What is History for?


If you had the misfortune to do too much of
it at school, you’ll probably remember one thing about history: just how boring it can
be. You might harbour painful memories of the
100 Years War, the War of Spanish Succession, Crop Rotation in the Middle
Ages or – heaven forbid – the good deeds of Florence Nightingale. As a result, it wouldn’t be surprising if
– nowadays – you tended to steer well clear of the whole topic. But that would be a pity. The real reason
why history is so boring is that we’re not clear about what it should be for. Here’s the big reason why history matters:
it matters because it can provide us with solutions to many of the problems of the present. At its best, history is there to introduce
us to some of the things we need but that aren’t sufficiently visible in the world
today. As a society, we’re very obsessed by what
we’re up to right now. Unknowingly, we’re hugely biased towards
the present. The news – which is about the most prestigious force in the world today
– circles obsessively around some of the things that have happened in the last five minutes and yet, many of the most important things
that we need to nourish, sustain and inspire us are a lot
older. What we nowadays need above all else are GOOD IDEAS and history is full of them. Imagine you’re dissatisfied with aspects of contemporary Capitalism. It might help hugely to read about the HISTORY of the Levellers, a group
of English radicals writing and acting between 1645 and 1650.
Or if you question what the point of going on holiday is, you might dramatically enrich
your thoughts by considering the HISTORY of pilgrimage, especially the
motives which people had for trekking off to visit distant shrines. History teaches us that THINGS CAN CHANGE. People haven’t always been as they are now: materialistic
and work obsessed. unable to build nice architecture, over-concered with being “connected” or hung up on being absurdly thin There’s an annoying saying that goes: THOSE WHO DON’T KNOW HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT. But that’s suggesting the only thing
history is full of is mistakes. Yet it’s as fair to say, those who don’t know history won’t be able to IMPROVE the present. History can also teach us COURAGE. It’s
easy to feel, when you’re pressed up against the present, that things are exceptionally
awful right now but they rarely are, once you open the lens wide enough. The present isn’t unusual in its levels of mediocrity and compromise. Once you read the letters, the old guys were just as bad. And though our challenges are of course great, they aren’t exceptional
– when compared with say, those facing the survivors of the sack of Rome or
the Lisbon earthquake. History ends up as a tool for the APPRECIATION
of some of our advantages which is easy to miss. It can teach us to judge our society
against other societies rather than against our ideals. Of course the European Union has problems, but the Habsburg Empire had them too and many more. Our governments are
deeply imperfect, but there have been worse. Traffic is terrible, but so was
the siege of Leningrad. History can console. Getting clearer about what history is for
should change how the subject is taught. In the future, we should treat history a little
like a doctor treats a medicine cabinet. Before diving into history, we’d first have
to work out what was wrong with us, what we were lacking in the here and now. We be might
diagnosed for a lack of courage, or a spoilt nature or a hesitation about whether to marry.
And we should be prescribed history accordingly For their part, historians themselves should
get clearer about what problems in the present they’re trying to solve. They should explicitly
aim to tell us things about the past that can help us with issues of today. Not the
past for its sake, but the past for our sakes. Good history should always mean: history with
solutions or consolations for today. Now that could be interesting…

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