ful ideas are in shap­ing our behav­ior. It frees us, iron­i­cally, from the inevitabil­ity of the present by demon­strat­ing how things that look “nat­ural” and time­less and inevitable are actu­ally con­tin­gent and frag­ile and don’t have to be.

If you study his­tory the world you nav­i­gate through becomes a deeper, richer, and more inter­est­ing place. If you don’t know any­thing about, say, plants, you just drive through a world of green stuff. But if you know a lot about plants, all the green stuff becomes more inter­est­ing and var­ied. it becomes leg­i­ble in a dif­fer­ent way. As you drive along the free­way, you under­stand why there’s a free­way; you under­stand the polit­i­cal, social, eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal forces that led to that free­way being there. His­tory is going to make even the most mun­dane stuff, deeper, richer, and more interesting.

Does it need to do more than that?



  1. Notice that it starts with Christina Aguil­era for­get­ting the lyrics to the national anthem. That’s not really his­tory, I’d say, and it’s a ter­ri­ble anthem any­way and we ought to replace it with Amer­ica the Beau­ti­ful. 


  • Meredith wrote:

    Yes, it needs to be more than that!

    Sorry, Mike, since I won’t have any papers to grade until Feb­ru­ary, I’m going to have to take issue with your phras­ing in the 7th para­graph: “It’s not that one side was wrong and the other was right: it’s that his­tory was equally use­ful to both sides.” Agreed, activists on both sides of the Iraq War deployed his­tor­i­cal analo­gies to make their argu­ments. But I dis­agree with the false equiv­a­lent the phras­ing implies. One side WAS right, and I was on it, so there. Ok, more to the point, one side was argu­ing that the Munich anal­ogy was most apt, and the other was argu­ing for a Viet­nam anal­ogy. But I think pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans shared an opin­ion that deci­sion mak­ing should have been rooted in par­tic­u­lar appre­ci­a­tion of the cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal forces that influ­ence the Mid­dle East, as opposed to some grafted-on anal­ogy from West­ern Civ. It’s not that any his­to­rian would have been use­ful to Bush admin­is­tra­tion pol­i­cy­mak­ers; it’s that cer­tain his­to­ri­ans with a par­tic­u­lar exper­tise would have been use­ful. Of course, we can’t rerun the exper­i­ment to see if I’m right. But I refuse to believe that the forces of nin­com­poop­ery and greed cre­ated a bet­ter out­come for Iraq than edu­cated peo­ple who don’t shy from nuance.

    Also, I think you should clar­ify what you mean by “his­tory.” Not to go all Pierre Nora on you, but we’ve got the lived past, the dom­i­nant culture’s per­cep­tion of the past (col­lec­tive mem­ory, if you will), and the writ­ten his­tory of the past–all of which we call “his­tory.” One might also dis­tin­guish between “his­tory” and “his­tor­i­cal edu­ca­tion.” Since our pro­fes­sion, indeed human­i­ties edu­ca­tion in gen­eral, is under siege, we would do well to focus on the impor­tance of his­tor­i­cal edu­ca­tion, as opposed to the impor­tance of his­tory. His­tor­i­cal edu­ca­tion teaches crit­i­cal think­ing and instructs stu­dents for­mally or infor­mally in the con­structed nature of knowledge–both very handy skills to have when head­ing off to vote.

    Any­way, I’m not quite ready to believe our dis­ci­pline exists solely for per­sonal enrichment!

  • Well I sup­pose you’re right. I also was entirely on the side of “OMG invad­ing Iraq are you nuts!?” and I still think it was an ill con­ceived blun­der based on a bad read­ing of his­tory. But in terms of util­ity, it’s not his­tory per se, it’s the per­sua­sive­ness of the argu­ment made using his­tory. So I sus­pect you’d agree that hav­ing a lot of his­to­ri­ans doesn’t assure good decisions–if it did out depart­ment meet­ings would pro­duce utopian outcomes.

    But you’re right, there’s dif­fer­ent mean­ings to his­tory and I think I meant “the con­scious, delib­er­ate study of past events.”

    Crit­i­cal think­ing, good stuff, with you all the way on that, but I think our neigh­bors in robin­son prob­a­bly do it just as well

  • […] O’Malley. “Why Does His­tory Matters.” The Aporetic. http://theaporetic.com/?p=4745 August 30, […]

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