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September 18, 2006

What is a(n) Historian? -- Part II

On Saturday, I read the quickwrites I had my students do before our "What is history?" discussion on Wednesday. Reading these, I was struck by their idealism. Many students wrote that historians study the past so that our society can make better decisions in the future. One student even said that historians use the past to predict the future, which I found pretty hilarious. Historian as fortune teller. We may be prescient, but we don't have ESP. Another student said that we need to learn history because it repeats itself. This is a common incorrect view of history. If it repeated itself, history would have laws, as physics does. Instead, history is the study of contingency and rupture, but also continuity over rupture.

One student summed up the idealistic view of the historian's role in society pretty well: hisotians

'do history' by analyzing events and passing on to the masses [sic] patterns of behaviors, events, leaders, etc. Once presented, it is up to the people to take the hisotians [sic] analysis, choose the patterns that yielded positive outcomes, and apply it to their own lives and world around them.
Reading this response almost made me want to cry, because this is how history should function in society, not how it does function. History should serve the public by teaching society about its own past and public leaders should heed the lessons of history, but unfortunately, it doesn't work this way. Academic historians write for each other, focusing on minute points and arguments that may well have bearing on our current world, but to actually point this out is denigrated as presentism. Some historians, notably Juan Cole, a professor in my department who can frequently be heard on NPR, do try to apply the lessons of history to current situations, but heck if our elected leaders are going to listen. So, really, it goes both ways. Historians should make their work more accessible and relevant, and world leaders should learn their history and pay attention to the lessons it offers.

Posted by eklanche at September 18, 2006 08:42 AM


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