Is History Irrelevant?

THE STUDY OF HISTORY is under attack today on many fronts, both from within and without the historical profession. Where free choice replaces a required curriculum, students increasingly desert the study of Western civilization for the sociology and psychology courses that promise insight into pressing current problems of society and the individual. Some students charge that historians either focus on the wrong subject matter or offer the wrong—or proestablishment—interpretations when they stumble on the right questions. Activists scorn scholars who seem indifferent to the consequences of their studies. Only recently a brilliant young historian gave public notice that he plans to quit the field, convinced that every feature of the past is unique and therefore without value to an understanding of the present or future. In effect he damns history as a mere intellectual exercise because history as actuality does not repeat itself. History is irrelevant.

No one who values historical research can be indifferent to these attacks. Even if the critics were all wrong, their influence, articulateness, and seriousness can’t be ignored. And it is always possible that the critics may be right, at least in part. In either case, a serious historian has no alternative but to respond.

Most strange is the source of modern criticism of history. Not long ago Henry Ford was proclaiming that “history is bunk,” no doubt reflecting a widespread contempt felt by men of affairs for a discipline that butters no bread. Secret police in the 20th century, as in the 19th, have kept close tabs on what historians were writing or teaching. Certainly the despotisms which take great pains to rewrite history, whether of the nation in general or the ruling party in particular, act as though history is altogether relevant—even too much so. That parochial businessmen and dictatorial rulers are hostile to history does not of course automatically negate the accusations of its high-minded critics. Thus, if at the end of the film “Z” a voice reads off a list of some of the things banned in Greece today by the military dictatorship, it does not follow that all of the proscribed items are inspiring. Some testify to nothing more than the perverse taste of the generals in charge of that unhappy country. Mini-skirts, even when forced underground, possess only a limited significance in their own right—for all the undeniably liberating implications of the bared female knee and thigh. If critical historical scholarship is outlawed in dictatorships, however, it is not because it offends the puritanical or perverted morals of the despots but because it threatens their political power. These fears, even if exaggerated, should give pause to history’s idealistic critics in this country. An enterprise that evokes such reactions from the evil cannot be totally without redeeming social value.

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