The Value of History Essay

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The Value of History

There would seem to be at least three possible viewpoints of the value of history. Clearly such a statement calls for the qualification that the positions represented by these viewpoints are unlikely to be sharply demarcated, but will generally merge into one another.

The first is the view that history is bunk, often positively harmful, and that we should have as little to do with it as we can manage. Such an opinion would fit a strong belief that all that matters is the future, that preoccupation with the past can only hold us back, and indeed that lessons learned from the past are highly likely to be wrong and to lead us on to worse mistakes in the future. Support, of a sort, for these opinions may be sought
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A different position on the subject, and one that in practice is likely to be held at least to a limited extent by all but the most diehard negativists, is the belief that there are certain utilitarian uses to which history can be put. There is much support to be found for this view, and a great deal of evidence. Take for example the role of history as a social lubricant. `An acquaintance with history is agreeable to us as sociable and conversable creatures" wrote Joseph Priestley, and John Locke believed not only that history was a great moral and political teacher, but was a proper study for a man of business in the world" and "a gentleman".

E H Carr wrote, "the function of the historian is to master and understand, and the past as the key to the understanding of the present`. And Hegel, in the remark quoted above, does not say that we cannot learn from the past, only that we do not, and it is not difficult to find instances where he is right. Very recently there were those who, perhaps with Vietnam or Afghanistan in mind, warned that going into the Balkans militarily would be a great deal easier than coming out. No, no said our leaders, six months should do it. Less obvious are the cases where we just may have learned something. There were for example many who felt that Saddam should have been toppled after the

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