Tuesday, November 16, 2010


The latest education report from the British government, which is making huge cuts to its education spending and trying to figure out how to spend what is left, declares that history is now an "inessential" subject. Antony Beevor calls this "a grave and myopic mistake":

At a purely practical level, history is important because it provides the basic skills needed for students to go further in sociology, politics, international relations and economics. History is also an ideal discipline for almost all careers in the law, the civil service and the private sector. This is because the history essay teaches students to research and assess material, to marshal facts and develop arguments, and to arrive at logical conclusions. . . .

History is also necessary because it helps to explain current events. How did western culture and western capitalism come to dominate the world? How do cultures rise and how do they fall? We need to know – because otherwise we will not understand the consequences of the rise of China, India and Brazil, the weakening of the United States, the political and economic decline of Europe. History will not give us the answers, but it will certainly help to focus our questions and our understanding of the forces at work in the world today.

Of course history is easily manipulated – though that makes it even more important for us to know what actually happened. We need a knowledge of history to spot the delusions of leaders making false parallels, such as President Bush comparing 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, or Tony Blair talking of Saddam Hussein as another Hitler.

My first thought is, "essential for what?" Obviously it is possible to get through life with no real knowledge of what happened before we were born, but this applies equally to all math beyond arithmetic -- what percentage of adults do you suppose ever used trigonometry on the job? -- and almost all of science, subjects which the British government deems "essential."

I think that some knowledge of the past is essential to understanding the present. At least, the present makes no sense to me except as the result of lots of things that have happened, some of them a long time ago. A culture without a history is like one of those amnesiacs who cannot form memories and therefore lives in the perpetual present, trying to assess each situation without knowing what came before and, inevitably, misunderstanding everything. George H.W. Bush's memoir includes a fascinating description of a debate he had with Colin Powell on the eve of the war in Kuwait, in which Bush sees this as World War II all over again and Powell is very worried that it is Vietnam all over again. You might say, see, history added nothing to this debate or possibly even confused the issue with false parallels. But without their knowledge of history, how would Bush and Powell have thought about the coming war at all? How would they have discussed the issues it raised, and how we might respond to them? How is it even possible to conceptualize events except as part of human history?

People think historically about themselves and their lives, even if they know nothing about what historians do. They have vague notions of the good old days, or the bad old days, or the 60s or the 50s or the 80s, and they understand themselves by reference to that knowledge. The history taught in schools may not seem very relevant to many people, but it is at least something. Without that knowledge, people will be even more subject to political manipulation than they already are. Without that knowledge, debates about things like foreign and economic policy take place in a complete vacuum. Without a past, we have no sense of what might happen in the future. That, it seems to me, would be a very bad way to be.

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