The value of history

It often happens this way. You think something, and then you find that others have thought similar things, and have expressed them with a clarity and a beauty that you yourself were incapable of. In this particular case, my gratitude is extended to Quentin Skinner, whose essay on meaning and understanding in the history of ideas I've had to read this week.

Being a history graduate, I've been asked several times what the point of studying history was. My response always centered on dispelling the idea that historical knowledge can somehow help you avoid the mistakes of the past, for there is no guarantee that a solution that worked in one context will work in another. Rather, it is the skills you acquire as a historian that are beneficial -- being able to understand how a particular social context works, the way power (politics), distribution of resources (economics), social structures (sociology), ideas and culture interact. The advantage is you keep your finger in different social science pies, and so you will be able to view the present day in a more holistic fashion.

But more than that, the historian tracks the way contexts change through time. And here I'll give the (paraphrased) word to Skinner. Possessing historical awareness, as opposed to just knowledge, means appreciating the variety of viable moral assumptions and political commitments human beings are capable of. Present day arrangements are not timeless, but contingent and local. Skinner argues that such a perspective has a moralizing effect. I take this to mean that understanding the relative nature of our values will ensure we avoid condescension -- it will make us more empathetic. A corollary I would add is that history allows you to stress-test ideologies such as religion, nationalism, socialism, even patriarchy, and so will teach you to be wary of their simplifications and distortions. Skinner is talking in particular about intellectual history, but I think his conclusions can be applied to historical study as a whole. Social structures as well as values are contingent and local. There are other ways of doing things. That is history's most obvious, and most valuable, lesson.

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