Lessons of History: Stop It


History shows that there is a God. History teaches that free and open commerce is beneficial to all. History shows that children are no asset for a Prime Minister. History teaches us to hope. History teaches us that confronting antibiotic resistance requires stronger global collective action. History teaches that the Roman Catholic religion has ever been destructive of freedom of opinion. History shows us the S&P is at risk for correction in the coming months. History shows us prohibition doesn’t work. History teaches that minorities don’t count until they are counted. History shows that you can’t count Big Ben out for Sunday’s game.

Poking at throwaway phrases or figures of speech often gets to the core of what I want to say to students starting out in history, and an idea that history teaches lessons is something many students have in their heads. But the same idea is also invoked, unthinkingly or purposefully, by authorities in academia, talking heads in mass media, and political leaders — as has been discussed on this blog before. What interests me here, as we all fret about being on the “right side” of history in 2016 — or keeping 2016 on the right side of history? –, are the implications for this way of speaking for how we view the construction and consumption, the meaning and the uses, of history. I don’t think any of these observations are new or more than obvious. Yet the language persists.

To judge from the above, Google-powered sampling, “lessons of history” are everywhere. Some of history’s lessons are dubious, some unknowable, some impossibly vague; others possible, plausible, even true. But of course none of them, whatever their qualities, are things that history teaches. History doesn’t teach. People teach history. (For those of you about to throw Hegel at me, history doesn’t even teach that it doesn’t teach; Hegel teaches that. Allegedly.) People study history. People come to conclude some things by studying history, and come to doubt others. People interpret history, argue about it, bend it to their purposes. No more than ideas does history exist independently of human minds, human uses, and human work.

Perhaps six or seven times out of ten, references to the “lessons of history” are meant not to obscure but to encapsulate that work, even to direct attention to it. History teaches… through the work of historians; go read them. To judge from the way history is discussed publicly, however, this is not always so. In other cases, “history” — generally in some nineteenth-century formulation — teaches lessons that historians now are charged with neglecting, misrepresenting, or betraying. But even where history-as-teacher is used with more anodyne intentions, it seems the point is being missed — and much else along with it.

The first thing to be missed is the work itself, the work of (to borrow a phrase) doing history. The idea that history teaches erases the effort, skill, and labor involved in teaching it. It obscures precisely what we historians try to teach our students how to do, what justifies our existence as historians and legitimizes whatever expertise or authority we might want to claim. This makes scholars’ own offhand invocations of a self-teaching history — typically in departmental or organizational webpages, in commencement speeches, and (most provocatively) in pronouncements on public events — especially disheartening. What is perhaps meant as a gesture towards the significance of the subject implicitly obliterates the practitioners through whose efforts it survives. Suddenly Ken Burns videos seem sufficient.

Learning from history equally requires conscious discretion, active engagement on the part of the learner. Taking a story in passively requires no judgment; the story is given and is all there is. Doing history is most unlike listening to a story, or learning a lesson, or watching a video, in this regard. The “story” comes only at the end, the product of myriad judgments and decisions as well as voluntary and involuntary limitations, learned and inherited presumptions, awareness of and responsibility for which rest wholly with the living people involved. History personified as teacher or storyteller is a scapegoat for our laziness or cowardice, a way of fathering our prejudices on the past, a shrug. If history can’t be questioned, our work is done before we’ve started.

Because history is not given to people but made by them, further, it is contingent, multiple, and unstable. There is no form of pure history behind or beyond the very human works of historical interpretation; no substrate captured for all time in a pet text or canon. Names and dates may in a sense be given us — I don’t think “anything goes” is a helpful rule —  but what to do with them will always be our problem. Presenting a history as fixed and immutable is akin to presenting any other social construct as natural or, for that matter, divinely ordained. It wraps interested choices, political decisions, talking points, in the mantle of necessity. It is a way of not thinking, of discouraging thought, of remaining at rest in one’s comfortable prejudices. If we learn anything from 2016, perhaps it should be how dangerous that is. Doing history can help us; the lessons of history can’t.

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