The Utility of History

This week we are continuing our four-part examination of history.  Last week, we asked: What is history? And, what is historiography?  Today we ask, what is the usefulness of history for individuals and society and how does that affect professional historians?

We have outlined how history is understood by historians, but it is important to stress that scholars are realistically a small minority of the world around us. Historians might have books filled with detailed, in-depth examinations of the past, but unless everyone else reads and accepts those ideas, they are less important outside the profession than other more popular ways of conceiving history.  For the vast majority of people, history is only important to remember if it has meaning. Or, in other words, if it is useful for them to remember it. 

An individual's personal history is filled with meaning and utility.  They might remember meeting their partner for the first time, or a birthday, or a great night out with friends.  Even less dramatic history, such as remembering that the police wait at a certain intersection for speeders because you were caught there once, has its utility.  All of these remembered events are important to an individual.  Their sense of self is formed out of a personal history of events that explains who they are and helps them to make future decisions, be it marrying your partner or slowing down your car to avoid a ticket.

Likewise, the history of a group of individuals can be explained in a similar way.  It too describes who they are and in remembering the events that shaped a community, a group's history reflects its character and guides future decisions. Unlike a singular individual, societies are varied and multifaceted and their history can either reflect or simplify those complexities. It can be inclusive or exclusive.  If a history does not mention women for example, it's probably a place where women are considered unimportant.  These “imagined communities,” as Benedict Anderson calls them, can be fractured or bound together by their history. During Apartheid in South Africa, the history of white South Africans would have portrayed anti-Apartheid activists as terrorists.  Blacks were only a part of South African history as a negative force. Today, they are remembered as freedom fighters against an oppressive regime and a much more inclusive history has been crafted there. South Africans have tried to heal the wounds left by Apartheid through a more inclusive history, allowing white and black South Africans to be play positive roles in their national story.  The same events remembered in different ways can reflect two different societies.

What we are describing here is the act of remembering history – be it an individual or a larger group. History is remembered when it serves some purpose. The memory of the past is as important as a record of the past.  We have made it clear that history is more than just a listing of facts  – it requires critical thought to ask questions.  Answering these questions is how historians shape our knowledge of the past.  By doing so, they also engage in the construction of this “societal memory.”  The memory a society possesses about the past is what we collectively remember about a historical fact. It is not necessarily connected to what each individual does or does not remember, but rather through the group's remembrance.  Most often these include public discussions of history, be it books, monuments, celebrations, etc.  It can include anything that reflects on the meaning of the past, from historical studies to popular fiction.  The construction of memory is different from the historian's task of reconstructing the past.  Whereas a history book contains knowledge about the past, a memory is better understood as remembering a meaning to past events.  Like the your anniversary or the speeding ticket, the memory's relevance requires some meaning more than just as a “thing that happened.”

For example, most Canadians agree with the “memory” of the battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War and its role in shaping Canadian nationalism.  The history of Vimy Ridge reveals that it was a costly battle and a minor victory on a day of many defeats. Yet today it is the site of Canada's largest (and most impressive) First World War memorial and most remember it as the “birthplace” of English-Canadian nationalism.  Our performance was so powerful that allegedly Canadians went up the slopes of Vimy as British soldiers but came down as Canadian ones, as if they had found a stash of hats labelled “Canadians” to wear that suddenly set them apart.  The memory of Vimy is far different (or at least more meaningful) than what actually happened. We can understand how memory and history diverge even by looking at the newspaper reports of Vimy in 1917. “Canada's Easter Gift to England” were the headlines in the British press just days afterwards.  Already, the battle was heralded as a great victory and tied to the Canadians who had won it.  The decision for the Canadians to build  their great war memorial at Vimy helped to entrench it in our societal memory of the war.  But that choice too is less than dramatic than we remember.  The famous Canadian general of the war, Arthur Currie, didn't want the memorial at Vimy, as he believed the greatest Canadian battlefield achievement had occurred at the Battle of Hill 70 in the summer of 1917.  Vimy was chosen, not as a symbol of Canadian identity, but because it had a spectacular view.  Even the official opening of Vimy memorial in 1936 did not create the “memory” of Vimy we hold today. It was with the passing of Great War veterans in the 1960s that pushed us to remember the conflict while the publication of Pierre Berton's Vimy in 1985 firmly entrenched Vimy's place in Canada's national myths.  You can pick up an academic history book from as late as 1974 and not find Vimy listed in the index. 

We chose Vimy because it is so easily understood as a constructed event where meaning has been imbued upon it by later generations.  The history of Vimy, formed out of historians' questions to a collection of primary sources, is far different from the memory of Vimy, the meaning Canadians have placed on those historical events. Yet it is the memory of Vimy not the historian's record that most Canadians identify as part of their history, even cherish as a part of our national story.  It is far more compelling to remember Vimy as a national achievement than the actual blandness of its historical circumstances.

The relationship between memory and history is a complex one.  For our purposes today, it is enough to say that the past is all the events which have occurred before, history is the critical and impartial inquiry into those events, and historical memory is remembering the past in a meaningful way.  It is difficult for historians to completely avoid placing meaning on the past, though we do try.  Just the act of selecting which events to study creates meaning.  A history book is saying: these events are most important than others and deserve to be examined.  This means that historians, much like writers of popular history and the makers of monuments, are agents of memory.  We unavoidably participate in the construction of society's historical memory, though on what scale changes from historian to historian and book to book.

So if we accept that one of the roles of a historian is to help shape or further understand the memory of the past, it becomes clear that history is useful when it is communicated to others.  It is the act of communicating history that allows us to remember it.  Historians must understand they are agents of memory and behave accordingly. Since historians are inherently participating in the construction of that memory, our role in society becomes intimately connected to our ability to communicate history to people.  History is not important to a society because it exists, it is important because it is remembered.

Historian Carl Becker famously gave an address entitled “Everyman his own Historian,” writing that "If the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history.”  Becker was explaining the similarities and differences between historians and his “Mr. Everyman” and emphasized that the historian's duty is to “not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened.”  Becker comes off as slightly condescending, but we can take the meaning of his message that historians must communicate history to non-historians. We must be actively involved in forming society's memory of historical events.  One of our most basic tasks, lecturing, is a way of communicating history to the public.  In the classroom and public lectures, historians are involved in providing meaning to the past. Some historians choose to write less academic history books. Others start blogs.  It is true that these historians might have other motives, such as earning money, but hopefully most of them realise the importance of the task in which they are participating.

Yet historians should never consider themselves as owners or gatekeepers to the past.  We are participating in a larger process of remembering the past, not controlling it. Historians cannot always control what is remembered, but they can be a part of that discussion. So if communicating history is an integral aspect of its relevance to the larger world, historians must understand how to adapt to our audience to reach the most people.  Sometimes this might mean writing a popular history book without footnotes, or being in a documentary, or giving a lecture at your local library.  Each of these require a different approach to presenting history, none worse or better than the other.

In final part of our series, we will explore history in the 21st century and reflect on some of the new audiences and new approaches to history today.