The Washington Post recently ran a piece on its history blog, Retropolis, about the 1918 Spanish flu. Aside from scaring the bejesus out of folks, I’m not exactly sure what the purpose was. I guess people are interested in reading about the deadly outbreak, what with this year’s miserable flu season. The history is timely. It’s relevant — but is it useful?
After outlining the spread of the influenza outbreak during World War I and providing some shocking reports for effect, the article warns that we as a society are vulnerable to another such epidemic in the future. Quotes from medical experts drive home the potential threat. Current vaccinations are insufficient to prevent another deadly event, and today’s medicine doesn’t offer a cure. We could, then, see a repeat of a widespread outbreak, the blog entry warns, and similarly succumb.
Reading the essay — and it was compelling and a bit terrifying, so very effective — I wondered what the draw on a piece like this is for lay readers. It encourages fear of the influenza virus, but it offers no suggestions for action you can take in light of the threat to protect yourself (because there isn’t much). The entry isn’t informative in that way, which makes me wonder about the author’s view of the purpose of history.
Clearly, here is a historian who, thankfully, does not buy into that old saw about studying history so as not to repeat it. There’s no salvational element to this tragedy; it is utterly lacking in instructional value. Instead, the story’s appeal seems strictly in the entertainment vein. Here is the historical version of a horror story. It’s history designed for titillation and drama: non-fiction art to excite dilettantes.
Do we want to settle for that from our history though? Shouldn’t it do more than feed our curiosities? What’s the point of knowing things just to know them (or to be spooked by them)? I find myself inclined to history that is more substantive than that, and I wonder: do other historians not feel the same way? Do they just want to be experts in an interesting catalog of past happenings? Why get a PhD for that?
There’s so little space in popular outlets dedicated to historical inquiry that I hate to see it squandered. You want to be relevant and compelling, yes, but we ought to aim to make art that does more too. I’m frequently at a loss as to what the aims of my peers are on this point. It leaves me despondent to think the profession’s aim is simply a trivial pursuit.