I know I’m the only one who thinks about the usefulness of history anymore. Academics study the thing for itself — knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Laypersons are interested in history strictly for the entertainment value, and political scientists try to make history a primer for politics. All due respect to George Santayana, circumstances from the past do not perfectly repeat themselves so that we get a second chance to retry the same problem (though some rough lessons can apply). Even if historical knowledge gave us hindsight for practical application in the present, the frequency of its usefulness would be limited at best. None of this is to say that history offers us no practical benefit. I am always harping on how it gives consciousness to our lives and informs our choices. Since that isn’t “hard” science with obvious application, some might resist embracing the notion that this makes history useful; however, there is a concrete way of applying this consciousness that is an often ignored aid.
Happily, we have come to a point in human development where we have informed understanding of society and its function. We no longer believe that events are caused by spirits and sprites or that divinity resides in the whims of the king and they are therefore to be honored. We understand today about the structure and function of our society and our ability to shape our communities. This is to say, we can exercise conscious management of our societies through planning and effective legislation, enforcement, and cooperation. We see now that while our world may be a Ship of Fools, it still has a rudder. Even such fools can learn to maneuver the boat, and our choices are the rudder that directs us. You can’t control life, but we can manage our responses to it.
Friedrich Nietzsche noted more than a hundred and thirty years ago that history can and should serve the purpose of living life. Humans can use it to inform our choices — particularly if we are doing “critical history” or writing about the past in ways that undermine the worship of it. Then, we are able to leave off and reject that past in search for something better. Or, as Maya Angelou says: “When you know better, you do better.” History gives us knowledge from which we can learn and use to build a new future. Since we can choose what we want our society to look like and what values we want it to reflect, we can look at the past and see what we have done before that helped in reaching our goals and what has not (and therefore needs to be abandoned).
So, firstly, we must use history to remind us of why we made these choices. What was the impetus for doing this or that? For example, the social and health effects of industrialization on workers were what led to passage of workers’ compensation programs and safety regulations. Studying this development makes clear why there was a need and what the chosen response was. Next, we look at how this solution operated in practice — what is the history of how that choice or action developed? We want to see what we did. This will of course allow us to avoid repeating errors as Santayana suggests, but it also lets us judge generally on how we are doing at achieving our ends. Have we accomplished what we had hoped? What is working? What good have we done? What isn’t working and what effect has this failure had? Once we see how the thing developed and judged it, we can then make choices for the future. We can reaffirm or redraft our goals. We can adjust our efforts to respond better in areas in which we have not succeeded. Or, we can expand our response or reduce it based on the effectiveness of past actions, need, and interest.
In short, history provides use a means for social analysis. We can use it to make a grade card for ourselves. As a community, we can assess our performance and make choices based on this for our future. In this sense, history is a very real and obvious tool — and it has a substantive rather than just ethereal value. Knowing this, failure to make use of our history indicates not just ignorance or foolishness but also that we are people who fail to try to exercise any will on our society and are content to lead lives lacking consciousness — in which case, we do no better at shaping our world than the unlearned or superstitious who came before us.