The Importance of History

The Importance of History

History is important. In centuries past this statement would have seemed self-evident. Ancient cultures devoted much time and effort to teaching their children family history. It was thought that the past helps a child understand who he is. Modern society, however, has turned its back on the past. We live in a time of rapid change, a time of progress. We prefer to define ourselves in terms of where we are going, not where we come from. Our ancestors hold no importance for us. They lived in times so different from our own that they are incapable of shedding light on our experience. Man is so much smarter now than he was even ten years ago that anything from the past is outdated and irrelevant to us. Therefore the past, even the relatively recent past, is, in the minds of most of us, enshrouded by mists and only very vaguely perceived. Our ignorance of the past is not the result of a lack of information, but of indifference. We do not believe that history matters.

But history does matter. It has been said that he who controls the past controls the future. Our view of history shapes the way we view the present, and therefore it dictates what answers we offer for existing problems. Let me offer a few examples to indicate how this might be true.
One of my children comes running up to me, “Papa, Stefan hit me!” Another child comes close on the heels of the first, “I did not. You hit me!” As a parent I have to determine what happened. Usually I have to sort through conflicting testimony to get to the truth of the matter. Part of my information is my knowledge of human beings in general; part of my information is the knowledge I have assembled over the lifetimes of these particular children. All of this is essentially history. It is knowledge about the past. I must have a good understanding of the past in order to know how to deal wisely with these children in the present. Any punishment or chastisement will depend on my reconstruction of what actually happened. The children realize this, and thus they present very selective histories of the event in an attempt to dictate my response.

In these kinds of situations, children very clearly understand that history matters.
When you go into a doctor’s office for the first time, you invariably have to fill out an information sheet that asks about your medical history. Some of these forms are very detailed, asking questions that require information from rarely accessed memory banks. Why does a doctor ask these questions? The doctor is trying to construct an accurate picture of your state of health. Your health is heavily influenced by the past. Your heredity, past behaviors, past experiences are all important determinants and clues to your present condition. Whenever you return to the doctor, he or she pulls out a file which contains all the notes from past visits. This file is a history of your health. Doctors understand very clearly that the past matters.

Some of you might be thinking that these examples are not very compelling because they both deal with the very recent past—they are not what we think of when we think of history. Let me give one final example that is more to the point. In 1917 the Communists took control of Russia. They began to exercise control over how the history of their country ought to be told. They depicted the tsar as oppressive and cruel. The leaders of the revolution, on the other hand, were portrayed in a very positive light. The Communist government insisted that these leaders, and in particular Lenin, understood more clearly than any one else what Russia needed and what course of action the government ought to follow.

According to the official history, Lenin made no mistakes and he passed his virtually infallible understanding on to the other leaders of the party. The official history presented Lenin and Stalin as kind, compassionate, wise, nearly divine leaders. Consequently, difficulties that people in the Soviet Union experienced were all attributable to capitalism. The nation’s economic backwardness, the need for a massive military and tight security, and domestic crime were all ultimately tied to the influence of capitalistic countries. This is the perspective of history that was taught to Soviet children for half a century.

In the seventies and eighties, several things happened to shake people’s confidence in this view of history. One was the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This work was the product of years of historical research by the author. He interviewed scores of prisoners and did extensive research to chronicle the genesis and development of the chain of labor camps that dotted the Soviet Union. His book described the cruelty and injustice of the system in great detail; but most important of all, he was able to show that Lenin and Stalin were active and knowing participants in the formation of this brutal institution.
Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of these leaders was incompatible with the official history. And if the official history was wrong, the legitimacy and justification for Soviet rule was all brought into question. In 1979, a Soviet emigre, after having read Gulag Archipelago, told me, “The impact of this book will be far more devastating to Soviet power than an atomic bomb.” I am convinced that one of the reasons the Soviet Union disintegrated is because people began to doubt the official history. Ask Gorbachev if history matters.

So history matters, but what is history? My advisor in graduate school had a simple definition that I have grown to appreciate: “History is a story about the past that is significant and true.” This simple definition contains two words packed with meaning which must be understood in order to understand history.
A. Significance
The first word is “significant.” No one could record everything that is true about an event in the past: temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, soil type, molecules bouncing around, hearts beating, lungs inflating and deflating, and so forth—there is no end to what could be listed. History is the process of simplifying. Of all that could be said about an event, what is most important or most significant? The goal of history is to tell a story about the past which captures the essence of an event while omitting superfluous details.
Significance is determined by the historian. The historian sorts through the evidence and presents only that which, given his particular world view, is significant. What a historian finds significant is not entirely a personal choice; it is largely shaped by his training and his colleagues.

