Wednesday, 25 January 2012

What is History For?

I picked this quote up when Hitchins died, and all the news websites felt they should start compiling his sayings or something:

"History is more of a tragedy than it is a morality tale."

And I thought: what does that actually mean? Sure, it's punchy, pithy, and quite Hitchins-esque, but what does it mean?

Well, it's referencing two other famous quotes about history that you might know:  

"Those who do not understand the past are condemnded to repeat it" -Santayana

'History happens twice, once as tragedy twice as farce' - Hegel

These are pretty commonly bandied around; chances are you recognise them from a poster in your history classroom at school. All Hitchins seems to mean is that history does not teach us anything about morality, but simply provides us with examples of things going wrong (and the implication is that these are moral wrongs), and then bad, sad stuff happening as a result. Is that really the case? Is that what history is?

What's History Good For, Then?

I'd like to start with the disclaimer that almost every historian today has been asked, or has asked themselves this question, and if there are two answers exactly the same I will be very surprised.

This is also a question I get asked a lot, as an ancient history and archaeology student, and it's one I've read or heard many different answers to. Here are the main headings they fall under.

"Those who do not understand the past are condemnded to repeat it"
As above, this is one of the most common. Thinking back, I can remember asking, and recieving this very answer from a teacher at school. Then, as now, I found it unconvincing. What do they mean? People don't rise from the dead; technology moves on; clearly this is all nonsense. I've grown up a bit since then, but there is still something I don't like about it. It seems to imply that history is in some way circular, and that there is a finite number of outcomes from every concieveable situation: and that they have already happened.

I don't find this convincing, so let's move on.

History tells us where we come from, and if we don't know that, where are we going?
This one rings a few bells for me, and it's one I hold in quite high regard. Of course, I'm not certain that, say, ancient Mesapotamia has had such a hand in shaping our world that not to know about it would render me incapable of going forwards. However, this works well for modern history. I can't rememeber Thatcher, but I certainly know about her, and chances are I'd find a lot of current affairs very confusing if I didn't. But if this is the only reason that we do history, surely we can stick to just recent things, or just things that we can say have directly influenced our culture? This brings us to the next part.

It's our heritage.
History is ours. Implying it is somehow not someone elses? Who is this other person? And how do we decide which history belongs to whom? There is no question that 'local' history is important to people. Just look at the fuss over the Elgin Marbles, or the museum on Orkney that houses all their prehistoric stuff, because they didn't want to send it all the way to Edinburgh. Zimbabwe is even named after an archaeological site. However, does that make Chinese history my heritage? And the Mayans or Aztecs, can I really study them, since they lived so far away?

This is an interesting point, but not one I feel explains very much.

History satisfies some human need for a past.
I'm not sure I disagree with this one. As far as I can tell, all cultures and all societies have a history. It might not be rigorous academic history, or even something we might recognise as true or possible, but they have a past for themselves. A founding myth, or some idea of where they are and how they got there. This tradition continues even today, and not just among 'primitive' peoples. In Northern Ireland, the Unionists and the Republicans both have different reconstructed ideas about Long Kesh/ HM Prison The Maze. Both claim it as their history, but it represents something very different to both groups. (I won't go on about this, but I personally find it fascinating. I'd advise you to check out Laura MacAtackney's work on it if you're interested.)

I think this is why people are interested in history, but I'm not sure if it explains why academic rigour is important (and according to my lecturers, getting the facts right is really important. This argument does not pursuade them to overlook that.)

It's just interesting, it serves no practical purpose
I have heard this one from quite a few people. It takes two forms: either, they're not a historian (and forgive me, they're usually a scientist), and they genuinely just think history is interesting, but not important, like Lord of the Rings. Or, and this one is more for historians, they are kicking back against the idea that history must be for something, like helping people. Physics? Mapping the universe. Chemistry? Investigating the molecular basis of life. Biology? Saving lives. Engineering? Building things. Next to all of that, history can start to look like it's not doing very much, and it's easy to see why historians are so keen to justify it with one, or more, of the above points. Next to that, kicking your heels and going: "It's just interesting!" becomes quite appealing.

