What’s the use of studying history?

The following reflection on what history is “for” comes from the conclusion of the three Cook Lectures delivered in 1990 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, by G. R. Elton, the celebrated historian of Tudor England. The lectures were published in his Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991). (This passage is found on pp. 72–73.)

Elton takes issue with those who argue that the study of history allows us to discover the “laws” that govern human social organization and behaviour—laws that should be used to devise new and better schemes of government and economic regulation. Anyone who has really grappled with the facts of history, Elton argues, will see that such a view is both childish and dangerous. History, he says, gives us a chance to “grow up” and learn to carry ourselves wisely in a world that is fundamentally unpredictable.

Sir Geoffrey Rudolph Elton (1921–1994), Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge. Image source: artuk.org

Human beings learn primarily from experience; if they are to think and act profitably—with positive and useful results—they need as wide a vision of the possibilities contained in any given situation and any present assembly of other human beings as they can acquire. An individual experience, of course, is always limited and commonly distorted by prejudice and self-interest: what men and women need is an enlarged experience against which to measure the effect of those disadvantages.

That experience is made available by the historian presenting the past in all its variety and potential, and all of it divorced from the immediate needs and concerns of the present. History provides the laboratory in which human experience is analysed, distilled and bottled for use. The so-called lessons of history do not teach you to do this or that now; they teach you to think more deeply, more completely, and on the basis of an enormously enlarged experience about what it may be possible or desirable to do now.

One of the most useful lessons so taught precisely contradicts what predicting historians would like to extract from our labours. Instead of telling us that certain conditions can be shown, from past experience, to lead to certain assured consequences, history for ever demonstrates the unexpectedness of the event and so instils a proper scepticism in the face of all those vast and universal claims. A knowledge of the past should arm a man against surrendering to the panaceas peddled by too many myth-makers.

This is known as growing up—outgrowing the arrogance of adolescence which, guided by moral principles unchecked by experience, will impose on suffering mankind the solution promoted by ignorance joined to faith. By enormously enlarging personal experience, history can help us to grow up—to resist those who, with good will or ill, would force us all into the straitjackets of their supposed answers to the problems of existence.

Thus I will burden the historian with preserving human freedom, freedom of thought and freedom of action, a burden he bears because he knows what happened before when supposedly inescapable schemes of thought and action were forced upon people.

Understand the past in its own terms and convey it to the present in terms designed to be comprehended. And then ask those willing to listen to attend to the real lessons of the past, the lessons which teach us to behave as adults, experienced in the ways of the world, balanced in judgement, and sceptical in the face of all the miracle-mongers.

Elton’s description of “the arrogance of adolescence” cuts close to the bone. My own adolescent self was indeed “guided by moral principles unchecked by experience—principles that I tried with passionate intensity to impose on those around me, until experience taught me that I couldn’t even live up to them myself. It is fortunate that we are rarely in a position to impose our wills on the world!