In order for a historian to have his works published, he has to receive the approval of his fellow historians. Therefore, the community of historians has a large say in deciding what about the past is significant. But historians are just as much a part of society as anyone else, and we are all greatly influenced by those around us. As a result, the community of historians tends to share the same notion of significance as is held by society as a whole. Therefore, historians tend to tell stories which reflect the dominant values of the society in which they live.
This leads to a curious feature of historical narrative: the past is fixed—no one can change what happened—but as the values of society change, the historians’ depiction of the past changes also. It has been argued that history tells us more about the time in which it is written than the time about which it is written. I recently did some reading about the history of homosexuality. For a couple of decades in the middle of the nineteenth century, historians viewed homosexuality as an immoral act and consequently looked at the prevalence of homosexuality in ancient Greece as a sign of its moral decadence and a precursor to the collapse of Greek civilization. Historians then applied this same analysis to Roman society. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, society began to question the existence of moral absolutes.

As a result, historians ceased to give credence to any connection between moral behavior and the health of a civilization. Therefore, the search for a connection between moral decline and the fall of empire ceased to hold any interest and was abandoned. Instead, historians, interested in telling the story of the growth and development of liberty, saw the open practice of homosexuality as a good thing, in that it demonstrated greater social tolerance and, therefore, increased personal liberty. Notice that the first view (based on moral absolutes) was not disproved; it was simply abandoned due to a change in the values of society. This, in turn, produced a change in the way historians depicted the past. The past does not change, but history changes with every generation.
B. Truth
I said that history is a story about the past that is significant and true. I have talked about the word “significant”; now I want to talk about the word “true.” What does it mean to say that a historical account is true? Most modern historians would claim there is no absolute truth. This would imply there is no basis for saying that one historical account is true and another one false. I know of no historian, however, who actually operates this way in practice. Most historians use the word “true” to mean any perspective well supported by facts.
The tricky thing is that every historian uses facts to build his case. Rarely does an historian consciously distort the facts; and although minor factual errors are common, they seldom undermine the overall presentation. But even though most histories are built on facts, the histories can be very different, even contradictory, because falsehoods can be constructed solely with facts.

My parents once put in a new front lawn. Soon after it was planted, my mother discovered bicycle tracks running across the yard. She had a pretty good idea who had done it, so she asked this boy if he knew anything about the tracks. He said, “Yes, I do. My sister’s bike did it.” This is a wonderfully crafted statement. It is built on facts, but it is designed to create a false impression. We often refer to such statements as “half-truths.” For history to be true, it must not only be based on facts, it must present those facts in a balanced, well proportioned manner. Too often histories are half-truths.
I need to point out quickly that most historians do not intentionally distort history to serve their purposes, as this boy did. The process is much less malicious, yet far more insidious. Historians interpret evidence through the eyes of their own world view. This is natural; we could not expect anything else. This has far reaching consequences, however. Take, for example, a historian studying the story of Jonathan and David. If all of the historian’s close same-sex relationships have been sexual, he will be unable to conceive of Jonathan and David’s relationship as being anything else. Thus he will conclude that David and Jonathan were homosexuals. Given his experience, he can not imagine any other interpretation of the evidence. Therefore, the accuracy of an historian’s version of past events depends greatly on the soundness of his world view.

I suspect this is contrary to most people’s image of history. People generally think of history as a very objective discipline. This perspective dominated the field about a century ago, and most of us were led to believe this in the course of our education. We were taught that objective historians began to piece together a picture of the past, and every new generation of historians discovers new facts which alter our understanding of the past. With each generation, therefore, we get closer to the truth of history, but these refinements do not significantly alter the assured findings of science.
This perspective would find few adherents today. It has become painfully obvious that no researcher is a blank slate. We all start with some preconceived notions about what is true and what is not. It should not and can not be otherwise. All history is, in this sense, biased.
For the reasons I have listed, history is a value-laden discipline. Howard Zinn, the author of a book to which we will return in a minute, makes the following statement:
It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others. This is as natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for practical purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of the bewildering mass of geographic information those things needed for the purpose of this or that particular map.

