Is History Irrelevant?

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...

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