Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Can Historians Contribute to Society?

A few weeks ago Patrick Johnson, vice-chancellor of Queens University in Belfast, expressed what I suspect is a view of history commonly held by Euro-American elites: “Society doesn't need a 21-year-old who is a sixth-century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyze things, [and] understands...contributing to society.” He then announced the creation of an Office of Analyzing Things and Contributing to Society, and the appointment of a deputy vice-chancellor, two deans, and seven assistant deans to manage it. I'm kidding. (Sort of.)

In response to Johnson's remarks, Professor Jonathan Healey wrote an engaging defense of the formal study of history, which I commend to my readers' attention, Briefly, Healey noted that social leaders like to use historical examples to justify themselves, so society needs good history students to serve as fact-checkers; the general public loves a good story, and historians can provide content to the museums and script-writers who furnish the public with its history; the weirdness of the past obliges students to develop their analytical skills in order to study it; and that very weirdness reminds us that societies do change over time, and that our modern values and hierarchies are contingent and mutable.

Healey's clear, elegant essay makes a nice complement to Timothy Burke's 2008 HNN piece on the purposes of historical analysis. Using Burke's article, I would add that history also helps 21-year-olds more fully understand long-term processes, like human-induced environmental change, that have ongoing consequences in the twenty-first century. It lets us appreciate the importance of individuals in society, particularly obscure characters (like George Robert Twelves Hughes or Domenico Menocchio Scandella) whose lives and thoughts tell us more about the lived experience of an era than those of a Napoleon. Finally, history teaches humility, as students learn that they are not the only generation and that persons in the deep past have solved complicated problems without help from their descendants.

I suspect academic administrators, politicians, and other elites don't want ordinary college students to develop these skills. They want round pegs for round holes, not challengers of the status quo. But, as Healey points out – and as everyone over the age of 35 could attest – the status quo is fragile and as subject to change as any other human construct. We need people who appreciate this fact, who have studied change over time and who have the intellectual flexibility to respond to it. Their willingness to say this explains why history professors are almost never invited to speak at university commencements. It's just as well. 

(Above image, "Clio, the Muse of History," by Giovanni Baglione, is in the public domain.)

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