What is the point of learning history?

Last week, I found myself on a plane to Houston.  Although I ordinarily don’t talk to strangers on airplanes, I found myself drawn into conversation with a very affable and intelligent older man.  He told me he is an accountant, a successful business owner, and well-connected in Democratic politics in Denver.  He was interested to learn that I’m a history professor, and said he thinks that the reason the that the republic is in a shambles is widespread historical ignorance.  You know the old saying by heart, I’m sure:  if only we knew history better, people would be smarter and wiser, we’d vote for smarter and more honest politicians, and together we’d all make better laws and wiser public policy decisions.  (Maybe he was just a nice guy trying to make a connection to my rather abstruse line of work, which most people see as a vocation of buffs, hobbyists, and antiquarians.) 

I told the man on the plane that I completely disagreed with him.  Although I wish humanity learned from its mistakes, my experience of studying and writing history for the past twenty-odd years is that people never learn.  It’s clear that our optimism, powers of delusion, and often simple greed overcome any wisdom we might learn from history.  (You may have heard that old saw that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.  I think that’s a good shorthand for what I’m getting at.)  The human animal has a longer life than most other animals, but it’s still very keyed to immediate gratification rather than taking the long view.  Look at Woodrow Wilson, our only American historian-turned-president–he’s hardly an advertisement for the superiority of historians’ judgment and foresight!  (Can we blame it on the fact that he really had the soul of an administrator?)

The past few decades are replete with U.S. American folly that was utterly foreseeable and avoidable for anyone who had even a decent high school history education and was a casual consumer of current events.  Remember the tech/dot-com bubble of the late 1990s?  This time it’s different!  Dow 36,000!!11!11!  Remember the invasion and ongoing occupation of Afghanistan?  Don’t worry:  the British and Russian examples are irrelevant!  Everything’s different now.  Remember the real estate bubble of the mid-2000s?  Forget about the balloon payment due in five years–you can just refinance or sell your $500,000 home for $750,000!  Remind me again:  how’d all of that work out for us? 

What have we learned in the past 2,500 years or so that Herodotus didn’t already warn us about:?  Hubris!

Given this evidence of humanity’s depressing credulity and willingness to ignore any lessons history might offer, what is the point of learning history, then?  Is it in fact just the realm of buffs, hobbyists, and antiquarians?  Are professional historians really just well-educated bar bet settlers?  Maybe.  But I also think that while humans are greedy and have powers of delusion much stronger than their impulses to reflect on the lessons of history, I also think that history is what sets us apart from the other animals.  We need to remember as much as we clearly need to forget.  Forgetting is easy and usually more comfortable, but history is what makes us human.

The work of history teachers and professors, archivists, museum experts, historic preservationists, and cultural resource managers is to preserve and remember as much of it as we can.  Like Christian monks after the fall of Rome who rounded up all of the manuscripts they could and kept the light of literacy and learning alive during the barbarian invasions, we may not understand or fully appreciate what it is we’re saving or commemorating now.  But it must be saved and preserved for the sake of future generations of people who may know better what to do with it and what it all means.  Political leadership in the future will probably continue making the same mistakes, but the conservators of history will probably see it all coming, again and again.

37 thoughts on “What is the point of learning history?

  1. Pingback: Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  2. We all make endless numbers of mistakes. We have just seen two presidents in a row with profound tendency, and reality, to make mistakes. We had better leaders. Historical knowledge helps us, the people, compare and assess the depth of the mistakes our politicians make. In a Democracy, which we are not anymore, a responsible and knowledgeable opposition plays a major role.


  3. We need to study history in part because we cannot escape the past, no matter how much we try or how much we think things have changed. [Cue William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. In fact, it isn’t even past.”] My area of study has over 1000 years of history, and the people there have done their very best to destroy the old ways, including multiple revolutions and mass murders on a staggering scale. Yet, patterns that were visible 500 years ago are still there today — changed, certainly — but recognizable. On this day of remembering, I have the heretical thought for a historian that sometimes we remember too much, and would be better off if we forgot more. But we need to understand as much as we can the ways in which who we were shapes who we are, even if we don’t like it. We also need to study the history of different peoples and cultures, to understand the broad variety of what human beings can do and be.


  4. Thanks for your post — it sums up a very pervasive notion about history that I you can evoke in almost any conversation with a non-historian.

    In fact, I have essentially that same conversation (though not in an airplane, of course) with my students each year. I’ve written about the general contours of that discussion here, if you’re interested: http://nkogan.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/discovering-new-sacrificial-lambs-challenging-preconceptions-about-why-we-study-history/


  5. The importance of history, literature, and the rest of the humanities is that these scholarly disciplines are focused on what it is that makes us human. This is exactly why the right-wing seeks to destroy the humanities, as they provide the real story of humanity and thereby disprove the disgusting lies that constitute the favored right-wing narrative of humanity: fundamentalist christianity.


