Sangha, Laura: What is history for?

Sangha, Laura

What is history for? Or: doing history/thinking historically‘, The Many-headed Monster, 16 June 2015

Blog piece based on a lecture to a second year university class. Researching, says the author, ‘I was struck by the fact that the popular or “commonsense” perception of history encourages a rather limited assessment of its social and intellectual usefulness’. She looks at various suggestions of what history can offer – good stories (but most of them are made up), lessons so we can avoid mistakes (but history does not repeat), roots so we can know where we came from (but viewing the past from today’s perspective distorts) – before she criticises all these suggestions because they wrongly assume history is about the knowledge of facts.

A more accurate understanding of what history is considerably expands its utility [Sangha continues]. Historical training certainly provides a student with knowledge about (some of) the past, but it also instils in the student patterns of thought and action, some of which are unique to the discipline. For the reality is that history is not the neutral recitation of facts about the past, it is the study, and explanation of events or phenomena. History is not merely about content (facts), it is also a particular and systematic methodology, a distinctive way of reading, thinking, questioning and analysing. (Emphasis in original.)

The author then goes on to summarise the most important features of the discipline of history: rigour (‘Good historians draw conclusions based on evidence.’); cross-referencing and checking; understanding and explaining; avoiding ‘presentism’ or the projecting of inappropriate modern perspectives; not assuming that change or progress is inevitable but explaining why it occurred; recognising that being aware of our place in time is what makes us human. ‘In sum’, Sangha concludes, ‘the discipline of history develops qualities of perception and judgement that encourage active, reflective, and reasonable engagement with other humans’.

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