My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the mapmaker’s distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.” (Note 1)
History, by its very nature, does more than tell us about the past; it argues for an ideology a world view.
1992 gave us an excellent opportunity to see a struggle between different groups each trying to claim history in support of their cause. It was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing on American soil. Columbus, who had long enjoyed the status of hero, came under heavy criticism. This historical event and the versions of history it generated are a very good example of what I have been talking about. I would like to look at two descriptions of this event and show how ideology infuses both accounts. One account is found in The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel. (Note 2) The other is from A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

Both of these books were written at the end of the 1970s. For a quarter of a century prior to this time, the most noted historian of the life of Columbus was Samuel Eliot Morison. He wrote several books about Columbus, but the most widely read was Christopher Columbus, Mariner. (Note 3) Until the late seventies, Morison’s depiction of Columbus was considered the most authoritative. Since both Marshall’s and Zinn’s books were written to correct Morison’s presentation, let me first describe Morison’s perspective.
A. Morison: Columbus, the mariner
Morison was a naval officer (so I have heard) turned historian. His love of the sea and appreciation for good seamanship is obvious in his history. Morison has enormous respect and admiration for Columbus as a sailor and navigator. This and this alone was Columbus’s greatness. At a time when all of Europe was trying to find economical routes to Asia, Columbus was convinced that Asia could easily be reached by sailing west across the Atlantic. Most scholars of the time believed that the world was round and that Asia could be reached by sailing west, but they thought it was too far. Columbus argued that the scholarly opinion greatly overestimated the distance and that Asia was only about a three week voyage. As it turned out, the scholars were right; Asia was too far away, but fortunately for Columbus, America was just about where he thought Asia would be.

Columbus undertook the trip to prove that he was right. His superior sailing skills enabled the expedition to reach America. Columbus thought he had landed in Asia, and he spent the rest of his life trying to prove he was correct. This drove him to be in constant search for gold and more geographical knowledge: since Asia was known to be rich in gold, a vast amount of gold would suggest that the land was, in fact, Asia; and since Marco Polo had written about the geography of Asia, Columbus felt further exploration would demonstrate that he had found the land Marco Polo described. Columbus’s constant exploration and search for gold led him to make some poor decisions regarding the administration of the lands he discovered; his negligence resulted in brutal treatment of the native population. Although Morison does not excuse Columbus’s negligence, he does not want this flaw to detract from our appreciation for Columbus’s skills as a seaman.
B. Peter Marshall: Columbus, the tool of God
Peter Marshall has a very different perspective. He sees Columbus as a key figure in God’s grand plan to establish a very special country, unique in the history of the world. Just as God selected Israel to be a special nation which He promised to bless as long as the people were obedient to His commandments, God singled out the United States for a similar purpose:
Could it be that we Americans, as a people, were meant to be a “light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:23)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ? Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age? (p. 19)
Marshall’s book, therefore, chronicles the indications of God’s special guidance of key individuals in the history of the United States.
Columbus is one of those individuals. Marshall sees the hand of God behind Columbus’s voyage from its very inception. He quotes from one of Columbus’s writings:
It was the Lord who put into my mind I could feel his hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies. All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter, ridiculing me. There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me with rays of marvelous inspiration from the Holy Scripture…. (p. 17)
Marshall is very sensitive to indications of God’s divine guidance and protection for Columbus’s venture and Columbus’s personal relationship with God.
Marshall begins by pointing out that Columbus’s first name is Christopher, which means “Christ-bearer.” He sees this as significant because one of the main reasons Columbus gave for wanting to find Asia was to evangelize its inhabitants. Columbus’s name was, therefore, prophetic.

