Why History Matters

From the May 2015 Desktop News | What would Dr. John Beeler say to a group of students if it were his last time addressing them? That history matters.

“It isn’t rote memorization of dry-as-dust facts and dates,” said Beeler, a professor in the Department of History. “History is about ideas. It’s about how we make sense of the past as it relates to our own lives and circumstances.”

He explored this conviction in depth at the 2015 Last Lecture on April 22, for which he was the featured speaker. Lecturers are nominated by students and selected annually by a student committee. This year, Beeler was selected from among 180 faculty nominees.

“To be nominated and selected by students is as high an honor and compliment as I could receive,” Beeler said. “We faculty are here for the students. To my way of thinking, that’s far and away our most important responsibility. To receive this sort of confirmation that what we are doing matters to our students is the highest accolade possible.”

Beeler said coming up with the topic for the lecture was “as easy as it gets.” In the classroom, especially in classes where non-history majors make up most of the audience, he regularly seizes the opportunity to try to convince his students that an accurate understanding of the past is valuable for wrestling with contemporary dilemmas and, moreover, that history can serve as a crucial source of information as we confront and try to answer confounding questions regarding the future.

Preparing the lecture wasn’t nearly as easy, he said.

“I was trying to pitch the lecture in a way that could be understood by folks who know or care little about history, yet not be a complete yawn (or affront) to those who do care passionately about the subject,” he said. “That took quite a lot of work.”

He estimates that he spent 25-30 hours composing it.

“Truth be told, I’ve been nominated previously and was actually a finalist one year, which was a great honor and very flattering, but it’s nothing compared to having been selected,” he said. “The Last Lecture was as good a forum as exists to deliver my core message, that history matters.”

Read an excerpt from the 2015 Last Lecture below.

“Bunk means nonsense, hokum, humbug, etc.,: insincere or foolish talk: nonsense, and is derived from bunkum, which means the same thing.

A bit of context is useful here, and in fairness to Henry Ford I should furnish the entire quotation: ‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.’ Now, it should be said that as an historian, Ford made a pretty good industrial capitalist, and he certainly makes a great strawman in this context, but the view he expressed is, I think, common.

In perhaps its most familiar form it is articulated as ‘the circumstances of today are so different from those of the past, that studying it is no longer of any utility. It can furnish no guidance for the difficult decisions that we must make regarding our day to day lives, much less those regarding the future….’

If history is nothing more than species of fiction, as many have argued: there’s no use in studying it to learn about the past, and even less purpose in writing (or teaching) it.

Yet as Cornell West reminds us, the scars and bruises are real. The words on the page of a history book may be products of the author’s imagination, but the events they attempt to depict are, or at least were, real.

And if we set our sights more modestly, not to predict the future, as the ‘scientific historians’ of a century and more ago sought to do, or chart the inexorable progress of humanity, as the positivists and others did, we find no shortage of examples of the perils of ignoring the historical record. These are not ‘lessons,’ for history no more teaches us lessons than it ‘repeats itself,’ but they can be regarded as instructive examples.

Historical knowledge has other crucial uses too, especially in refuting myths.

All of us are historians, in that we all have a conception of the past. It’s one of the central ways in which we make sense of our world.

That said, many of us base our understanding of the past more upon myths or fables than on rigorous historical investigation….

A well-informed understanding of the past is the only effectual means to combatting myth.

Last, but certainly not least, as Faulkner reminds us, the legacy of the past continues to influence us, in many cases to haunt us. The troubled and tragic legacy of race relations and racism, oppression and exploitation in America (and elsewhere) continues to bear its bitter fruit, as in Ferguson, Missouri, and other recent sites of violence toward African-Americans, and for ongoing racial tensions nationwide, including our own neighborhood.

Likewise, the legacy of patriarchy is ongoing, as continuing inequalities between women and men, and the marginalization and victimization of those who fail to conform to normative white male expectations of class, gender, race, or sexual orientation make all too clear.

As for the challenge of postmodernism, I am in complete agreement that there is not one monolithic, ‘real’ account of the past, but competing accounts.

And while the notion of ‘objective, scientific’ history has been rightly consigned to the dustbin of, well, history, the radical relativism of postmodernism’s verdict on the discipline, that it’s fiction, and that all such fictional accounts are equally valid is, I maintain, just as indefensible.

In the absence of scientific certitude we should not plump for the opposite extreme.

There is a middle ground, and that middle ground is marked by informed consensus among those with as accurate an understanding of the historical record as is possible.

In that manner individual subjectivity can be validated or not by the consensus of experts.

So, for all of the perils involved in doing history, it remains vital to our understanding of ourselves and our world, and for helping to inform us as we contemplate the future.

I’ll end with one more quotation, this from Martin Van Crevald: ‘Studying the past may be a matter of marginal utility only, but the past is us [shades of Faulkner] and it is on the past alone that all decision making is inevitably based. If systematic study of the past is taken away, only personal experience, hearsay, and intuition remain.”

The lecture is sponsored by the Graduate School.