Why Study History?

Time History Clock

IMHO, the most compelling case for studying history was made by a prominent British historian Robert Crowcroft in his article “The Case for Applied History” published in History Today (https://www.historytoday.com/robert-crowcroft/case-applied-history) :

In An Autobiography, published in 1939, R.G. Collingwood offered an arresting statement about the kind of insight possessed by the trained historian. The philosopher of history likened the difference between those who knew and understood history and those who did not to that between ‘the trained woodsman’ and ‘the ignorant traveler’ in a forest.

While the latter marches along unaware of their surroundings, thinking ‘Nothing here but trees and grass’, the woodsman sees what lurks ahead. ‘Look’, he will say, ‘there is a tiger in that grass.’

What Collingwood meant was that, through their familiarity with people, places and ideas, historians are often equipped to see how a situation might turn out – or at least identify the key considerations that determine matters.

Collingwood’s musings implied an expansive vision of the role historians might play in society. Their grasp of human behavior, long-term economic or cultural processes and the complexities of the socio-political order of a given region of the world meant that they could be more than just a specialist in the past. By being able to spot the tiger in the grass, historians might profitably advise on contemporary and future challenges as well.

For around 2,500 years, the notion of the historian-as-commentator has been well established. It origins lie deep in antiquity. Thucydides, for example, imagined his History of the Peloponnesian War as being not merely a history of an epic struggle, but a possession ‘for all time’, which revealed the mainsprings of political ambition and human conflict. It would remain useful ‘so long as men are men’.

Historians writing thereafter often saw themselves as not only piecing together the details of a specific event, but offering their readers conceptual tools with which to understand other situations in the world around them – and in that to come. For centuries, statesmen and thinkers used history as a tool to shed light on their own difficulties and to suggest courses of action.

When Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince published in 1532, he illustrated his case by constant reference to examples from the past. Politicians of 19th-century Europe were classically educated and sought a Greek or Roman analogy for every problem. The Victorian historian J.R. Seeley went so far as to declare that history was no less than a ‘school of statesmanship’; a bold assertion of what the discipline might offer us.”

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