By Andrew Nurse
“What Use is History?” This is the question asked by a 1958 article in The Royal Bank of Canada Monthly Letter. I will confess that I have no particular soft spot for the Royal Bank (even though, I suppose, it technically owns the house in which I live), but I was intrigued that a bank’s newsletter addressed this issue. It is, I’d suggest, yet another sign that history — or, more precisely arguments for its relevance — never go out of vogue. Even more intriguing, however, were the answers. The article is marred by the language of the time that will periodically sound very odd to our ears. There is much, too, in this short piece (four pages) with which a great number of people — particularly practicing historians — will disagree. Yet, there is also a surprising breadth of vision and, more importantly, an effort to catalogue precisely why history is not simply interesting but important to public culture.
I was drawn to this piece because I have a friend who teaches a course called “The Use and Abuse of the Past” and I thought it might make a good reading for course. It might. But, as I looked over it, it struck me as an interesting place to begin a wider discussion of active history, its meanings and implications. I’m going to venture into what are for me uncharted waters and so I’ll encourage you to offer comments, corrections, additions, subtractions, and anything else you have to offer in the comments below. My subject is a big one: what use is Active History? This RBC newsletter article helps us a bit because it can highlight the differences and similarities between the way we see history and its uses today and the way the anonymous author saw the same matters in 1958.
The first thing that impressed me is that the author is writing in a non-traditional venue and they are treating history very seriously. The language is accessible but the ideas are not really dumbed down. Moreover, this is not a vignette, the 1950s equivalent of an infomercial, or some colour added to fill space. The author is not trying to tell us about this or that event or person in history to break the monotony of financial numbers but attempting to make a serious case to his readers about why they should be interested in the past. From what I can tell Active History is divided into two broadly different branches. On the one hand, there are those who look for more effective mechanisms to diffuse history to a wider public. Good. I don’t think anyone doubts that is needed. On the other, there are those — perhaps a smaller number — who are interested in looking at the issue of the role history plays in culture: what underscores or animates our knowledge of the past, and what use can we (or, should we) make of it?
I like this second approach because it helps us escape those horrible recruitment days where we try to show students all the great careers that await them after their complete their history degree. I’m in Canadian Studies (not History) but our process is the same. I always feel a bit like a snake oil salesperson when I sit in my booth during Open Houses and answer questions from prospective students and parents about “what happens next;” that is: after the degree is done. I’m a parent myself. This is not an idle or unimportant question, but the “oh, well, you know, this is what your daughter can do …” responses I give make me feel more than a bit off. Active history, I think, should be more than expanding interest in the past as if we were looking for an audience, however important an audience is. “What Use is History?” addresses this matter head on.
The second thing that impressed me was the unmitigating whiggish character of the responses. History, the author contends, is important for a wide number of reasons (I particularly liked the argument that anyone working in business who lacked historical knowledge was, in effect, sleepwalking into the future because they were neglecting the record of good and bad decisions that had been made in business in the past. This is, he or she said, perhaps appropriately for a bank newsletter, why financial institutions keep records.) The point here is an interesting one that merits some attention: history contributes to progress. It is the key argument around which the author’s essay turns, so we might ask: how so?
The short answer is: several ways. It inspires, illuminates, provides a record of bad decisions, and helps build a collaborative national community. But, it also does more than that. Historical knowledge provides the basis for what the author sees as a “mature” and “open” (what we might call tolerant) society. Let me quote him or her:
History contributes to open-mindedness. It shows that people holding widely different views of social, political and religious matters have lived worthily and contributed their share to achievement in the arts, letters and sciences.
Mature thinking is aided by history. The student of history is less likely than others to believe that any opinion is altogether right, that any purpose is altogether altruistic, that any calamity is altogether deplorable. He is less likely than people ignorant of history to pin derogatory labels on people; to emphasize differences so as to stir emotions to allow prejudices of race, creed or cast to dictate his associations with people around him.
The author has no doubt that progress happens, something that historians today question in their professional capacities because of the injunction to consider events, people, developments, etc., in the context of their time. I don’t have the space to either explain this argument or develop it more fully – perhaps someone else wants to in another blog post! — but I will take it for granted that you know what I mean. We might phrase matters, but we frequently urge our students to look at context and to try to put their own values “on hold.” This author is aware of this injunction but marries it to a deep sense that he or she lives in a better time and the certainty of this view comes from history. Knowing history helps us to understand the distinctions between the past and present, how this better time developed, and pays tribute to the people who helped progress on its course.
I hasten to add that I am not saying that we should adopt this whiggish perspective, perhaps modified to include better language. I do think, however, that much of what the author has to say — again, not all! — merits attention because it has its appeal. After all, have we not had enough of commemorations of war that link, say, democracy to violence, to wonder if there might not be better uses of history? The author might also be wrong or even naive, but, I also think that questions about progress, for example, are not going to go away. And, if they are the stuff that interests people outside of the academy, I’d argue that an Active History ignores it at its peril. Having now lived through several years of a shaky and controversial federal government makes me wonder again about progress, what makes for it, how it is reversed, and the role historical knowledge can play. Is it too much of a stretch to argue — on the basis of sound evidence — that some things (say, diversity issues) can get better or worse over time?
I don’t have any easy answers and I need to keep this blog within a reasonable limit. As we think about Active History, however, we could do a lot worse than revisiting this old piece and thinking about the questions it raises. The author might be overestimating the merits of history but my gut sense of the matter is that they are not. Active History can serve a useful role in our society. Perhaps the time has come to try to pin down more exactly the arguments on which we make this claim.
Andrew Nurse is a professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University.