  6. I’m not sure I agree with you entirely–I do think many successful social movements are built on an understanding of history, and that for both leaders and individuals, studying history can offer all sorts of critical insights into the source of problems and their possible solutions. But I really appreciate reading this post today, when so much of the news I’ve seen is telling me to remember one day but forget everything that followed.


  7. The problem is that our ” lessons” from history are partial, and humans often learn the wrong ones. Our memories, and our forgetting, are selective. For me the importance of history is the way it shows us that things as they are are neither the only way they can be (there has been change) nor was it inevitable: people made choices. That sense of alternatives is really important.


  8. I’d agree there’s no such thing as “collective memory” in the literal and universalist sense of that term, but that somewhat complicates or problematizes much of the rest of what the query poses. Because a good deal of it is framed around various usages of we, us, our, etc. It’s doubtful that there’s any truly “collective” answer with respect to the *practice* of “history” even after a century of efforts at academic standardization. It would certainly seem that some individuals, groups similarly situated, or abstract interest-entities, do gain a material adaptive advantage from carrying on various forms of reflective or analytic engagement with things and processes moving through time. To the extent that there is a “we,” we probably study history because we can, and maybe because if we can, we have to.

    Or a random physics hypothesis: once we’ve been “here” for even a few hours there’s already a lot more knowable phenomena that have escaped irretrievably into the “past” than we’ll ever be able to apprehend of the always-moving “present.” So, even if consciousness simply jumps around randomly, it has a greater chance of focusing on the past than the present, and what’s inevitable anyway becomes an agreeable habit?

    I’d lastly put in a bid for Theo. Roosevelt as more of and a better historian than Wilson, which is not to suggest any preference for his “shot selection,” as it were (choice of topics), or interpretations thereon. Wilson was doctorialized when the practice of training scholars had barely completed separating historical study from the social sciences at large. He was really probably more of a political scientist, attracted to something like the laws of behavior. His famous rant on coming out of his comprehensive Ph.D exams, about having needlessly stuffed his head with endless trivial details about the disputes of “some colonial governor” with somebody else predictively prefigured his later inability to get the League of Nations treaty ratified by the Senate. Not a good augury, perhaps, for a law review president.


  9. I believe firmly that my reading in the humanities literature, especially history, makes me a better teacher—in the physical sciences. At a general level, reading in other disciplines is challenging in a satisfying way. It also refines my thinking about the intellectual endeavor.

    An example: the way I talk with students about the “scientific method” has changed over time due to my interest in the argument between Kant and Hume about causality and my interest in finding thinkers outside the western tradition who have plowed that ground. I make a lot more progress with my own understanding when I have some historians to help me put it all into context and I think I then go on to do a better job of talking about these themes with students. If you start the (upper division science class) conversation about the scientific method by considering Alhazen’s (Abu ‘Ali al Ḥasan ibn al Ḥasan ibn al Haytham, the first fellow to write it down) context and motivations, you come away with a much deeper understanding than “we do this to avoid mistakes.” I may be naive but to me, that matters.


  10. If you are talking to students about “the scientific method”, you are misleading them about how science actually works as a human enterprise. There is no single scientific method that unifies all of science. The only things that unify science are the metaphysical standpoint that there is a fact of the matter about the nature of objective reality and the epistemological one that it can be discerned through sensorimotor interaction of human beings with their surroundings.


  11. @CPP (1:38 pm): right on! That is the (often misunderstood) message of the late Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method.

    @Historiann: Your post makes me think of Vizzini’s advice, in The Princess Bride, to never get involved in a land war in Asia. I often say to my students that the role of the professional historian is to be a gadfly: to point out the crimes and follies of historical actors. And perhaps from time to time to hold up some more virtuous examples that we might emulate, but only after passing them, too, through a critical sieve. I have my own historical heroes but I don’t ignore their errors and prejudices.

    And a final late-night thought (heure de Paris): I’ve been reading, on and off, in Motley’s history of the Dutch Republic this summer. For all of its faults, modern historical scholarship is far in advance of most of its 19th-century predecessors–except, possibly, in telling an engaging story. Since stories are what matter to most readers, though, this may be a fatal flaw, unless we can come up with a way to present our conclusions in the form of an engaging narrative.


  12. Historiann:

    I have to agree with Indyanna on the whole Wilson as historian thing. Wilson was a political scientist who just happened to write a history textbook. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was President of the AHA at one point if my memory serves me well. Sure he was an amateur, but so were most historians during the late-nineteenth century.

    It’s not that TR’s judgement was all that better than Wilson’s, but Teddy was at least a big supporter of conservation and a lot more fun at parties.