You might have noticed that I haven't really answered the question. That's because I don't think I have an answer yet, though I really hope to someday. But enough about what I think: what do you think?

Do you agree with my assessment of the above points, or (more likely) disagree? Have I missed something?


  1. I'm of two minds on this one.

    On one hand, history isn't just interesting, it's powerful. Humans reason by analogy. If you're trying to convey to someone a contemporarily relevant anthropological or sociological truth, you've got two options: 1) Outline the appropriate literature, introducing any necessary terminology and defining the models contained therein, or 2) relate it to something they know or can imagine. And regrettably, "Remember that bit in Episode 1?" generally doesn't cut it.

    If the sheer drive to accumulate knowledge isn't enough to motivate us to study the past then, tautologically, the only people who'll do it are those looking to serve some other agenda. I'm reminded of the prattle spouted in the film last night. If we couldn't say "actually, no, go read this book" when people blather nonsense about dinosaurs to advance their religious goals, I can't imagine how much worse things would be.

    That said, I confess I can't stand Proper History. I can't summon any interest in the fine details of superceded civilisations - the dates and names and petty skirmishes - and while I recognise they're all relevant in the craft of dedicated, methodical historical investigation, I can't find in them any relevance to real life and I weep at the thought of so many brains being forced to absorb them in schools.

    The question for me isn't so much whether history's worth doing, it's whether we've done enough already. We've got the important stuff down, right? Can we not just put it in a really big book somewhere, leave the remaining mysteries unsolved, treat it as the most haphazard, ill-thought-out, poorly paced story ever written, and go figure out how to write our initials on the moon?

    1. Your first point, that history is powerful, is one I think is pretty compelling. But does that mean that historians should just be the "gatekeepers" of history? So, a politician might use an idea, or analogy from history to further their goals, and the historian's job is to.. help? hinder? prevent? Is that all history is for?

      I can sympathise with your dislike of Proper History (though I confess I don't even know what that is anymore. Damn you history theory course!). Forcing children to learn dates, particularly of things as boring as the Industrial Revolution (Who wants to learn the date of the invention of the Spinning Jenny?) isn't particularly helpful. I think history is something that should be covered in schools, but we should focus on the methods of history (source comparisons and so on) and the experiences of real people (social history), rather than just memorising dates and figures.

      Haven't we done enough history already? Well, have we done enough astrophysics? Enough maths with imaginary numbers? You could just as easily make the arguments that these are also futile pursuits. I can't lay my hands on the direct quote right now (because I heard it in a speech from the Dean of Arts in my first year), but I think Humphrey Davy (chemist, inventor of the Davy lamp, saved lives etc.) said something along the lines of "It is only when we say we have enough information; that we have discovered enough and need not research further, that science is broken." He probably said something more effective than 'broken'. And as the Dean added, surely it's really important for civilisation that there is someone, somewhere who knows everything about the practices of French Medieval monks, or beetle exoskeletons. I am not that person, and nor am I likely to need their information any time soon, but I find it very conforting to know those people are there, continuing to learn about their frankly tiny and weird field of study.

    2. Re gatekeeping history: Yeah, I mean, that's one role they can play. I don't want to suggest they're limited to it. But against the preponderance of personal reasons, like curiosity or obligation to our forebears or resonance with prior lifestyles, it's worth highlighting some ways it benefits even the most apathetic people.

      I think the other big argument for learning history - and it's one I'm dubious of - is to establish common culture. So much of our communication invokes shared knowledge. Our day to day lives are practically festooned with cultural anchors, universal points of reference in a world of diverse people and interests. It's a testament to how ingrained this referential mindset is in our lives that I can make my point twice by casually mentioning Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

      And maybe it's a good thing for fiction, as well. We've all been jarred out of a sci-fi narrative by forced, audience-pandering explication of that particular universe's rules. We've all yawned as another writer offers us the new recruit as the reader's proxy in a strange new world to justify having a character spell it all out in excrutiating detail. If a storyteller can just show us a couple of towering white pillars and togas and then dive right into the action then hey, thumbs up from me.

