Why does history matter?

History has been defined as ‘the study of past events, particularly in human affairs’[1]; this means that history is a unique discipline since it encompasses everything in its studies. Whether history matters in the grand scheme of things, however, is a concept that is somewhat relative: relative to current events, relative to political agenda and relative to political stability given that it is dangerously ambiguous in terms of influencing opinions. It is commonly accepted that there are three key areas in which history really does matter: its use regarding policy making and its ability to knowledgably influence it, its significance in providing a comparative perception of the present and its ability to present a common national identity based on a shared regional history.

One of the main reasons that history has been seen to matter over the past few centuries is that it can act, to some degree, as a sound foundation to formulate ideas about the present; by examining past events, we can gain a greater comparative perspective of the present. John Tosh claims that the dissimilarity of the past to our own world is what gives it such significance as it encourages us to move to a different viewpoint by empathising with older times[2]. Whilst history cannot provide us with an extensive database of answers directly transferrable to today’s issues, it can give us a wealth of knowledge and background information that will help to achieve a more learned approach to current crises. Even from a young age, the subject of history grants us the skill of critical thinking by emphasising the importance of accounting for different perspectives and hence allows us to become analytical in our thinking and read situations more thoroughly. For example, if we were to consider the media’s view of inequality of women in today’s society, taking into account the difference in wages compared to their male counterparts, the unrelenting notions that women are to refrain from achieving outside of their domestic or maternal situations or prevalent sexual harassment, we may consider this to be an outrageous demonstration of discrimination against them. However, by looking at the current situation comparatively and with a view to women’s history over the past few centuries, it is plain to see that there have been phenomenal developments regarding gender equality – taken at the most basic level, women only acieved equal voting rights with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. But, perhaps, history cannot provide the sort of perspective that we are aiming for in modern society; today we find ourselves constantly striving to move forwards at an alarming pace. With the current extensive education programmes of the developed and developing nations, remarkable feats in engineering and seemingly constant technological advancements, it is possible that the concept of history, being important because it allows us to look critically at today, it severely outdated. After all, history only provides us with hindsight since it is retrospective. This argument is bluntly put forward by Stephen Fry who argues that history has outlived its usefulness; ‘Historians are no longer grandees at the centre of a fixed civilisation; they are simply journalists writing about celebrities who haven’t got the grace to be alive any more’. [3] It still stands though that history can distance us from the present allowing us to appreciate it more completely.

The question remains then, that if history does not matter because it can provide us with a historical perspective on modern society, possibly it is more valuable in giving us specific insight into current political crises and policy-making. In being so all-inclusive history, is filled with examples of how previous generations dealt with issues such as economic downfalls, foreign relations and social revolt. Theoretically then, there should be plenty of model answers to current issues hidden somewhere within the depths of the past. It is mentioned by Tosh that it’s possible to draw comparisons between Britain’s position in Iraq in 1914 and in 2003 and, therefore, how the aftermath of Britain invading Iraq in 1914 could have shed some light on the prospective aftermath of the 2003 invasion[4]. Ideally, in this instance we are looking to draw exact parallels between the two occasions in order to guarantee a justifiable policy decision taken from past experience. However, as Tosh continues to argue, no two points in the past are exactly the same[5]. It is very difficult to take lessons from history when there is no direct comparison to draw. Additionally, it is evident that there are reasons why politicians should not use history as their sole source for policy recommendation. It is understood by historians that the past is subject to interpretation and as such can take on variable meanings based on the political agenda of the researcher; there is, in fact, an entire discipline devoted to the analysis of historical interpretation: historiography. The sheer ambiguity and contentiousness of the past would lead to unsolvable debates about the correct historiographical approach to history. Every event in the course of history is subject to such significant difference in detail, from country to climate and from socio-economic standing to political stability, that it would be impossible to gain a definitive evaluation of today’s situation based on history alone. Generally though, this simply tells us that whilst history is useful in drawing comparisons from the past and providing a starting point for analysts, it is not definitive as it is far too ambiguous and broad in its nature. [6] By likening our actions to those of historical figures we can follow a moral template only to be filled in by the details of the present.

Furthermore, history is significant in its ability to provide us with a strong national identity that constantly updates itself as it traces our nations’ paths through time. We are provided with an extensive aetiological knowledge by tracing the steps of our forebears and in doing so are bound to embrace the substantial collective memory evident in every united nation. Nationalism is at the core of our educational system, if not always at the core of our policy aims. In the early twentieth century significant portions of state budget was focussed on improving education with the central goal of disciplining children via nationalistic ideologies in north-western Europe. This was implemented by further secularising schools and training the youth with the morality of patriotism by teaching them the history of their ‘great’ nation. Whilst being highly educated is key to a free and democratic society and providing a strong sense of devotion to one’s country, can instil a sense of heritage and belonging, already we can see the beginnings of a secret agenda and the building of a biased collective memory. The aforementioned steps to improving education in the early twentieth century were undoubtedly steps towards the militarisation of their individual nation with the aim of indoctrinating the country to form a united front. Stefan Berger deals with the complexity of differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nationalism, arguing that ‘both shared a high potential for xenophobia and violence’[7].  Knowing this, we can see that whilst history matters as an instrument for uniting people nationally by providing them with a common history and heritage, it has the potential to incite violence through nationalism’s ability to be both inclusive and exclusive in its memory; i.e. by marking only events in history which penalise a certain country or race as a nation’s enemy, a nation may become resentful towards said country or race. For example, blaming the Jews for extreme social changes in early twentieth century Europe without considering their status as an important economic group, contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism. This trend is also politically significant, as it has destructively impacted upon both the left and right, with both communism and fascism now subject to negative connotations as a result of brutal regimes.

Overall, history can be seen to matter in a number of ways including its significance as an informant to policy-makers and it being the path to constructing a national identity. Without history to provide national identity, it is arguable that the human race may feel lost and a part of a disjointed society. However, it is of the utmost importance that too much emphasis is not placed on the importance of history in the modern world. Whilst it is a valuable tool for changing perspectives of the present, it must be used wisely and its advice taken with careful cynicism. Arguably the most basic reason why history matters in today’s society is for its entertainment value; history provides the distance from a fast-paced world that is so often craved by the hardworking classes – be them working class or middle class. The realness of escaping into a world that once existed can, has and will continue to provide pleasure for many generations.

[1] ‘Definition of history in English’, Oxford Dictionaries <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/history&gt; [accessed 21 October 2013].

[2] J. Tosh, ‘Other Worlds’, Why History Matters (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp.28-30.

[3] S. Fry, ‘The future’s in the past’, The Observer (9 July 2006)

[4] J. Tosh, ‘Prologue: Britain in Iraq’, Why History Matters, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 1-4

[5] Ibid.

[6] A. Groves, ‘Can Policy Makers Learn Lessons from the Past?’, e-International Relations, (2004),  <http://www.e-ir.info/2007/12/03/can-policy-makers-learn-lessons-from-the-past/&gt; [accessed 22 October 2013]

[7] S. Berger, ‘History and national identity: why they should remain divorced’, History and Policy, (2007), <http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-66.html&gt; [accessed 24 October 2013]

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