Rook Hawkins on History
What is history and why is it important? What a fitting way to begin an episode of Rook's Nook, which the very premise is that of understanding history! And if one is to gauge the influence on past cultures, it is important to know just how and why gauging that influence is vital to them, modern society, and future generations. Unfortunately, the importance of history and more importantly the historian have been detestably underplayed in modern society.
It is true that the role of a historian is not one that has always understood. Often the historian will get the snide remark that history is "just too boring." Another choice one is that "it is just too much memorization of useless data." It isn't that comments such as these are hurtful or insulting; rather, it specifically belays the ignorance of the person making the claim. In an article on this subject, "The Function of the Historian in Society" (2002), [i] Richard Carrier points out the "alarming" nature of the position that historians are considered to be nonessential to society as a whole. He brings up the usual gripes we get such as "What do historians do that is so important to society?" and "Isn't it all just opinion anyway?"
J.A.C. Brown once wrote that "there is no evidence that any memory of any significance can be wholly destroyed, although it can be repressed." Such a statement rings true to us all, as there certainly remain traces of memories we wish we could remove from our minds. Perhaps it was the most embarrassing moment of our lives, or a bad date, or the death of a loved one—or perhaps the life of a loved one. Yet, like the thorny underbrush to a beautiful rose garden, these unwanted memories latch on intently to the desirable memories we contain, almost in a fashion that mocks us but from a distance. It is those failures and woes that sit on the throne right next to the most cherished moments of our lives, always reminding us that we are mortal, fallible human beings.
Society also contains many memories of its past, just as the human brain does. Most of these are horrific, full of bloodshed and human indecency. With such malevolence, among these tragedies like the rose among the thorny brush, there can be found those wondrous examples of human achievement that provide a deeper insight into Brown's quote. As certainly human good and human bad must always exist, just as certainly it is in society's memories that such diversities of the human mind can be found.
For a brain, collecting such memories is a process that has evolved for millions of years, and has thus become perfected. When an experience occurs our brain, like a great receptionist, takes in every ounce of data and organizes it the best it can, although at times some data accidentally ends up in the waste can. Every scent, or taste or touch is calculated and weighed to determine importance, again based on this same evolutionary process that has allowed man to survive for millennia. We have an almost perfect storage and information retrieval device. Thus, when something happens that catches us off guard, generally our brain can calculate the vast cumulative data from every aspect of our sensory experiences and evaluate it at such an incredible speed that almost instantaneously we can relate the current situation back to something in our past and react with a pretty viable solution. And then the brain takes information from that experience and documents it, as well as your reaction, and the reaction to your reaction, and the process continues.
For society, however, does such a system exist? Indeed, it exists within the confines of history, and those who would so dare to spend countless hours sifting through the data to catalogue it. They are the historians. To put it in cue with the rest of the metaphor, we are society's memory cells. Although the methods of historians are nowhere near as efficient as your brain in processing and evaluating data, we are just as important and just as valuable. Yet the ignorance of many people, even those who should know better, seem to misunderstand and misrepresent the importance of history, even down to those troubling remarks concerning the seemingly unimportant nature of the historian and his work.
Carrier brilliantly shows the faults in holding such a position. In comparing the memory of society's past to one's own personal memories, Carrier asks, "Is your memory…nonessential? Would you really let anyone carve it out or, worse, transplant whatever memories they wish to put there?" Certainly, Carrier posits accurately, "no one but a fool would say yes." Carrier then hammers the point home when he states:
"Society is no less dependent on maintaining its true memory, on not letting its memory vanish or become manipulated and eclipsed by other's fantasies, myths, or false memories. A society afflicted with Alzheimers or troubled by a collective psychosis is just as doomed as any individual suffering the same ailments. Historians are the memory cells of the metaphorical "brain" that is the whole human race: it can no more do without them than you can do without the memory cells of your own brain."
Such an analogy is not only accurate but important to consider, as I have tried to enforce from the beginning of this piece. Try to imagine if society forgot the horrors of Nazi Germany and fell back into that same destructive path. What if the cultures of the world started to think the earth was flat? How would such ignorance affect you and the ones you loved? You might think these scenarios are extreme, and perhaps to some extent they are. But are they all that improbable without historians cataloguing the events of the past? If Hitler had listened to German historians they might have told him that a campaign during the winter months in Russia would fail as it had with Napoleon in 1812. If he had listened, would World War 2 have turned out differently, to a point where we may be saluting the swastika instead of the American flag? Hopefully such a thought will send chills down spines—and rightly it should.
Yet as Carrier posits acutely, society with Alzheimers is destructive, just as with a human with such an ailment. The more one considers this, the more one has to understand that the classical historian, including myself and Carrier, are constantly undergoing the tedious process of dealing with a society with such an ailment. Yes, antiquity is a society with a troubled memory, but it also has huge gaps missing from its memory banks. Too much, it seems, was thrown in that trash can. Not only are we missing these gaps of history, important aspects of that society are erroneous and contradictory, and many accounts we do have share such conflicting sentiments.
So with any afflicted patient, one must determine the cause and treatment to the best of their abilities. Such a task is daunting at times. Worse yet, it may not always be easy to ascertain the problem with a particular part of society in history, and thus it becomes imperatively difficult to treat. But such a task is necessary to undertake. Right now, the world is being overrun with religious fanaticism, and we risk losing everything -- all freethought, all reason, every advancement of the human mind, all could be gone in just a matter of months if such a revival of religiosity were allowed to remain on course. In history, it is easy to see such chronicles of time where this has happened and destroyed an empire or a society, rocking its very core and undermining every attempt at scientific advancement and critical understanding. So a historian is not just a categorizer of past events. The historian is the healer of societies ailments, through understanding societies memories and experiences of the past.
So a question has been raised. What function does the historian have in this society? Is it the chronicler of societies ailments? Is the historian the healer of societal woes? The maxim that history always repeats itself seems more to me to be the folly of human arrogance rather than anything else. Therefore, the function of a historian is not just in knowing dates and times and people and events. Rather, the function seems to be that historians are the very core of defeating that human arrogance. That is why historians perhaps have to be the most critically of not just the events they immerse themselves in, but also their own lives. For how can one adequately show the course of human error, when the historian cannot adequately correct that error in himself?
So what we can say about the functionality of the historian is not just that he is a key to understanding our past, but more importantly, it is the key to the survival of our future. Without that ability to process information and explain why such events happen, and under what circumstances, society will continue to repeat its mistakes. So, whenever somebody blindly asks, "What good is history anyway?" You should rightly respond, "As good as any memory you have." And unless that person has been mentally impared all their lives, they may just learn something afterall.
[i] Richard Carrier, “The Function of the Historian in Society.” The History Teacher 35.4 (Aug 2002), pp. 519-26. <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ht/35.4/carrier.html>
(Note: This cannot be reposted by anyone, at any time, nor anywhere! Copyrighted Rook Hawkins-2007)