Peter N. Stearns is University Professor of History at George Mason University has co-authored a book with Marcus Collins, called Why Study History? (July 2020). Stearns writes:
We try to do several things in the book. First, we very consciously combine the arguments about the skills history imparts with the really encouraging evidence about career outcomes. On the skills side we emphasize both capacities that history promotes such as writing and critical thinking, AND more distinctively historical skills such as evaluation of the phenomenon of change. The book also deals with history’s contributions to citizenship and public understanding, which must not be forgotten amid utilitarianism.
History is not just a set of facts but a series of questions, a mode of inquiry that seeks to comprehend and put flesh on dates, events and places, to understand and include all possible perspectives, all while knowing that, until about 50 years ago, history was almost solely written by white men, about white men.
This history was comprised of flawed, incomplete and often deceptive stories that not only excluded vital records, but were frequently used for propaganda purposes, and the buffering of myths like: all war is good, mighty and noble, if somewhat sad; the expansion of empire was jolly impressive; all important people sat in parliament or courts; and women and non-white people have not done particularly much of note for millennia.
Charlotte Lydia Riley is a historian of contemporary Britain at the University of Southampton and writes:
Historians are not too worried at the threat posed by “rewriting history”. This is because rewriting history is our occupation, our professional endeavour. We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew. Despite what Leopold von Ranke – one of the pioneers of modern historical research – said, history is not only about finding out “how it actually happened”, but also about how we think about the past and our relationship to it. The past may be dead but history is alive, and it is constructed in the present.
The other important thing to hold on to in this debate is that statues do not do a particularly effective job of documenting the past or educating people about it. Much has been written recently about British “imperial nostalgia”, and the idea that as a nation we yearn for the empire that, for many of us, ended before we were born. But this country’s relationship to its imperial history is built more on erasure and forgetting than on remembering – it is a series of silences from the past.
English historian Annabel Abbs says that often historical fiction ‘makes a better job of the truth’. In her first novel the Joyce Girl she tells the hidden story of Lucia Joyce, a dancer who lived in 1920s Paris and happened to be the daughter of novelist James Joyce. She says:
Writers exploring lost voices, or restoring marginalised voices, have to be capable of shedding the weight of historical precision. Fiction provides, uniquely, the chance to view major events and significant personalities through the eyes of a narrator displaced from history. It gives a voice to the dispossessed, the disempowered and the suppressed: women, the poor and illiterate, people of colour. When centre-stage is occupied by someone with a different viewpoint, the reader experiences history differently, perhaps in a more complex and nuanced way. Few sources are genuinely independent, memory is notoriously fickle, and all facts are open to interpretation.
John Fea (Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn., USA) writes
Historians’ work revolves around building a context for knowledge out of disparate documents and sources, and demands revising and reframing knowledge in light of new discovery. Odd as it may seem, the skill of building knowledge from an archive of old documents is the same skill of sorting the flood of electronic information.
An encounter with the past in all of its fullness teaches us empathy, humility, and selflessness. We learn to remove ourselves from our present context in order to encounter the culture and beliefs of others who live in this “foreign country.” Sometimes the people we meet in the past may appear strange when compared with our present sensibilities. Yet the discipline of history requires that we understand them on their own terms, not ours.
Olivia Waxman writes
After all, history shows that many great inventions have come out of desperate times. As [Alondra] Nelson [President of The Social Science Research Council] puts it, the current [Covid-19] crisis is one of those “moments of reckoning for us as a society to think about how we want to live and live better together.”
Laura Redford has a PhD in history from UCLA (USA) and states that history is not about the memorization of dates and other facts. History is
an exploration of how and why things occurred the way they did. It is an investigation into the conditions, or context, in which people made decisions. Nothing in history was inevitable. History is the product of people’s choices. Sometimes those choices expanded or contracted paths available to them or to other people.
George Washington University History Professor Jennifer Wells Discusses How Her Study of Law Has Informed her Career in History. She says:
Having an understanding then of history and how people thought about a particular subject is vitally important for resolving issues in our current world.
Thomas Peace is an assistant professor of Canadian History at Huron University College and examines in an OpEd ‘History’s Reputation Problem’ the view of some that historians have deserted their professional posts and differences in use of the past – interpretation/utilitarian –
All of these historians remind us that, to be relevant, history must be much more than a chronicle of military battles, national histories and politics.
James Ottavio Castagnera, formerly legal counsel for academic affairs at Rider University (USA), has investigated the life of Leo “Butch” Armbruster’s, his grandfather and Civil War veteran.
‘What does it matter?’
