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Why is both necessary and helpful to study the context of prior history

Summary Answering two objections to History One common objection that historians encounter is the instant put-down that is derived from Henry Ford I, the impresario of the mass automobile. In 1916 he stated sweepingly: Actually, Ford's original comment was not so well phrased and it was a journalist who boiled it down to three unforgettable words. Nonetheless, this is the phrasing that is attributed to Ford and it is this dictum that is often quoted by people wishing to express their scepticism about the subject.

Well, then, what is the use of History, if it is only bunk? This rousingly old-fashioned term, for those who have not come across it before, is derived from the Dutch bunkum, meaning rubbish or nonsense. Inwardly groaning, historians deploy various tactics in response. One obvious reaction is to challenge the terms of the question, in order to make questioners think again about the implications of their terminology.

To demand an accountant-style audit of the instant usefulness of every subject smacks of a very crude model of education indeed. It implies that people learn only very specific things, for very specific purposes.

For example, a would-be voyager to France, intending to work in that country, can readily identify the utility of learning the French language. However, since no-one can travel back in time to live in an earlier era, it might appear — following the logic of 'immediate application' — that studying anything other than the present-day would be 'useless'.

The 'immediate utility' formula is a deeply flawed proposition. Humans do not just learn gobbets of information for an immediate task at hand. And, much more fundamentally, the past and the present are not separated off into separate time-ghettos.

  • It took a lot of human history to create the automobile;
  • Noting two weak arguments in favour of studying History Some arguments in favour of studying History also turn out, on close inspection, to be disappointingly weak;
  • What is wrong with taking verses out of context?
  • Hence my twin maxims, the synchronic is always in the diachronic;
  • One of the most important tasks in reading a secondary source is find and understanding that particular author's interpretation.

Thus the would-be travellers who learn the French language are also learning French history, since the language was not invented today but has evolved for centuries into the present.

And the same point applies all round. The would-be travellers who learn French have not appeared out of the void but are themselves historical beings. Their own capacity to understand language has been nurtured in the past, and, if they remember and repeat what they are learning, they are helping to transmit and, if needs be, to adapt a living language from the past into the future.

Education is not 'just' concerned with teaching specific tasks but it entails forming and informing the whole person, for and through the experience of living through time. Similarly, people learn about astronomy without journeying in space, about marine biology without deep-sea diving, about genetics without cloning an animal, about economics without running a bank, about History without journeying physically into the past, and so forth.

The human mind can and does explore much wider terrain than does the human body though in fact human minds and bodies do undoubtedly have an impressive track record in physical exploration too.

Huge amounts of what people learn is drawn from the past that has not been forgotten. Furthermore, humans display great ingenuity in trying to recover information about lost languages and departed civilisations, so that everything possible can be retained within humanity's collective memory banks.

Very well, the critics then sniff; let's accept that History has a role. But the second criticism levelled at the subject is that it is basic and boring. In other words, if History is not meaningless bunk, it is nonetheless poor fare, consisting of soul-sapping lists of facts and dates. Further weary sighs come from historians when they hear this criticism.

All people are living histories – which is why History matters

It often comes from people who do not care much for the subject but who simultaneously complain that schoolchildren do not know key dates, usually drawn from their national history. Perhaps the critics who complain that History-is-so-boring had the misfortune to be taught by uninspired teachers who dictated 'teacher's notes' or who inculcated the subject as a compendium of data to be learned by heart. Such pedagogic styles are best outlawed, although the information that they intended to convey is far from irrelevant.

Facts and dates provide some of the basic building blocks of History as a field of study, but on their own they have limited meaning. Take a specific case.

Using Historical Sources

It would be impossible to comprehend 20th-century world history if given nothing but a list of key dates, supplemented by information about say population growth rates, economic resources and church attendance. And even if further evidence were provided, relating to say the size of armies, the cost of oil, and comparative literacy levels, this cornucopia of data would still not furnish nearly enough clues to reconstruct a century's worth of world experience.

On its own, information is not knowledge. That great truth cannot be repeated too often. Having access to abundant information, whether varnished or unvarnished, does not in itself mean that people can make sense of the data.

Charles Dickens long ago satirised the 'facts and nothing but the facts' school of thought. In his novel Hard Times, 1 he invented the hard-nosed businessman, Thomas Gradgrind, who believes that knowledge is sub-divided into nuggets of information.

Children should then be given 'Facts' and taught to avoid 'Fancy' — or any form of independent thought and imagination. In the Dickens novel, the Gradgrindian system comes to grief, and so it does in real life, if attempts are ever made to found education upon this theory.

People need mental frameworks that are primed to understand and to assess the available data and — as often happens — to challenge and update both the frameworks and the details too. So the task of educationalists is to help their students to develop adaptable and critical minds, as well as to gain specific expertise in specific subjects. Returning to the case of someone first trying to understand 20th-century world history, the notional list of key dates and facts would need to be framed by reading say Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes: Or, better again, students can examine critically the views and sources that underpin these historians' big arguments, as well as debate all of this material facts and ideas with others.

Above all, History students expect to study for themselves some of the original sources from the past; and, for their own independent projects, they are asked to find new sources and new arguments or to think of new ways of re-evaluating known sources to generate new arguments.

