History and Utility

History is not much studied today.

It is one of those subjects, like Latin and English composition, that has had to yield pride of place in crowded schedules to important amusements like Intermediate Hobbies, Advanced Dating, and Study Hall Three.

And why not?

The so-called curriculum coördinator is fond of repeating that a subject like history has no practical value, and you certainly can’t say that about Dating and Hobbies and the Study Hall required really to get into these subjects.

History is about the past, about something that is already over and done with, a quaint anachronism in an age connected with the now (however fugitive) and mellowed up for the future (however uncertain).  It has all the apparent utility of Saturday’s analytical punditry — which is a kind of history, too  — about the stock market’s behavior yesterday (Friday).


Actually, that analogy is not entirely gratuitous, for many analysts, especially the so-called ‘chartists’, base important decisions about future investments on past, or historical, trends in prices.  It is well known, furthermore, that leading economists make forecasts about national economies from computerized studies of past performances.  In both of these instances huge sums are involved, as well as individual and national well-being, and it is therefore reasonable to infer that some utility, some practical pay-off, attaches to the study of history, at least economic history in this very limited price-slanted sense.

What about the ‘other’ kind of history?  What utility inheres in knowing that the Battle of Marathon took place in 490 B.C., that Nero became emperor of Rome in 54 A.D., that the Thirty Years’ War was ended by the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, or that Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941?  Not much – granted.  But, then again, the memorization of dates is an unfortunately narrow view of what constitutes history.  There is more to it.

History does in a very real sense connect us to the now, for it connects us to the past and thus suggests how we got to the now.  [On this point, see my earlier blog entry entitled Abusing the Uses of History.]  We live not in vacuums but in contexts of time and former events.  Anyone who doubts this has not lived in America during the past few decades or so!  It is axiomatic that awareness of one’s weaknesses is quite useful in dealing with others; it should be clear that nations, too, might profit from an informed sense of their own debilities and deficits.  If we have reasonable self-honesty, we know from previous experience where we are vulnerable as individuals; nations might well do no less in charting their futures on the maps of their pasts.

But the utilitarian argument aside, the study of history, like that of Latin or English or many other now unfashionable subjects, is something in and of itself fascinating.

I admit freely that it probably won’t get you a bigger paycheck at the end of the month once you are lucky enough to get a job, but – then again – do you really think Study Hall Three or Advanced Dating or Intermediate Hobbies will?

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One Response to History and Utility

  1. heather says:


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