Saturday, September 27, 2008

Usefulness of History

Why study history? What's the point?  

This question seems to be asked more often these days, as we all face national economic crises, state budget crises, and university budget cuts.  My own university has to cut between 6 and 10% of its overall budget and is proposing a massive "restructuring" to try to make the university more efficient, cost-effective, and of higher quality.  As part of this whole process, our department needs to submit a white paper to the administration that justifies our existence, explains our importance, and offers proposals that we could live with.  

So we have the question: why study history?  The department does not get huge federal grants like the sciences, or corporate grants like many of the engineering departments.  Many of our professors are quite well known in their fields, but the nature of historical research is such that we rarely receive large federal grants or work on nationally-recognized projects.  So why history? 

I came up with a few simple answers for my students this summer, when I was teaching a European history course.  My basic answer is this: 
  • History is, at its heart, the stories we tell about human beings - their thoughts, their actions, their words, their creations.  These stories can appear in a thousand different forms - stories of businesses, economics, literature, music, ideology, politicians and kings, men, women, children, religions, battles, etc.  But ultimately, we tell these stories in the hopes of understanding the people who came before us.  As we tell more and more stories, as we understand more about these people, we understand, ultimately, who we ourselves are.  Because no matter whether you "learn" from history, or even remember it, every individual lives in context.  Your values, your experiences, your family, everything helps shape who you are, for good or ill, and those were, in turn, shaped by what came before them.  
So why study history?  It probably won't make you (or your university) a lot of money.  It probably won't get you an interview on Larry King or whomever the most desirable interviewer is at the time.  It probably won't make you famous.  But there are consequences for not knowing or understanding history.  Those who do not know rarely understand complicated current events.  But, even more important than not understanding why the Middle East is so contentious or why factions in Iraq or Afghanistan are still fighting each other, if you do not understand history, if you do not understand your own context, you cannot fully understand yourself.  Why you are the way you are, why you have experienced what you have, why your life is what it is.  

So to those who question the need to have history departments, or who propose cutting funding/positions/courses in those departments, I offer this: We historians are dedicated to the past because it is fundamental to understanding the present.  We endeavor to teach students not just to recite, but to truly analyze and understand the world.  For us, regurgitation is not the goal.  The goal is to think and to understand.  

In the temple at Delphi the words "Know Thyself" were inscribed.  Socrates argued that self-knowledge was the key to wisdom.   I'll stick with Socrates and the Oracle at Delphi, but I'll add that knowing the past is one of the keys to knowing yourself.  

So know the past.  Know yourself. 

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