Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why History?

"Why should the professional historian be expected to have a different relationship to the public than other professionals? Why should a professional historian care about the public's understanding of his or her work if this never enters the mindset of most physicists? "


It has to do - and I know some disagree with me - with the goal of history. St. Bede wrote that...

"[s]hould history tell of of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse..."

Physics and chemistry can not help people in this way. It might be able to help people in other ways but not in the way history can help. History has the potential to make people wise, to "imitate the good", to "eschew what is harmful and perverse".

But why should the historian do this? Why should the historian care about helping people be better people? If you allow me to appeal to authority - I do know it is one of Aristotle's fallacies but it seems to me to be the way the world really works - I will remind you that we all have a duty, as Al Gore said, echoing the words of countless sages and prophets and saints, a duty to reach down and pull our neighbor up. Even if that help is a mere smile that lifts a stranger out of a dark mood. How much more of a duty to help does the historian have? An historian has much more ability that the person who's only way to help is by smiling. Like bards, poets, and homilists, the historian has a special calling with specialized skills. The historian doesn't merely lighten a mood (Though how much mischief has been avoided because a joke was made at just the right time?), he imparts wisdom. If the historian does not use those skills to build up humanity, to impart wisdom, to help people be better people he is not worthy of the calling.

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