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Why, if at all, is History important to society

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“Every human being at every stage of history or pre-history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society. ”[1] History in turn moulds society creating a sense of national unity. Therefore it can be argued that history is vital to the individual, creating a sense of self and unity with the nation. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob support this view arguing “History and historical evidence are so crucial to a people’s sense of identity. [2]

This need for identity and the natural curiosity of humans has led to the development of history and an interest in our past. It is argued by some historians that the past repeats itself. Therefore it is important to study history to prevent mistakes in the past from being repeated, it provides the roots for certain ideas, laws, customs and political ideas. Helping people make sense of how things came to be today and how the past has moulded the present.

However it is also seen by some historians that the developing age has changed too dramatically to repeat itself and that “history does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another. ”[3] Some argue that history is losing its importance after having been “shaken down right down to its scientific and cultural foundations”[4] as questions about its reliability and the historians who write it arise. That history, if still important, is being manipulated to suit individual agendas.

History, argues Elton, is a necessity as “The desire to know what went before, the desire to understand the passage down time, these are common human attributes. ”[5] It is natural human curiosity to understand what once happened, just as it is natural human curiosity understand what is and will be. This knowledge of the past, that the human race endeavours to discover, Carr argues “is the key to understanding the present” therefore history will always be seen as important as it helps us see how things came to be Marwick argues “Knowledge… s vital to the existence of contemporary societies, and to their future advances”[6] Implying society cannot move forward towards to future without an understanding of the past, as mistakes will be repeated, an example of this is Margaret Thatcher learning from the 1972 Mining Strike and started stock piling coal ready for the 1984 strike therefore stopping Britain from coming to an economic standstill and weakening the position of the unions.

Tosh supports this view arguing “We cannot understand a situation without some perception of where it fits into a continuing process or where it has happened before”[7] Because of this, it can be seen, that it is vital for politicians to have an understanding of the past as it helps them deal with political issues of the present.

Mark Twain observed however that “The past does not repeat itself but it rhymes”[8] arguing events in history never repeat themselves but can be very similar such as the events of Black Wednesday in 1997 compared the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the knowledge of history and the events of the Wall Street Crash may have helped the British government deal with the events of Black Wednesday without allowing the economical situation to reach the same lows as before.

George Orwell stated that “Who controls the past controls the future”[9] supporting this, however he also continues to say that “who controls the present controls the past”[10] meaning that history can be manipulated, particularly by those in positions of authority or power, limiting its usefulness to society as we cannot learn from history if it has been twisted. Hobsbawm argues that history is manipulated to distract or mislead society arguing “if there is no suitable past, it can always be invented”[11] and that this kind of past “gives a more glorious background to a present that doesn’t have much to celebrate. [12]

This can be seen in the use of the British Empire today, as while society is educated of Britain’s old influential power, it is distracted from its current declining power in the world today. History is useful to a government or political party as it can strengthen its own political power by manipulating history, this use of history can be seen under the leadership of Stalin in Russian history as he manipulated past images and text to include him in areas where he had previously been less involved (for example the 1917 revolution), making him appear a greater figure in Soviet history therefore a more qualified leader.

However History is very important to society as it created a sense of national identity by documenting the countries own unique past and culture. It creates a sense of national unity by using a struggle felt by the majority of the population, in turn the people are united by this struggle working more co-operatively together rather than for individual gain (in theory). Marwick supports this stating “Individuals, communities, societies could scarcely exist if all knowledge of the past was wiped out”[13] without a national history, there would be little sense of unity and little national pride.

John Tosh argues that history is vital is “social groupings need a record of prior experience, but they also require a picture of the past which serves to explain or justify the present, often at the cost of historical inaccuracy”[14] This argues that history is important as it created a sense of unity, however, the cost is that is often twisted or inaccurate as a result.

This use and manipulation of History can also be seen in more extreme forms of political leadership, Hobsbawm argues that “history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies”[15] as more radical political systems, such as fascism, manipulate history further to create a stronger sense of national identity. They focus on the victories of the nation in history such as in wars and its successes rather than its flaws, failures and mistakes in history.

