Why history matters



Associate Professor of History

In 2010, the comedian Stephen Colbert, in all seriousness, asked astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, whether or not knowledge “is always a good thing.” “Yes,” Tyson responded, “because it empowers you to react and possibly even to do something about it if something about it needs to be done.”

But what do we do with people who prefer to live in ignorance rather than value science, countered Colbert. “If they are at maximum comfort in their ignorance, fine,” Tyson said, “except that they will not be the participants on the frontier of cosmic discovery.”

Later in the interview, Tyson underscored that science and its method is “a way of approaching the world; a way of equipping yourself to interpret what happens in front of you.”

The same is true for the study of the human past. History, like science, is both a body of knowledge and a toolbox that empowers you in the here and now.

Empower not to dominate others, but to deepen your perspective, to beat back fear and resignation in the face of a complex world.

Being historically literate means you have agency; you can, if the need arises, dismantle unreasonable claims.

Historical literacy gives you a lens that renders our contemporary world in three or four rather than just two dimensions. This is so because the past is always present, it lingers, it is invoked, denied, praised, used and misused by people in the present.

It is wrong to say that historians only know facts, just as it would be ridiculous to assert that biologists or astronomers only know about DNA and black holes. We are more than fact memorizers.

We are taught a critical method of testing, evaluating, and falsifying. In fact, students of history undergo one of the most rigorous methodological boot camps of any academic discipline: source evaluation, careful interpretation of those sources and exposing linkages through time.

Few other proficiencies can be so effectively and fruitfully put in the service of understanding the present in order to “do something about it if something about it needs to be done.”

By wielding the tools of the historian, you immunize yourself against fakery, complacency and close-mindedness.

In order to engage with reality it helps to gain a wider perspective so that more variables and influences come into view.

Historians are very good at this. The Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis likens the human past to a landscape stretched in front of us with the historian standing on a cliff overlooking the vastness of it all, a position that ensures both “detachment and engagement.”

In a thought experiment, Gaddis once asked his students if the study of history would become obsolete if humans could simply teleport to, say, Rome during the reign of Tiberius.

Some shook their hands. No, because walking the streets of imperial Rome as an investigating time traveler would still not give you the perspective of standing on a precipice overlooking the whole landscape of the Roman world around 20 CE.

Curiously, the question “why does history matter?” is still frequently raised. Notice that far fewer people ask why science should matter, even though historians have much more in common with geologists and evolutionary biologists than with sociologists: all three study historical phenomena by evaluating clues from a vanished world whether it be igneous rock that suggest a bygone ecology or extinct species whose DNA survives in us.

History matters because it is inescapable—it is, in a profound way, in our DNA.

This is not up for debate. The past is all we have got, and we better engage with it in order to watch our step in the present.

Saying that history is simply dabbling in a dead, distant past is not an argument.

As one historian once pointed out, most people who study astronomy will likely never go into space; most people who study genetics will likely never clone an animal.

Every student, every citizen must develop a historical consciousness as a form of empowerment. That is why there are history teachers, history degrees and history requirements for college students.

Historical literacy will teach you that when the North Koreans threaten a renewed war with the United States it is partly because no peace treaty ever concluded the Korean War, and you will also discover why China is such a crucial partner in any current diplomatic solution.

When activists proclaim that “Black Lives Matter,” it is not because they privilege black skin over white skin, but because historical consciousness demands that we must not forget the painful linkage between police brutality today and a long train of systemic racism in the Atlantic world when white skin was privileged.

Historical literacy thus helps to locate oneself in the unfolding march of time, or as modern science would have it, the space-time continuum.

You will not do yourself any favors if you think that “the past” is contained in one box, and “the present” in another as if only the latter is relevant. They are inextricably linked.

History is inescapable and just as we cannot afford a scientifically illiterate electorate, we cannot afford a historically illiterate one.

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