  13. “”And a final late-night thought (heure de Paris): I’ve been reading, on and off, in Motley’s history of the Dutch Republic this summer. For all of its faults, modern historical scholarship is far in advance of most of its 19th-century predecessors–except, possibly, in telling an engaging story. Since stories are what matter to most readers, though, this may be a fatal flaw, unless we can come up with a way to present our conclusions in the form of an engaging narrative. ”

    Let’s have those engaging narratives!


  14. I think history does change the present! But, it’s perhaps less about learning particular lessons, than shaping our worldviews. So, that women’s history has been a central part of the feminist project in giving voice to women’s experience and this has directly led to greater consideration of women’s voices in contemporary society.

    Similarly, certain historical narratives had gained amazing currency in popular discourse and in shaping how we articulate our own and, particularly, national identities. While we may feel that many of these narratives are problematic, we also have to own them as a discipline- we created them! And, I don’t think all the historical narratives in public discourse are bad (perhaps especially around issues of class, gender, race); their presentations might feel simplistic to us, but at least they are part of public discourse. And, the ability to shape public discourse is central to most constructions of political authority.


  15. I’m happy to let the Political Scientists have Wilson. It’s such a relief! Knowing the kind of history that he wrote, Jonathan’s and Indyanna’s re-categorization of Wilson makes perfect sense.

    I think Truffula’s notion of introducing Kant, Hume, and Alhazen is in line, not in conflict, with CPP’s point about the disunity of “the” scientific method. She knows the intellectual history MUCH better than I do, but I took her introduction of debates & information from across the globe to mean that her presentation of “the” scientific method is very much in line with the Great Fragmentation of our intellectual era.

    As to Brian & Steve’s point: yes! By all means, let’s unite analysis and narrative. But, as it turns out, historians have worried about this since at least forever. (Definitely in the 17th C, possibly even some ancient historians.) I’ve been re-reading Tony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History this weekend, as I’m teaching it in my graduate historiography seminar this week, and he shows the ways in which historians 1) have been having the same conversations for at least 4 centuries around the question of writing critical history versus spirited narratives, and 2) they enjoy nevertheless insisting that they’re the first historians to have considered this question.

    So, just as I’m dubious of the proposition that “we” as a general public learn anything from history, I’m also newly dubious of the ways in which we historians learn anything over time.

    I should just have called this post “Groundhog Day: you’ve seen the movie, and you’re all living teh stoopid reality.”



  16. CPP, I think you are exactly right if what you mean is a particular set of steps that must be followed. That is why I used quotes. The better conversation is about what we mean when we say we understand something or know something. I thought I was making this clear but apparently not. Alhazen kept repeating experiments over and over because he understood his intellect to be puny compared to that of Allah.


  17. Actually, Wilson was also president of the AHA about a decade after Roosevelt, though, and I believe in the early 1920s, after his illnesses had set in, so probably a pretty symbolic presidency.


  18. I should say that a different way. Alhazen knew he could never really fathom the mind of Allah. The best he could do was perform a lot of experiments.


  19. Wasn’t Wilson in the 1920s essentially a vegetable?

    Wonder what his Presidential Address was like! (I suppose I could “look it up,” as they say. . . )

    I wonder why Woodrow has never become a popular name for little boy babies. (It’s definitely more popular than Milhouse, which is not in the top 1,000 names for any year in the past century. Source.)


  20. I’m thinking on this subject apropos of our elder daughter being assigned a rather fatuous essay from 1964 on the subject in her high school history class. She politely tolerated my rant about how “this is why so many people hate history” and then went back to her assigned reading. She has no real love of history, mind you, fruit of too many years of grade school and high school recounting the same limited palette of national events.

    Don’t study history to predict the future. It’s not going to work. Don’t study history to know exactly what happened. It’s an educated guess, at best: a work in progress. Do study history to learn more about humanity, your understanding of the world and how to articulate that. It’ll take all of your life and you still won’t have all the answers, but it’ll be a good journey if you put your heart into the matter.


  21. Apparently, Wilson lectured thrillingly on historical events–I think the particular lecture I read about dealt with 17th-century Britain, which would have offered lots of exciting possibilities. Another skill we can’t do without.

    As to what history teaches,like Brian Ogilvie I still go with Gibbon, in his comment on Titus Antoninus Pius in I.3 (this may be a result of the Chicago training we share):

    Antoninus diffused order and tranquillity over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.

    On NET tonight I watched the story, pretty thoughtfully told, of a Philadelphia trauma surgeon who volunteered to serve in Iraq and died in a mortar attack, leaving his wife, also a doctor, and three young children.

    As Gibbon was saying . . .


  22. Why study history? Lots of reasons! The most fun, as Brian Ogilvie points out, is that historians are good gadflies. Kinda. Actually, I think that gadflies are drawn to history, because it is a field where there is little black and white and where one can always ask questions.