      But then I think about what we'd have if we didn't have those sorts of preworn scaffolds, and I wonder if it wouldn't be much, much more interesting.

      Astrophysics and pure maths, futile pursuits? Heresy! The combination of the two - along with a few hundred other disciplines whose fully applications certainly wouldn't have been obvious to their pioneers - is what lets me casually walk around with a supercomputer in my pocket. And I think that's the difference in my mind. If you turned the study of history back fifty years, would anybody's life be any worse?

  2. A lot of fine words can be said, a lot of lofty sentiment can be espoused when attempting to find some kind of meaning in the study of history. I am, however, going to ignore that for the moment, and concentrate on, at least in the start, what history means to me.

    I've had a more than passing interest in things historical over the years, taking history at A-Level amidst a sea of maths and sciences (which no doubt cause Tim King a ton of difficulty sorting out the timetable). I knew was going to apply to university to do -something- science based, but I also did not want to give up on a subject I had a deep fascination with. So why was it I felt this need, this urge to connect with times gone by? I think, simply put, it was because I love stories. I adore being enthralled by a good tale, but perhaps even more than that, I love to weave the disparate threads of plot together to ensnare others in a web of imagination. Now, this is a common thing for us humans, throughout the ages, there have always been storytellers, keepers of legend and lore, bards and skalds, authors of classics and trashy novels alike. Entertainment is a huge business right now, with books, film and TV capturing the minds of people the world over.

    So am I just saying that history's place in the modern world is just a succession of amusing tales and anecdotes to entertain? No, though, it is certainly true that these stories should be cherished. It is actually far more intriguing than just that, because there is a lot to learn about people from these collections of accounts and narratives, with the fundamental nature of humanity shaping events. A wide study of historical events, looking from the glory of the highest emperor, to the lot of the lowliest serf, shows, I believe, that people are people, no matter when they are born, they still feel the same drives we do today, a spectrum of emotions and motivations: greed , hate, charity, love and all manner of feelings in-between. I suppose to me, the events are incidental, with my real interest being with those involved, the individual tales of those involved that bind together to make the bigger picture. This reflects in my own storytelling, with characters with, I hope, believable motivations shaping their actions, which then go on to build the bigger picture.

    The processes of the study of history are useful skills to develop, with the in-depth interpretation of events, considering all the sources and evidence, being the closest many of us get to playing detective. An exercise in being objective and making one's own mind up, if you like. It seems important, in current times, to learn what it is to think and feel for oneself, rather than blindly following what one is told. I believe this is one of the strengths of history, and one of the most enjoyable parts, fitting together the various pieces, working out the how and the why of events, rather than just the memorising lists of dates and wars which, unfortunately, is all some are taught history is about.

    (Continued below, I'm being overly verbose today)

  3. The success of dramas such as The Tudors and The Borgias, shows there is a popular interest in things historical, though admittedly events within them are highly dramatised and not entirely accurate. This interest is not just a modern thing however, as if we take, for example, the history plays of Shakespeare, which would have been put on by players to wide and varied audiences. It saddens me somewhat by the attitudes of some that Shakespeare is this kind of aloof type of entertainment, dry and academic, rather than what it was intended to be when it was written, which was something to entertain both noble and commoner alike, but that is a whole topic unto itself. My point was this, that people like hearing about other people, through their rises and falls, sharing their hopes and dreams, their laughter and their tragedies. It's why soaps are so popular, and if presented in an accessible fashion, stories from times gone by can fill that requirement just as well as the comings and goings in the Rovers. When it comes down to it, people are just nosy, and delight in being a fly on the wall in other people's lives - and it is through the interpretation of history we are offered a number of views through a myriad collection of windows.

    I had something to say about veneration of ancestors and how I believe recorded history can be seen as a natural progression of that, but I think I will spare you from my further ramblings.

    p.s. Wait, wait, I forgot something. The Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini. Old habits die hard.

  4. The most important thing history teaches us is to never fight a land war in Asia. That always goes badly.

    1. And never go up against a Sicillian when death is on the line!