Marshall describes the difficulty Columbus had in finding a sponsor for his expedition. He tried but failed to get the king of Portugal to finance his trip. He got nowhere with the king of England. He approached the king and queen of Spain, but they kept putting him off. Having given up on the Spanish monarchs and at a point of desperation, he was about to leave for France to ask the French king to finance his expedition when the queen of Spain had a change of heart. Marshall points out that the queen’s confessor, who was the head of the monastery where Columbus was staying, was instrumental in convincing the queen of the value of the enterprise. Marshall imagines what might have transpired between the monk and Columbus while Columbus was in despair over his inability to find a sponsor.:
But in the cool stone cloister of the monastery, we can almost hear Father Perez as he might have reminded Christopher that all of the things which had tormented him—the elusive recognition, wealth and position which he wanted so desperately and which always seemed just out of reach—these were the world’s inducements, not the things that concerned the Lord Jesus. (p. 34)

[Let me take this opportunity to make a short digression. I do not think Marshall’s book is accepted as a serious work of history. One of the reasons is because the author occasionally inserts these imaginary scenes for which he has absolutely no evidence. I would like to point out, however, that this criticism is a little unfair. The mind of any historian is constantly at work trying to imagine the event under investigation. The evidence is always less than complete, and the historian tries to fill in the missing pieces, by drawing on his knowledge of reality and general human experience to extrapolate what must have happened. So whereas Marshall has actually recorded his imaginings, and serious historians do not, we must nevertheless acknowledge that all historians use their imaginations to fill out the picture, and this affects the way they tell the story.]

Marshall describes Columbus’s first crossing as a major test of Columbus’s faith in God. Early on, the voyage went extremely well, but as the time went on with no land in sight, the crew became very fearful. On October 9th, there was almost a mutiny, but Columbus reached an agreement to sail west three more days before turning back. For the next three days, the sailing conditions improved dramatically, and on the third day, at the end of the day, they finally sighted land. Marshall’s description of this voyage puts less emphasis on Columbus’s skills as a seaman and great emphasis on the indications of providential guidance. From Marshall’s perspective, Columbus’s skill was just one more instance of God’s blessing on the venture. Of infinitely more importance to Marshall is how Columbus responded to this test of his faith, for the success or failure of the mission hinged on this.

Marshall concluded that Columbus responded well to the test of his faith while at sea, but after Columbus reached America he made two serious errors. The first mistake was establishing a precedent for mistreatment of the Indians. While Columbus generally treated the Indians fairly well, he did them one very serious injustice—he forcibly took several Indians back to Spain with him to become interpreters. This set a very bad precedent for the treatment of Indians, which became much more brutal with later explorers. Marshall holds Columbus partially responsible for this. The other error Columbus committed was to embark on a search for gold. From Marshall’s perspective, Columbus became preoccupied with a thirst for gold and this corrupted him:
Gold—one can see the hand of the Devil here. Unable to overcome the faith of the Christ-bearer by sowing fear and dissension in the hearts of his men or by paralyzing him with despair, Satan had failed to keep the Light of Christ from establishing a beachhead in practically the only part of the world in which he still reigned unchallenged. So he now moved to destroy the army of holy invaders from within their ranks. And he chose the one instrument which almost never failed: the love of money. (p. 42)

Behind the scenes, Marshall sees a grand conflict between God and the godly and Satan and his forces. Gold is the tool Satan used to distract Columbus from his divinely appointed mission.
Columbus’s thirst for gold and his rejection of God’s mission for him caused God to afflict Columbus with a series of tragedies. While Columbus went to Spain to report his find, he left a small number of Spaniards in the New World. He returned to America only to discover that these men had been massacred by the Indians who were exasperated by the Spaniards’ cruel, greed-motivated treatment. The men he brought with him on the second trip were even more consumed with a desire for gold; they not only fought with Indians for gold, they fought with each other. When word of the chaos and maladministration reached the king and queen, they sent a new governor and had Columbus returned from his second trip in chains. The king and queen freed him from his chains, but he was nevertheless humiliated. Later, he was afflicted with grandiose illusions of being called by God to lead a crusade against the infidels in the Holy Land. After several years, Columbus returned to America, but now he, too, was obsessed with desire for gold.

He finally found a major deposit of gold, but by this time Columbus was almost out of touch with reality. Marshall writes: “It is doubtful that he who does what he will in the world is going to be used to bring many souls to Paradise.” This particular narrative goes on to reveal just how far off-center Columbus’s thinking had wandered: “For by the same sort of weird, convoluted reasoning that earmarks Gnosticism and so much of occult metaphysics, Columbus arrived at a monumental conclusion: he was convinced that he had found King Solomon’s mines!” (p. 65) This dementia was divine punishment for Columbus’s refusal to look constantly to God for deliverance from his difficulties.

