First of all I want to apologize about not posting for a while: I was very busy with college and had a few papers due which meant that I did not feel like writing a post but simply watching the telly. While I was writing all these papers someone made a general comment on the use of studying history: we could learn from the past. My immediate response was that we cannot learn from the past by studying history and the only reason I study history is because I like it. After a while the comment started to nag at me because why then would someone study history if you can’t learn a thing from it?
Edit: With this post I also want to kick start a ‘Weekly Writing Challenge’ and write one article every day for a whole week, starting today.
When I am informing students-to-be at an open door day what the study history is about they always ask me, apart from the practical things such as costs, ‘why do you study history and what use does it have?’ And I always end up telling what I wrote above: you can’t learn from history.
So assuming that you can’t learn anything from history: what is the practical use of the study? Well, you get skilled in the practical skills such as writing, interpreting sources, presenting your results and participating in discussions. But then again, you learn this in every academic study. But one skill is in my opinion very valuable: being able to look from different standpoints at a source and still write something useful, most of the time you have to combine this with other methodologies from other fields but that makes it interesting.
Another reason why I don’t think history learns us lessons is because the past is completely other culture: the mindset then is so different from ours that you can’t even compare it. For example: in the town I’ve been born there is a square and on it is a statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Coen was a governor of Java during 1619-1623 and 1627-1629, in those periods he governed in a way we now consider almost barbarous, but was then more the rule than the exception. The statue was placed on that square (1893) long after he died but in a period when there was a need for a national culture in The Netherlands. And then in 2012 the city council decided, after a petition of some citizens, that on the base of the statue an extra text should be added to explain that Coen had done things that were not acceptable nowadays. Morale of this example is that the citizens and the council did not consider the fact that you simply cannot copy modern day values and ideas on the past. What they forgot is that the past is indeed a whole other culture and should be treated as such, with all its peculiarities and up- and downsides.
So if the past is another culture it should be studied to understand it and not to learn something from it. Yes, you can learn military tactics and the ‘best’ way to govern a country and, sure, you can draw courage from certain events but in my opinion not something useful for your own personal situation. But should you study something because you can get personal gain from it? No, you study something because you love it because if you don’t like what you’re doing you won’t see it through.
– What do you study, and why?
– Any more practical uses to study history?