Saturday, 14 March 2009

So what's the point...

...of all this history stuff anyway? It's a question worth asking, even if I'm not necessarily inclined to think that human behaviour has to be obviously practical to be valid. It's more a question of understanding what sort of thing historical research/writing/reading actually is.

Traditional answers to this tend to be of the 'You need to know about the past to know who you are/avoid its mistakes' variety. There may be some truth to this perhaps, but they tend to be points that remain largely unexamined. They're what people have been taught to think about history as a discipline rather than something that comes from an understanding of it.

My approach to the practice of history, and one that I've only settled on in the last couple of years, is that it is essentially a branch of storytelling. Factual storytelling, perhaps, but storytelling nontheless. It weaves isolated (and rather meaningless on their own) facts into coherent wholes whose meanings are created by the historian within a plausible set of perameters. It then presents them as an account of things happening over time. A story, in other words. Or at least, that's my approach for the moment. I'm sure someone will disagree.

But, working from this position, it becomes a lot easier to see the sorts of things that history is for. After all, what are stories for in general? Entertainment, teaching moral or other lessons, helping to construct or reinforce an identity, more entertainment, making a point about the way we think about things, and so on.

The interesting thing is that generally no-one seems to question the usefulness of stories. Compare that to the 'history is a waste of time' brigade and the contrast is obvious. Does a story cease to fulfil its useful functions just because it A: happens to be about the past and B: happens to fit within a range of possibilities presented by surviving evidence? Of course not. It just makes it remarkably awkward to research.

5 comments:

englishcoach said...

I'm certainly not going to disagree. Having recently started doing History a bit more seriously, I discover to my satisfaction that what's required is what I always did in Lit: text analysis. Put text in context, note who is writing it, examine the structure, the expressions used, how the text works, interpret. If the method is the same, maybe the function is too.
And stories are essential. They're what we are.
Karen

Alex Moore said...

ahhh what great questions... i'm beginning to think that history matters little, even when we study it. we seem doomed to repeat every darned mistake ever committed; knowing and understanding history only makes the pain more unbearable when one watches one's country/gov't/world hurtle towards certain doom. growl. oh to be the kind of person soothed by burying head in sand...

stu said...

Karen, a lot of the methods are the same, though possibly you're often working with piecemeal stuff more than full works. And 'texts' often has to be interpreted pretty broadly if you're going to take in bits of oral history, archaeology, statistics and so forth.

Alex, possibly the reason that we repeat mistakes is that we choose what lesson we're getting before we write the history.

Peter said...

So true.. there is an appaling lack of interest, neigh, resistence to history in Western culture that I don't understand... wonder why..?

Lauren said...

I was homeschooled (explains so much, I know) and my mother had been a history major in college so our studies were a bit history heavy. She used to say the same thing: history is about stories. The events are interesting, but it is people who are the catalysts and shapers of the events.