Friday, April 10, 2009

Why Study History?

Just about every textbook published feels compelled to say something about the uses of history and why (please oh please) students should study it. I'm here to let everyone off the hook. You don't need to study history. Society doesn't *need* history. My discipline has its merits, but it is a social luxury, adding value to society.

What about the need to learn from the past?

Not important. We don't need to learn from the past. In fact, in most places and most centuries, most people had only a dim and deeply confused idea about their past. And they did fine. They made us. Lacking historians, people simply make stuff up. In fact, even with historians around, they make stuff up, because what we have to say is too nuanced and doesn't fit with their stereotypes.

Now, if you should happen to want genuinely to understand the past, then you need to learn the discipline of history. Not, mind you, read a bunch of books, but to learn the discipline. This is no small task, but it has its rewards. Those rewards accrue to the profession and to the individual; it doesn't do much for "society".

Don't study it because it's "useful" in some way, because it isn't. A hammer is useful. History isn't a hammer.

History doesn't have utility; history has value. You know, like art or friends or travel. These have value because they enrich our lives.

With a hammer, once you get its utility out of it, that's all you get out of it—all you ever can get out of it. But with travel, friends, art and yes with history, you can return over and over. In fact, the more often you travel, the more often you turn to friends or art, and the more often you study history, the more you receive from it.

That's way better than mere usefulness.