Removing the Narcissistic Impluse from History

An interesting discussion emerged from my Historical Methods class two days ago that is worth pondering a bit further here. This conversation was sparked by a question regarding the purpose of “doing history” in the first place: why is it that all Indiana public universities (and I’d assume private as well) require all undergrads to take at least one course in history as a part of their degree program? What’s the point of teaching history to these students?

Reflecting on this extremely broad and perhaps unanswerable question for a few seconds, I responded by saying that a big part of learning about the past, a primary purpose driving it, perhaps, is so that we can keep past leaders and institutions accountable. I have used that line several times already on this blog to express my views on what history means to us today. My line of thinking was highly influenced by a speech made by Randall C. Jimerson at the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting in 2005. While focusing on only one element of history-making in the form of archival records, I still think Jimerson’s arguments transcend the entire field of history. He was President of the organization at the time of this speech and had this to say about “Embracing the Power of Archives”:

Archivists [who are frequently trained historians] can use the Force [of history] to make society more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more diverse, and more just… Accountability is at the heart of Orwell’s fear of Big Brother’s control over public memory… As Kenneth Foote observes, ‘For archivists, the idea of archives as memory is more than a metaphor. The documents and artifacts they collect are important resources for extending the spatial and temporal range of human communication…’ Archives provide essential benefits for society… Archives not only hold public leaders accountable, they also enable all citizens to know the past.”

In response to my answer, my professor began to shake his head. No, you are totally wrong, he says. Our leaders actively scorn and mock all historians. People like Dick Cheney rub their nose at us because they know that as “leaders of the free world,” they make the history.  We struggle to merely record itThe politicians hold all of the power in shaping the past and present. We are worthless. Nobody reads history, nobody looks to us for guidance. There is absolutely no point in doing history, and most historians in the field today believe this. I realize this may be tough to handle as young scholars, but if you really think history functions that way, then you are a fool, and you need to stop thinking that way

I acknowledge that my “leaders and institutions” argument is up for critique. I could very well be wrong. Such a broad question–what is history?–will never be fully definable. I made an attempt to answer it realizing that my answer was not perfect. Yet I find this narcissistic impulse extremely problematic. I mean seriously, let’s take it further. What’s the point of teaching music? Theater? Science? What’s the point of going to school? In the end, what’s the point of life?

I would really like to see if this is the consensus amongst professional historians. I don’t have access to a large enough sample of opinions, so I don’t know. However, I would say that if the majority of professional historians today walk around believing that there’s no purpose or point to history or educating people about the past, then the entire field of history and the people who are employed as professional historians deserve nothing but our pity and utter contempt. They deserve this for wasting our money and time with a bunch of bull that has no point to it. In fact, they are immoral. Yes, immoral. To waste what little precious time we have to educate our younger generations and prepare them for the big, bad world of reality with pointless information is an immoral disservice to the students themselves, the parents who pay for their education (whether private k-12 and/or college), and the taxpayers who help subsidize public education, and the people who have made their living off this immoral framework should be ashamed of themselves.

A student asked an excellent question later in class. If there is not point or purpose in doing history, then what is the point of learning about the methods of history? Why are we wasting our time with this class? Lost in what I would assume was a lot of anger, the student interrupted our professor before he could give a complete answer, so I don’t know why I’m taking this class if history is pointless. We also never received an answer as to why college students in Indiana are required to take at least one semester of history. This entire semester has been very messy for me so far. I have more questions than answers and more mental confusion than I could ever imagine having at one time. The more you know, the less you really know, but alas, this is the world of graduate school.

It seems to me that if we make no effort to create a purpose or point to history, then the possibility of real evil grows substantially. The Bushes, Cheneys, and Obamas of the world will actively make and record the past for us, without any accountability. George Orwell’s fears of Big Brother’s lack of accountability will come true. Yes, I agree that historians are struggling to gain attention and a readership for their scholarly endeavors. Yes, I agree that I have to be realistic about the true possibilities and limitations historians face when trying to make an impact on society, and that many lay people don’t understand what we do. Yes, I acknowledge that I am merely an apprentice at this point in my career, one who is learning and making plenty of mistakes. But don’t give me a bunch of bull about history being pointless. I’m young and idealistic, but I wasn’t born yesterday, and I’m not buying that shit.

I think it’s important to mention that there is something positive to be said about narcissistic statements like this one: they challenge my preconceived notions and force me to really think about my own purposes in life, far beyond the realm of history. Thinking and writing about these questions has been a profitable engagement for me personally. It’s also important to point out that I have nothing but respect for all of the professionals who have helped oversee my graduate studies so far. I’m in good hands. I don’t think historians are immoral and actually believe that history is an extremely moral endeavor. Contrary to something you might see on television, people can have disagreements and still have a high level of respect for each other. I write this post partially in anger, but that anger is at myself for not really thinking about the methods of history or taking them as seriously as I should have before coming to graduate school. I was very naive about a lot of stuff before engaging in this adventure.

So, what’s the point of history? I eagerly await more opportunities in the future to hear what others think. If I’m a fool for thinking the way I do, then so be it. I’ve already been told once that I am, so anything to help me stop thinking so foolishly is helpful. I think at the end of the day, however, a lot of meaning we give to history is personal: we as individuals determine what sort of meaning we want to bestow upon that past, or what we consider to be the past and what we consider “historical.” If you think there’s no point to studying the past, that’s fine, but I think you’re missing out on a lot of fun.