What is the point?

By Juliana Adelman

As Lisa has already highlighted, the academic job market is currently in full swing (or half swing, given the ‘e’ word).  Applying for jobs tends to turn one cynical in the best of times. The process of composing cover letters that summarize years of one’s life in 500 words or less can be soul destroying.  The type of self-representation which is required by those engaged in the academic job hunt tends to reinforce the distance between ‘professional’ historians and everyone else with an interest in history.  With this in mind, I thought it might be good to get a discussion going as to why we do history since I think this represents common ground for everyone with an interest in the subject.  I have given 5 reasons below and I hope others will add theirs in the comments section.

1. I am nosy and I bet you are too.  People like to know about other people.  I have recently read (in On Deep History and the Brain by D L Smail) of a theory in neuroscience which suggests that gossip is a form of addictive behavior.  Gossiping releases endorphins and helps people to combat psychological ‘slumps’.  And really what is history at its most basic but a form of gossip?  On a more serious note, history is a means of examining ourselves and may be considered, as Roger Smith argues, an integral part of what it means to be human.

2. Sometimes I learn something new. I am not being smart and I don’t mean that sometimes I discover a new fact, because facts are a dime a dozen.  I mean that occasionally in my quest to understand events in the past I learn something about myself or get a glimpse of a different way of thinking.

3. At its best, history encourages imagination and toleration. When you research and write about people of the past you are trying to understand the actions and motivations of total strangers.  You have to use your imagination (not too wildly) but you also have to try to overcome the urge to evaluate them within your own set of beliefs and expectations.  I don’t mean to suggest that we should never make moral judgements about the actions of historical figures, but that the process of trying to examine events objectively is useful outside of history.

4. History is important. Kevin has written recently on the importance of contemporary history and its challenges.  He suggests, with John Tosh, that good contemporary history has a role in combatting the serious and potentially detrimental impact of collective amnesia and myth-making in society.  I would tend to agree and to extend this to history in general.  To paraphrase, I believe, Natalie Zemon Davis, history can remind us that events can go in many different directions.  Sometimes we have an opportunity, however small, to push them one way or the other.

5. History is fun. I’ve probably saved the most important for last.  One of our interviewees suggested that if he had not been a historian he would have been a spy.  There is an element of the detective or the spy in what we do.  Hunting down clues and information is a satisfying type of intellectual endeavour.  I always experience a sense of anticipation when opening a new source for the first time.  Anticipation can be followed by elation or disappointment, but it’s the anticipation that keeps me going.

8 Responses to “What is the point?”

  1. Felix Larkin Says:

    This is a really interesting, stimulating post, Juliana. In strict fairness, I don’t think that there is any good reason for studying history other than a very strong interest in the subject. I agree that that interest is inherently valid – curiosity about the past, even about the remote past, is a basic human instinct. There is even a biblical injunction (from the Book of Deuteronomy), to ‘ask now about former ages, long before your own’ – you won’t find a more authoritative justification for studying history than that! However, the study of history also gives you a highly attuned critical faculty, highly sceptical of any unsubstantiated claim – plus, since an aspect of reconstructing the past is the process of writing about it, an ability to write clear English. These are considerable benefits, and because of them I have no doubt whatever about the value of history as a good basic training for life and for the world of work.

  2. Laura Kelly Says:

    really enjoyed this post, juliana!

  3. Póló Says:

    Great post. I identified with all of it. I also agree with Felix’s comments.

    I would just like to add the family history dimension. I am following up my family history at the moment and I find it encourages/requires me to gen up on the broader background of the times.

    It also introduces me to the perspective of the participants, and that from a very sympathetic viewpoint. I want to discover the richness of the lives of my ancestors and the real choices that faced them in their lives. But because they are family I want them to have been right and this gets me involved in the history in a very personal way.

  4. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for all the responses. I think even when you aren’t related to your subject it is hard to avoid getting personally involved! I have sometimes found myself sympathizing with some characters I am glad not to put on my list of cousins…


  5. Help! Know any planetary history? « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] beauty of history, to add to Juliana’s list, to me lies in its never-ending possibilities. It’s like finding an author you love and […]

  6. Bridget Flannery Says:

    This is a really interesting post, especially No 2, on learning something new. As people living lives we have many facets and so often we learn history from a narrow viewpoint. It’s very exciting to read around lives people lived from different perspectives.

  7. test laubsauger elektro Says:

    Hello, its fastidious piece of writing about media print, we all be familiar with media is a enormous source of data.

  8. Channing Bottalico Says:

    You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I
    find this topic to be actually something which I think I would never understand.

    It seems too complex and extremely broad for me.
    I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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