Finding a major source of gold opened a Pandora’s box of problems. It brought the conquistadors to America. These men inflicted countless atrocities on the native population, further proof of divine judgment on Columbus and his enterprise.
According to Marshall, God had a glorious role for Columbus to play in the history of mankind, but Columbus was distracted by gold and nearly driven mad because he refused to trust God. Marshall speculates, however, that Columbus, on his death bed, was reconciled to God:
The old man brushed away the tears at the corners of his eyes, and perhaps he spoke to God again then, for the first time in a long while.
“Father, it is over now, isn’t it?”
Yes, son, he might have heard in his heart.
“Father, I’m afraid I have not done well in carrying the Light of Your Son to the West. I’m sorry. I pray that others will carry the light further.”
They will. You are forgiven.
“It’s time now, isn’t it?” Yes.
(p. 65-66)
C. Howard Zinn: Columbus, the oppressor
Howard Zinn’s portrayal of Columbus could scarcely be more different from Marshall’s. His presentation is rooted in a very different understanding of the essence and value of history. Zinn is outraged by the traditional practice of telling the history of a nation as though all members of that nation shared the same interests. This illusion of cohesion within a nation hides the reality that every society includes oppressors and the oppressed. Zinn thinks history should tell the story of this all important struggle, regardless of national divisions. He hopes we might learn from such a history how to help the oppressed successfully rise up against their oppressors.

From this perspective, Columbus is the quintessential oppressor. From the outset of the expedition Columbus was intent on extracting wealth from the native. Zinn demonstrates Columbus’s malevolent motives by quoting Columbus’s words from the log on the day he first saw the Indians:
They. . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned . . . They were well built, with good bodies and handsome features . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword; they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane . . . . They would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. (p. 1)
Zinn sees this as evidence that from the very beginning Columbus was eager to assess the exploitability of the native inhabitants.
Columbus began to gather information from the natives. He took some of the natives by force for this purpose. The object of his investigation was very focused: “The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?” (p. 1). Having this as his primary goal, Columbus had no compunction about treating the Indians cruelly. All the Indians of San Salvador were required to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. Those who failed to do so had their hands cut off. When even these extreme methods failed to squeeze enough gold out of the land, Columbus tried another approach: “When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas.” (p. 4). Zinn portrays Columbus as one who would go to any length to extract wealth from the new-found land.

Zinn magnifies our sense of outrage by describing the innocence and nobility of the natives who were so senselessly brutalized. He proves that the Indian culture treated its women well, using the following quotation from a Spanish priest who accompanied Columbus:
Marriage laws are non-existent: men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man’s head or at his hands. (p. 5).
Zinn also notes the communal and non-capitalistic nature of Indian society:
They live in large communal bell-shaped buildings, housing up to 600 people at one time. . . . They lack all manner of commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of their friends and expect the same degree of liberality. (p. 5)
From Zinn’s perspective, these qualities of Indian society made it superior to European society; and yet the Europeans brutalized and, in some cases, exterminated whole tribes in the name of Christianity, civilization, and progress. Columbus was but the first of many such oppressors.

Very briefly I have outlined two different stories of Columbus. You are probably asking yourself, “How can the accounts be so different? Didn’t they read the same evidence?” I am certain they both read many of the same sources. Two people can read the same document, however, and interpret it very differently. One very obvious example of this is the way the two historians handled Columbus’s religious motivations. When Columbus talked about his desire to evangelize the natives, Marshall took him very seriously; Marshall can identify with such desires and is willing to take Columbus at face value at this point. Zinn, on the other hand, does not take these same statements at face value; he dismisses them by saying, “He was full of religious talk. . . ” (p. 3), implying that Columbus was not sincere. Although Zinn seems to be skeptical that anyone could be sincerely religiously motivated, he does not trust Columbus because, more importantly, Columbus was a scoundrel. So, although both authors look at the same words penned by Columbus, one believes him and the other does not. And neither can prove that his judgment on this matter is correct. When the two historians look at document after document through their different perspectives, the end result is two entirely different pictures of Columbus.