Such educational processes are a long, long way from memorising lists of facts. Such exercises are memory tests but not ways of evaluating an understanding of History. Noting two weak arguments in favour of studying History Some arguments in favour of studying History also turn out, on close inspection, to be disappointingly weak.

These do not need lengthy discussion but may be noted in passing. For example, some people semi-concede the critics' case by saying things like: But that says absolutely nothing about the content of the subject. Of course, the ability to analyse a diverse array of often discrepant data, to provide a reasoned interpretation of the said data, and to give a reasoned critique of one's own and other people's interpretations are invaluable life- and work-skills.

These are abilities that History as a field of study is particularly good at inculcating.

Penelope J. Corfield

Nevertheless, the possession of analytical and interpretative skills is not a quality that is exclusive to historians. The chief point about studying History is to study the subject for the invaluable in-depth analysis and the long-term perspective it confers upon the entire human experience — the component skills being an essential ingredient of the process but not the prime justification.

Meanwhile, another variant reply to 'What is the use of History? That response says something but the first phrase is wrong and the conclusion is far too weak. It implies that understanding the past and the legacies of the past why is both necessary and helpful to study the context of prior history an optional extra within the educational system, with cultural value for those who are interested but without any general relevance.

Such reasoning was behind the recent and highly controversial decision in Britain to remove History from the required curriculum for schoolchildren aged 14—16. Yet, viewing the subject as an optional extra, to add cultural gloss, seriously underrates the foundational role for human awareness that is derived from understanding the past and its legacies. Dropping History as a universal subject will only increase rootlessness among young people.

The decision points entirely in the wrong direction. Instead, educationalists should be planning for more interesting and powerful ways of teaching the subject. Otherwise it risks becoming too fragmented, including too many miscellaneous skills sessions, thereby obscuring the big 'human story' and depriving children of a vital collective resource. Celebrating the strong case for History Much more can be said — not just in defence of History but in terms of its positive advocacy.

The best response is the simplest, as noted right at the start of this conversation. When asked 'Why History? Here it should be reiterated that the subject is being defined broadly. The word 'History' in English usage has many applications. In this discussion, History with a capital H means the academic field of study; and the subject of such study, the past, is huge. In practice, of course, people specialise.

Indeed, the boundaries between the specialist academic subjects are never rigid. So from a historian's point of view, much of what is studied under the rubric of for example Anthropology or Politics or Sociology or Law can be regarded as specialist sub-sets of History, which takes as its remit the whole of the human experience, or any section of that experience. Legacies from the past are preserved but also adapted, as each generation transmits them to the following one.

Sometimes, too, there are mighty upheavals, which also need to be navigated and comprehended. And there is loss. Not every tradition continues unbroken. But humans can and do learn also from information about vanished cultures — and from pathways that were not followed.

Understanding all this helps people to establish a secure footing or 'location' within the unfolding saga of time, which by definition includes both duration and change. The metaphor is not one of fixation, like dropping an anchor or trying to halt the flow of time.

Instead, it is the ability to keep a firm footing within history's rollercoaster that is so important. Another way of putting it is to have secure roots that will allow for continuity but also for growth and change. Nothing, indeed, can be more relevant to successful functioning in the here-and-now.

  1. A good educational system should help people to study History more formally, more systematically, more accurately, more critically and more longitudinally. Some facts are ambiguous.
  2. One obvious reaction is to challenge the terms of the question, in order to make questioners think again about the implications of their terminology.
  3. However, since no-one can travel back in time to live in an earlier era, it might appear — following the logic of 'immediate application' — that studying anything other than the present-day would be 'useless'.
  4. We also know from other passages that God not only loves, but He also hates.

The immediate moment, known as the synchronic, is always located within the long-term unfolding of time: And the converse is also true. The long term of history always contributes to the immediate moment.

Hence my twin maxims, the synchronic is always in the diachronic. The present moment is always part of an unfolding long term, which needs to be understood. The diachronic is always in the synchronic: As living creatures, humans have an instinctive synchro-mesh, that gears people into the present moment.

But, in addition to that, having a perspective upon longitudinal time, and history within that, is one of the strengths of the alert human consciousness. It may be defined as a parallel process of diachro-mesh, to coin a new term. On the strength of that experience, societies and individuals assess the long-term passage of events from past to present — and, in many cases, manage to measure time not just in terms of nanoseconds but also in terms of millennia.

Humans are exceptional animals for their ability to think 'long' as well as 'immediate'; and those abilities need to be cultivated. If educational systems do not provide a systematic grounding in the study of History, then people will glean some picture of the past and the role of themselves, their families, and their significant associations which include everything from nations and religions to local clubs and neighbourhood networks from a medley of other resources — from cultural traditions, from collective memories, from myths, rumours, songs, sagas, from political and religious teachings and customs, from their families, their friends, and from every form of human communication from gossip to the printing press and on to the web.

People do learn, in other words, from a miscellany of resources that are assimilated both consciously and unconsciously. But what is learned may be patchy or confused, leaving some feeling rootless; or it may be simplified and partisan, leaving others feeling embattled or embittered.