The reason I think it matters…is the disruptive moment in which each of us, and our nation, find ourselves. If we are going to raise our eyes from the abyss, gaze across it and acknowledge our fellow Americans, I believe we must first look to ourselves. What are our personal stories that teach us that the American democracy is greater than our transient differences?
I am convinced that Churchill could not have faced the existential threat of the Third Reich and rallied his nation had he lacked his appreciation of British history and the place of his family tree in that history.
I believe each of us is well advised to tear ourselves away from the ephemeral distractions of the social media and presidential tweets and TV’s talking heads, and take a little time to recall those ancestors who contributed to making each of us an American.
Adam Laats is professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY) and author of “Fundamentalist U.” and “The Other School Reformers“. He says there is a need to understand history in the push to impeach President Trump:
History is crucial in our tumultuous moment. But to make a difference and shape our debates, trained historians must contribute a particular kind of historical thinking — one based in fact, evidence and painstaking research. In the big picture… the historians make the better case.
University of Michigan-Dearborn historian Anna Müller says that:
In many respects, I think the historians’ trade provides foundational skills in analyzing and understanding the world around us: the significance of changing context, a complex set of factors that define individuals and their positions in society.
While this raising lots of hopes, she says:
Although new partnerships among archaeologists and scientific specialists are not always tension-free, there is growing consensus that studying the past means reaching across fields.
Efforts to make archaeology and museums more equitable and engage indigenous research partners are gaining momentum as archaeologists consider whose past is being revealed. Telling the human story requires a community of voices to do things right.
As new methods enable profound insight into humanity’s shared history, a challenge is to ensure that these insights are relevant and beneficial in the present and future.
Filmmaker Rachel Perkins observes in her 2019 Boyer Lecture The End of Silence
We cannot live in the past, but the past lives in us. The past has made us. We are its inheritors, for better or worse, and this is now our time.
The past has made us. We are its inheritors, for betters or worse and this is now our time.
Perkins quotes distinguished poet and stateswoman, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, when she wrote:
Let no-one say the past is dead. The past is all about us and within.
Historian Fernande Raine asks……………
…history gives people power. It gives you the power of belonging, by helping you grow roots that go deep into the rich soil of time where they tap into values and traditions that feed your soul.
Why does history matter?
This is best summed by Canadian historian Andrea Eidinger who was a keynote speaker at the 10th Canada’s History Forum at a symposium Making History Relevant in 2017.
Andrea Eidinger in a nutshell
Some of the key words in history are: past; present; future; people, stories; understand; learn; study; know; better.
For Andrea history is deeply personal. She maintains that history is to better know and understand the past, the present and the future by learning and studying the stories of people.
She maintains that history makes us who we are. and how we remember history is important.
History is not an abstract concept or a dead subject. It is complicated, messy, contradictory and part of the everyday experience as we move through a world that is shaped by history. History is as much what we remember, forget or invent.
History is personal. It is a web of relationships over time and place which determine how we see the world.
Andrea teaches from a social history perspective and emphasizes the stories and experiences of people. Students find it easier to relate to the past if it is alive and not dead.
It is important for historians to challenge the dominant narrative and shine some light on invisible or forgotten histories. Historians should encourage open and honest discussion about stories. They should help marginalized communities and raise their stories and in doing so make the world a better place.
The purpose of history is to understand the present and make the world a better place in the future. We cannot change the past but we can help build a better future by rethinking the stories that we retell.
Historian … Naomi Malone states to the question:
Why is history important today?
History is vitally important because it gives us a basis from which to resolve current issues. Evidence from the past helps us to understand societal change, how the Australian community came to be what it is today and how to best live in the future.
Blog post ‘Five minutes with Naomi Malone’, PHA (NSW & ACT), 15 March 2018. Online @ http://www.phansw.org.au/five-minutes-with-naomi-malone/
Historian … Kelly Lytle Hernández writes radical history and says:
“History is a narrative of the past. It is based upon the sources that we regard as relevant or that we can find,” she says.
“Where we come from matters deeply, and it shapes the present,” Lytle Hernández says. “And how we understand that past, can shape our future.”
On the debate of whether history can be rewritten Hernández says:
I think there’s something, everything, good about reframing, and the dance of history, and the debate of history and where our present comes from. And that we should always engage in that debate rather than invest in a objective truth of the past.
And what we’re talking about here is a power struggle, about the well-known phrase that “the winners are the ones who get to write history.” Well, we’re talking about developing newly empowered communities, new winners, and so we’re beginning to rewrite our own stories.
My work and the work of many others is very much invested in telling the stories of communities that have been marginalized, that have been caged up, that have been locked out, that have been enslaved, and bringing our story, and our experience, to the center of the American narrative and helping us to change the American future with those stories.