I hope you can see from these two versions of Columbus’s discovery of America that history is much more subjective than we generally realize. Every historian tells a different story, each one largely reflecting the historian’s own world view. This raises the awkward question, “Can we learn from history?” If every historian reads his own world view into the past, can the past ever break through and speak to us?
The answer is “yes.” The past speaks in a voice audible to those who want to hear and to listen attentively. Establishing what really happened at a given point in history is much like establishing the guilt or innocence of an accused criminal in a courtroom trial. Evidence is presented and witnesses testify. Taken as a whole, the evidence is full of inconsistencies and inexplicable gaps, and so a sorting process begins. Some witnesses are suspected of being liars; their testimony is handled with suspicion. Some apparent contradictions are found to be resolvable. The gaps are filled with plausible conjecture. As this sorting process continues, a coherent picture begins to emerge. That emerging picture, however, will be one of two very different kinds. If in the course of this sorting procedure we have held tightly to our preconceived notions, the final picture will be a reaffirmation of those prejudices. If, however, we have been willing to jettison beliefs that did not seem to have adequate factual support, we may have our initial suspicions rejected.

Can we learn from history? The short answer is yes—if we are willing to. But if we do not sincerely seek to learn from the past, we will learn nothing. This is true of professional historians as well as students.
History is important because it helps us to understand the present. If we will listen to what history has to say, we can come to a sound understanding of the past that will tell us much about the problems we now face. If we refuse to listen to history, we will find ourselves fabricating a past that reinforces our understanding of current problems.
People tend to underestimate the power of history. If I want to convince you that capitalism is evil, I could simply tell you that capitalism is evil, but this is likely to have little effect on the skeptical. This frontal attack is too crude. If, however, I disinterestedly tell you the history of capitalism, nonchalantly listing all the atrocities attributable to it, I am much more likely to achieve my goal. I can leave a lasting impression that will evoke revulsion at the mere mention of the word.
History teaches values. If it is true history, it teaches true values; if it is pseudo-history, it teaches false values. The history taught to our children is playing a role in shaping their values and beliefs—a much greater role than we may suspect.

All people are living histories – which is why History matters
Historians are often asked: what is the use or relevance of studying History (the capital letter signalling the academic field of study)? Why on earth does it matter what happened long ago? The answer is that History is inescapable. It studies the past and the legacies of the past in the present. Far from being a 'dead' subject, it connects things through time and encourages its students to take a long view of such connections.
All people and peoples are living histories. To take a few obvious examples: communities speak languages that are inherited from the past. They live in societies with complex cultures, traditions and religions that have not been created on the spur of the moment. People use technologies that they have not themselves invented. And each individual is born with a personal variant of an inherited genetic template, known as the genome, which has evolved during the entire life-span of the human species.
So understanding the linkages between past and present is absolutely basic for a good understanding of the condition of being human. That, in a nutshell, is why History matters. It is not just 'useful', it is essential.
The study of the past is essential for 'rooting' people in time. And why should thatmatter? The answer is that people who feel themselves to be rootless live rootless lives, often causing a lot of damage to themselves and others in the process. Indeed, at the most extreme end of the out-of-history spectrum, those individuals with the distressing experience of complete memory loss cannot manage on their own at all. In fact, all people have a full historical context. But some, generally for reasons that are no fault of their own, grow up with a weak or troubled sense of their own placing, whether within their families or within the wider world. They lack a sense of roots. For others, by contrast, the inherited legacy may even be toopowerful and outright oppressive.

In all cases, understanding History is integral to a good understanding of the condition of being human. That allows people to build, and, as may well be necessary, also to change, upon a secure foundation. Neither of these options can be undertaken well without understanding the context and starting points. All living people live in the here-and-now but it took a long unfolding history to get everything to NOW. And that history is located in time-space, which holds this cosmos together, and which frames both the past and the present.
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: 'History is bunk'. 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'.

But not so. 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. 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.
Learning the French language is a valuable human enterprise, and not just for people who live in France or who intend to travel to France. 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. 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. 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: the Short Twentieth Century(2) or, better still, by contrasting this study with (say) Mark Mazower's Dark Continent(3) or Bernard Wasserstein's Barbarism and Civilization(4) on 20th-century Europe, and/or Alexander Woodside's Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea and the Hazards of World History(5) or Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi: the History of the World's Largest Democracy(6) – to name but a few recent overview studies.