    And because of the greys and the questions — learning to do history well is partially about learning that there can be more than one valid, “truthful” interpretation to a set of evidence. So yes, the learning to use evidence and form arguments is fantastic, but the learning that there are other arguments is the sort of thing that can lead to keeping a more open mind, and less fear of revision and re-evaluation.

    And the whole open mind thing… learning about the past, whether our own or someone else’s, means learning about other cultures. Good historians have to use their imaginations to understand why people acted and believed as they did. Doing that can inform us about other cultures now, and makes it harder to dismiss people who seem on the surface not to be like us. Done well, history is the ur-humanistic study. Done badly, and it’s horrendously damaging, I think.


  23. Seconding Feminist Avatar: history changes how one sees the present. The best recent example of that I can think of was your very own post, Historiann, about The Great Forgetting, the way women’s contributions are literally flushed down memory holes.

    I’ve been a fire-breathing feminist since forever, but I never had the historical knowledge to see that forgetting women was a constant, ubiquitous erosion. It wasn’t just something that happened to me.

    And once I knew that, so many other pieces fell into place, such as why all the pictures on the money are men.

    Will my understanding change anything? Probably not. But it’s part of a drip-drip-drip working against erosion. Who knows how big the stalagmites may grow over centuries?


  24. For me (as a non-historian), just as for Janice upthread, history reexamines and questions the boundaries that separate some groups of people while putting other groups together. History has always seemed radical to me, and so I’ve been amused for years by how conservatives love–or think they love–this discipline. Maybe because it honors the past, a domain they think they own. They consider history real. Whereas, say, anthropology and sociology are faddish or postmodern or whatever.


  25. I think studying history is very important. It gives smart Progressive writers something to write about during dark times, and then, just when things seem to be at their darkest, the Progressives can say “See, I was right all along!” And then they can elect a really smart person who will bring Hope and Change to the whole country, and then . . .

    Oh, wait a minute.

    Never mind.


  26. Or, having a historical perspective can make one insufferably self-righteous when one sees one collective mass delusion after another turn to dust. The historian then can stand amidst the ruins and say, “I told you so, dumba$$es!”

    That’s fun. The first 6 or 7 times. But then it just gets tiresome.

    Quixote and Feminist Avatar make some good points about the uses of history–a point Charlie made wayyyy upthread. I don’t disagree that mobilizing history is a prominent aspect of the rights movements of the past 60 years–in the U.S., Civil Rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, for example. (In fact, I’m lecturing tomrorow on the complicated relationship between queer history and the gay rights movement.) Disability rights & disability history have grown up together even more recently.

    People who WANT to learn from history can learn some useful things. But collectively, most U.S. Americans don’t really want to learn. They want to be reassured of the old mythology about America, and they want to pursue short-term gains even when the longue duree suggests a wiser course. And so, it’s Tulip Mania and Asian Land Wars all over again. . . again and again. Other nations aren’t any smarter, either: I think the short-term gain is hard-wired into the human animal, but U.S. Americans have made an art of burning through an epic amount of land, human, and natural resources in order to sustain the fantasy of “American Exceptionalism.”

    I know I bring him up all of the time, but how can we not honor Gore Vidal for his “United States of Amnesia” line?


  27. I thought the purpose of history was to retell the glorious victories of the Fatherland?

    This sustains our collective will as a Volk, keeps the hearth fires burning and sustains the morale of our valiant troops fighting back the bolshevik hordes on The Eastern Front.

    Or at least thats what I learned in Seminar with Leopold von Ranke.


  28. The better conversation is about what we mean when we say we understand something or know something.

    Perhaps as an intellectual exercise, but this is not a conversation that is relevant to science as an actual human enterprise. For understanding how scientists construct knowledge, naive realism is sufficient.


  29. I know! Time traveling Bolsheviki! Its amazing!

    I have to get back to my Richard Pipes. Or is it smoking my pipe… or is it Magritte???

    “This is not Richard Pipes”


  30. truffula: The better conversation is about what we mean when we say we understand something or know something.

    CPP: Perhaps as an intellectual exercise, but this is not a conversation that is relevant to science as an actual human enterprise.

    I disagree but there may be a difference in how theorists, experimentalists, and so on think about the scientific endeavor. Science is littered with wrong conclusions built on perfectly valid principles and (apparently) correct conclusions built on the wrong principles. This is about “knowing” things.


  31. My writing is based on history, and I can tell you this: if you want one of the best and most intelligent conversations of your life, then, yes: talk to an older gentleman who’s a thoughtful Democrat.


  32. i thought people study history these days to understand how people explain the past as present. so this whole ‘learning from history’ is just a recurrent historiographic trope that’s more about the sociology of historical study than history. kind of like the notion of Christian monks running around and collecting manuscripts after the ‘fall’ of Rome. what present purpose does the repetition of that commonplace serve, for example?

    am i totally naive or way too post-linguistic turn, history as representation and all that?


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