Monday, March 12, 2012

Some current musings on why I study history

What is studying history good for? This is a question that has been asked by many more qualified people than me (sometimes with the answer of “nothing”) but it is something that anyone interested in spending a lifetime studying a period of long dead time really needs to think about from time to time.

I want to begin by talking about what history is not good for, namely that it does not predict the future. The old adage about “those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it” is just that, an old saw (albeit one I believed strongly back in high school). Those who know the past, if anything, seem more likely to repeat it, at least if people like Gingrich and Robert Kagan provide an example. There is no way to truly get the correct message from history without a lot of luck. So far, every attempt I know of to use historical precedents to try and predict the future requires the predictor to oversimplify everything in their attempt to draw a single lesson from the past that can be applied to the future.  Successful predictions are either so vague they would have had trouble being wrong, or they are simply lucky.

As much as I would love to say I could tell you what will happen in the future if you just pay me to study history long enough, any such statement would be self serving and frankly disingenuous.
This isn’t to say I do not see a value in studying history, obviously I am in the wrong career path if I thought anything of the sort.

Rather, I see several reasons to study history:

The first, and lesser, of these reasons is that I do not think you can ever know what knowledge will be useful to the future. By studying history you are studying the past activities of humanity, and this means you learn a vast amount of information about what humans have done in various circumstances, when you write history you make those ideas and information available to others, and this can change the world. It can inspire both governmental systems and revolutions, and so on and so forth.

But this is really a lesser reason as far as I am concerned, the most important reason is that I see a constant study of history as one of the best ways to develop a critical mind and an understanding of how the world works and why. Basically, the more you try to understand how and why something was the way it was in the past, the easier it is to come up with theories about how and why things work in the present. Basically, history provides, at a much faster rate, the same sorts of lessons that life teaches people. The mind can only work with the data that it is provided, after all, so providing it with a large diet of history effectively adds massive amounts of material that can be used when processing any new issues that are presented to it.
Any systematic study would do this, but some bodies of material are more useful than others for questioning how and why the world works, also history tends to suggest an approach that is questioning of the material rather than accepting. I could gain just as much “raw data” about human interactions from reading hundreds of novels a year as I do from history, and I did so during much of my childhood, but that data is not designed to be questioned. It is just a story that you are supposed to read for enjoyment and accept.

By developing a historical mindset, one in which I am constantly asking questions about why things are the way they are, and one in which I am quite used to questioning the truth value of my sources, suddenly all that basically useless data about science fiction and fantasy worlds became useful again. Where before I just enjoyed and was, in fact, molded by the ideals and ideas presented as stories in novels, now I can see how each of those ideas was itself a product of a modern historical context and I can question and reject or accept those ideals in a way that would not have been the case if I had not been fascinated with the stories that were based on real events as well as those that humans had made up entirely.  Tolkien is just as enthralling as he was in fourth grade, but now I read his stories as Epics that consist of a truly impressive collection of modern day myths put in an archaic guise, many of which I can point to specifically as important to my own worldview.  Sometimes I wonder if I would be significantly more detached from reality than I already am if I had not been interested in history to the point that I started viewing novels as primary sources for the modern day.

Speaking of primary sources, the historical method is easily one of the more useful things in my life on a regular basis. The systematic rating of sources by their relevance to answer whatever question I am asking at the time is something that is useful for any issue. Take, for example, a presidential speech:

If the question is “what did he say?” the articles written by those who were present are secondary to the actual text/audio of the speech.  

If the question is “what did the pundits make of it?” the pundits become the primary source, and the speech itself becomes a control by which I can see exactly how the pundits manipulate the material to fit their own goals.

In this new world of google news providing dozens of links for any news story, this sort of sorting process becomes incredibly useful for trying to understand the world around me.

Ultimately, the most important thing that learning to write history teaches, to my mind, is to never quit asking questions and to never really be satisfied with your answers until you cannot find problems with them anymore. It is not the only discipline to teach this, any academic discipline worth studying should teach this, but this is easily one of the most important lessons that I think anyone can learn in life.

Of course, the most important reason I study history, albeit one that is entirely personal, is that I pathologically cannot stop studying it. If I wasn’t doing it for a career, I would be constantly working on a historical project as a hobby (and probably starving as I am singularly unsuited for most jobs that do not involve studying dead things). So, all of the above rationales should probably be taken with at least a grain or two of salt as the self congratulatory musings that they almost certainly are. 

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