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. It follows therefore that History students' understanding of the subject cannot be properly assessed by asking single questions that require yes/no responses or by offering multiple-choice questions that have to be answered by ticking boxes. 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: 'Well, History is not obviously useful but its study provides a means of learning useful skills'. 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. 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?' is often given in the following form: 'History is not useful but it is still worthwhile as a humane subject of study'. 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 is 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?' the answer is that History is inescapable. Here it should be reiterated that the subject is being defined broadly. The word 'History' in English usage has many applications. It can refer to 'the past'; or 'the study of the past'; and/or sometimes 'the meaning(s) of the past'. 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. The past/present of the globe is studied by geographers and geologists; the biological past/present by biologists and zoologists; the astronomical past/present by astrophysicists; and so forth.
Among professional historians, the prime focus is upon the past/present of the human species, although there are some who are studying the history of climate and/or the environmental history of the globe. 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.

Certainly, studying the past in depth while simultaneously reviewing the long-term past/present of the human species directs people's attention to the mixture of continuities and different forms of change in human history, including revolution as well as evolution. 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. The immediate moment, known as the synchronic, is always located within the long-term unfolding of time: the diachronic. 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. And vice versa. The diachronic is always in the synchronic: the long term, the past, always contributes to the immediate moment.

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. A good educational system should help people to study History more formally, more systematically, more accurately, more critically and more longitudinally. By that means, people will have access to a great human resource, compiled over many generations, which is the collective set of studies of the past, and the human story within that.
Humans do not learn from the past, people sometimes say. An extraordinary remark! People certainly do not learn from the future. And the present is so fleeting that everything that is learned in the present has already passed into the past by the time it is consolidated. Of course humans learn from the past – and that is why it is studied. History is thus not just about things 'long ago and far away' – though it includes that – but it is about all that makes humanity human – up close and personal.

The repentance of Henry Ford: History is not bunk
Interestingly, Henry Ford's dictum that 'History is bunk' now itself forms part of human history. It has remained in circulation for 90 years since it was first coined. And it exemplifies a certain no-nonsense approach of the stereotypical go-ahead businessman, unwilling to be hide-bound by old ways. But Ford himself repented. He faced much derision for his apparent endorsement of know-nothingism. 'I did not say it [History] was bunk', he elaborated: 'It was bunk to me'. Some business leaders may perhaps affect contempt for what has gone before, but the wisest among them look to the past, to understand the foundations, as well as to the future, in order to build. Indeed, all leaders should reflect that arbitrary changes, imposed willy-nilly without any understanding of the historical context, generally fail. There are plenty of recent examples as well as long-ago case-histories to substantiate this observation. Politicians and generals in Iraq today – on all sides – should certainly take heed.

After all, Ford's pioneering Model T motor-car did not arrive out of the blue in 1908. He had spent the previous 15 years testing a variety of horseless carriages. Furthermore, the Model T relied upon an advanced steel industry to supply the car's novel frame of light steel alloy, as well as the honed skills of the engineers who built the cars, and the savvy of the oil prospectors who refined petroleum for fuel, just as Ford's own novel design for electrical ignition drew upon the systematic study of electricity initiated in the 18th century, while the invention of the wheel was a human staple dating back some 5,000 years.
It took a lot of human history to create the automobile.
And the process by no means halted with Henry Ford I. So the next invention that followed upon his innovations provided synchro-mesh gearing for these new motorised vehicles – and that change itself occurred within the diachro-mesh process of shared adaptations, major and minor, that were being developed, sustained, transmitted and revolutionised through time.
Later in life, Henry Ford himself became a keen collector of early American antique furniture, as well as of classic automobiles. In this way, he paid tribute both to his cultural ancestry and to the cumulative as well as revolutionary transformations in human transportation to which he had so notably contributed.
Moreover, for the Ford automobile company, there was a further twist in the tale. In his old age, the once-radical Henry Ford I turned into an out-of-touch despot. He failed to adapt with the changing industry and left his pioneering business almost bankrupt, to be saved only by new measures introduced by his grandson Henry Ford II. Time and history had the last laugh – outlasting even fast cars and scoffers at History.
Because humans are rooted in time, people do by one means or another pick up ideas about the past and its linkages with the present, even if these ideas are sketchy or uninformed or outright mythological. But it is best to gain access to the ideas and evidence of History as an integral part of normal education.
The broad span of human experience, viewed both in depth and longitudinally over time, is the subject of History as a field of study.
Therefore the true question is not: 'What is the use or relevance of History?' but rather: 'Given that all people are living histories, how can we all best learn about the long-unfolding human story in which all participate?'