Hitler’s fascism took this to the extreme as he indoctrinated the German people into believing that Nazi Germany was superior to other countries. Fascism also uses history to justify its negative actions. An example of this would be Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship as he used Italy’s previous loss in the war with Abyssinia, over emphasising the humility of it, to declare war again during his reign. Stating that Italy could not fully regain its national pride until the Abyssinians had been defeated.

This use and manipulations of history is obviously, very damaging to society. Hobsbawm supports this emphasising the damaging effects “bad history” can have on society “Our studies can turn into bomb factories”[16] Marwick argues there is a “social necessity for history”[17] however Jordanova argues that “Public history is popular history”[18] suggesting that the history understood by General society many not be entirely truthful but popularised history, history that may “promote particular interests. [19] These may be the interests of the government, trying to maintain a position of strength and power or may be the interests of the people, trying to prevent panic. Jordanova sees this control over history and what it focuses on by arguing history “shapes the forms such curiosity is permitted to take. ” Public history for the masses it is argued is less important to the individual when it is manipulated, as nothing can be learned from it.

The nature of the historian also has an effect on the usefulness and importance of history and his work as, as Carr argues, the historian’s background and personal bias must be taken into account as this affects his writings, History is biased by the historian and as the facts cannot speak for themselves, they are interpreted by the historian and edited by them ever so slightly. Berlin supports this stating “history is what historians do”[20] claiming in other words that history happens only how the historians say it does, they control the past.

Historians in the past have tended to be well educated, white and middle class or above, focusing on the political side of history and the great men, rather than the masses. To society this diminishes its usefulness as it lacks focus on the bigger picture. This leads to Great Man Theory, or what Jordanova calls “superstar history”[21] as historians begin to focus on single individuals such as Hitler instead of Nazi Germany as a whole, it becomes of less educational use to society this was as again, there is no bigger picture.

The flaws in some aspects of history and the rise of historians like Carr, who argue there must be increased attention paid to the background of the historian rather than his work, can be argued to have led to a loss of interest and importance of history to society as the historical profession has become “such a subject of controversy”[22] and has been thrown “into a crisis of self confidence about what it is doing and how it is doing it”[23] this crisis could be seen as causing the decline of history’s use in society, much like the decline of religion during the Victorian era and its loss of importance to society.

History can be seen as of declining importance however it can be argued it still retains its educational value in that those studying it hone and develop their writing skills, which help them in other areas of society, rather that their knowledge. J. H. Plumb stated that “History is now strictly organised powerfully disciplined but it possesses only a modest educational value and even less conscious social purpose. [24]” Although history may now have little importance to society its discipline and organisation may still prove useful to the individual.

Jordanova opposes this view that history is diminishing, arguing however that it is becoming “superstar history” and popularised, however this is not always true history as it is edited and manipulated to for purposes of profit end governmental control rather than educational and social value. Tosh also agrees arguing that history includes the “accepted belief”[25] rather than honest history with placed emphasis on “vivid turning points and symbolic movements which confirm self image and aspirations. ”[26] From this is can be argued that history is, again, manipulated by those in power to improve the appearance of the nation to its people.

Or that history, due to the extending length of time in which humans have been documenting the past, the widening variety of areas of study and numbers to study it today, is causing History to become difficult to summarise it to society and the individual. Due to the advancements in technology and travel it could be that society is losing its individual culture and history. It may be that a nation is longer united by its past but by its future as the rapid technological developments make society focus and unite over what it is becoming rather than what it was.

In conclusion History is important to society as, as Marwick phrases it “We cannot… escape from the past”[27] We must be wary of what lays in the past as although History may not repeat itself, events may certainly be very similar. Building historical knowledge helps us deals with the future and unites society. However, the historian must be wary that not only do biases affect their history and how it is written unintentionally. But that history can also be used intentionally and manipulated to influence society and those who study it.

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