Why Study History?

Ernest Renan, an incredibly important French historian, pointed out in his famous 1882 speech “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (“What is a Nation?”) that “Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation.” If you want to build a ideal of a nation, the concept of a nation that can inspire jingoism as much as patriotism, then you are going to have to lie about it, because all nations have done ugly, horrible things in their past.

History can either be fictionalized to build up the national myths, or it can tell the truth and shine a light on things that nationalists want hidden. That’s why Renan claimed that history and historians, “by revealing unwanted truths, can even endanger nationhood.” It’s why the far right of any country has a tendency to skew historical data or lie about history outright – reality tends to reveal the conservative agenda as bad as well as supporting progressive polices. It’s why conservatives in America are fighting history education in public schools tooth and nail.

The denial of history isn’t just about politics. Cultural constructions, including amorphous things like gender ideologies, are grown in history’s fertile soil. Usually these pretty culture-gardens of culture have had a bunch of bullshit thrown on them to make them grow so well and produce such lovely blossoms. Sometimes these idealized blooms are poisonous. Sometimes they are addictive. They are, however, never natural occurrences; they were always cultivated. All too often historical truth is viewed as a weed that will not only make the delightful culture-garden less beautiful, but will also expose the lie that the garden was growing organically and naturally. 

It’s harder to get people to believe lies if they’ve already been taught the truth.

This is why history is important and why history is seen as dangerous by some people. One of the modern era’s greatest historians, Eric Hobsbawm, said: “I regard it as the primary duty of modern historians to be such a danger” to nationalism. Simply telling the truth about a historical event or figure can be a huge act of resistance. That makes historians suspect in the minds of authoritarians, be they right wing Nazis or left wing Soviets.

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The myths that authoritarians use to control people are endangered by historical facts. That’s why one of the mandates of Aldous Huxley’s fictional regime in Brave New World was that “History Is Bunk.” That’s why the hero in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four  has to “rewrite past newspaper articles, so the historical record always supports the Party’s agenda.”

History matters.

3 thoughts on “Why Study History?

  1. Yes, it does!

    My hope is that democracy and education together will prevail.

  2. Perhaps my ill attended course named “Atlantic Revolutions” is parallel to Hobsbawm’s book. I truly am a poor student.

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