HISTORY CHARMS AND TEACHES SAYS LORD
Students of Past Brought to Realize Impermanency and Flux of All Human Institutions, He Declares
The article printed below is the twelfth of a series written at the request of the Crimson and designed as a guide for undergraduates in selecting fields of concentration. These articles will cover all the main divisions under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
"What's the use of studying History anyway?" the modern skeptic is apt to declare, particularly if the impressions of his school days are fresh in his mind, and if he has had an over-dose of the "drum-and-trumpet" brand of History or of the genealogical and chronological table variety. "History is just a chaos of inconsequential facts", he is likely to add, "not the thousandth part of which is worth remembering. History has no laws that can be deduced from this welter of facts and applied for practical purposes, unless it be for a few vague generalizations about as interesting as the statement that 'water runs down hill'. History has no lessons to teach, for the same situation never occurs twice, and in two apparently similar situations what has worked well in one case may turn out very differently in the other. And if it is a question of observing human nature, I prefer fiction, properly so called".
The skeptic will probably not be silenced by being reminded that the Greeks raised Clio to the highest place among the Muses, or that a galaxy of writers from Cicero to Bishop Stubbs have spoken in the loftiest terms of the value of History: "the light of truth and the mistress of life"; "philosophy teaching by examples"; "the great school of truth, reason, and virtue"; "next to theology the most thoroughly religious training that the mind can conceive."
And yet there may be some good reasons why History has always made so strong an appeal both to those who have valued studies that liberalize and elevate the mind, and to those who have sought instruction that might be put to practical use in the business of life.
Probably the majority of those who real History for pleasure do so for the sheer human interest of it. In the lives and characters, achievements and failures, woes and triumphs of past generations of people so similar to themselves in some respects, so different in others, they find a fascination which neither Natural History nor the fictitious characters of literature can equal. "The proper study of mankind is man". History pursued for such reasons may help much to broaden the mind, quicken the imagination, increase one's knowledge of human nature, and free one from the prejudices peculiar to the time and place in which he lives. Macaulay declared: "The real use of traveling in distant countries and of studying the annals of past times is to preserve man from the contraction of mind which those can hardly escape whose whole communion is with one generation and one neighborhood, who arrive at conclusions by means of an induction not sufficiently copious, and who therefore constantly confound exceptions with rules and accidents with essential properties." . . . "The student, like the tourist, is transported into a new state of society. He sees new fashions. He hears new models of expression. His mind is enlarged by contemplating the wide diversities of laws, of morals, and of manners".
Without insisting as much as the older writers did on the moral value of History, it may still be said that Marathon and Thermopylae, Pym and Hampden, the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man will never leave us cold; and that everyone, as Frederic Harrison pointed out, is likely to be the better for knowing something of that science which "teaches us of the advance of human progress, tells us of some of those mighty spirits who have left their mark on all time, shows us the nations of the earth woven together in one great purpose, and is lit up with those great ideas and those great purposes which have kindled the conscience of mankind".
Inculcates "Genetic" Point of View
But probably a more important argument for the study of History is that that study is peculiarly fitted to develop one indispensable habit of thought, one important method of approach to most classes of questions. It inculcates what is sometimes called the "genetic" point of view. It teaches us that almost nothing here below is fixed and static; that growth and decay, change and adjustment are as much the rule in the political, social, and intellectual world as in the physical and biological; and by studying all things as in process of "becoming", by emphasizing the ideas of development, continuity with the past, cause and effect, and the interplay of many different forces--political, economic, social, intellectual, and religious--it not only furnishes a new outlook on many kinds of questions but helps to develop certain habits of observation and reasoning not less essential than those developed by the other sciences. Whatever other subjects a man may study in college, he will generally find it useful to approach them with some knowledge of the historical point of view and of the facts, the background which History can furnish.
To Understand the Present
The second major reason for studying History is that some considerable acquaintance with the past is indispensable for understanding the civilization and problems of the present. It is a mere truism to say that the past is always with us, and that, whatever our attitude towards it may be, we can no more free ourselves from the influence of former generations than an individual can free himself from his own personal identity. And that is not regrettable. Frederic Harrison once drew a picture of the situation in which a set of men would find themselves if they succeeded in sweeping away all the influences of past ages and everything which they themselves had not discovered or produced. His conclusion was that in such a case: "A race with ten times the intellect, twenty times the powers, and fifty times the virtues of any race that ever lived on earth would end within a generation in a state of hopeless barbarism; the earth would return to the days of primeval forests and swamps, and man descend almost to the level of the monkey and the beaver." And he adds: "Now if . . . we are so deeply indebted and so indissolubly bound to past ages, if all our hopes of the future depend on a sound understanding of the past, we cannot fancy any knowledge more important than the knowledge of the way in which this civilization has been built up."
History is "the great channel that conveys to man the past experiences of the race". It is, therefore, as needful to us as social beings as memory is to the individual. . It affords a valuable basis for comparisons between our own civilization and that of past ages, and thus helps us to see the line of development, "the direction in which things are moving". It safeguards us against shallow views of the laws, institutions, beliefs, and customs of our day, which men are often tempted to regard as rooted in the laws of nature or else as senseless and indefensible, by showing us how they arose and became what they are, what human needs and interests they have served, what forces have favored or misguided their development. History may not furnish the statesman with exact solutions for each concrete problem. But it can give him a deeper insight into the nature of political forces; it can train his powers of observation and reflection about political matters; it can supply him with a mass of evidence of how given measures and policies have worked out in the past--the chief kind of experimental data that the social sciences possess; and it can vastly clarify many problems by explaining their origin and the factors that have brought them to their present state.
Some Concrete Suggestions
A few concrete suggestions may not be unwelcome to students who intend to concentrate in History.
It is probably a wise thing to choose at least one course on a period of History rather remote and different from the present age, for the sake of getting a standard of comparison with our own time.
One course at least in American History is highly desirable as a means of preparation for the duties of citizenship.
Finally, students who are thinking of becoming candidates for the Degree with Distinction should plan to take one course "primarily for Graduates", in order to gain a deeper knowledge of one period of History, and to learn more advanced methods of work than can be imparted in the ordinary historical courses