Monthly Archives: August 2013

What is the Point of History?

For my entire academic life, I have been interested in history.  More than any other subject in middle school, high school, or as an undergraduate, history has been the one subject that I have delighted in and excelled at.  However, almost as every seemingly-devout Christian will question his or her faith, I wondered what I hoped to gain as a student of history.  For this reason, I took the LSAT, minored in environmental studies, and seriously considered attending law school, at least as a student of law there was a relevance and a goal to accomplish, I thought.  Even after I decided to seek graduate study in history, my doubt on the importance of studying history nagged at me.  Thus, the chapter entitled “The Uses of History” in Tosh’s The Pursuit of History finally showed me the point of studying history and may possibly be the most important and reasurring works I have ever read in the study of history.

Throughout the chapter, I thought Tosh did a remarkable job of analyzing all of the possible routes for a scholar of history to take.  Not speaking to particular subject matter, like East Asian history or study of the causes and consequences of the American Revolution, Tosh confronts how historians see themselves in the academy and view the purpose of thier scholarship.

As a graduate student just embarking on a career in history, this is so relevant.  We must understand why we are doing what we are doing and what we hope to accomplish.  We may write some of the best papers, make some of the best arguments, and forever leave our mark on Virginia Tech’s history department (for better or for worse!), but if we do not understand the reasons for our actions, how can we ever feel confident that our choice to pursue historical scholarship matters?

More specifically, I thought Tosh did a wonderful job of exposing some of the myths of historical scholarship, such as the idea that history repeats itself, that history tells us what we need to know about the future.  I think understanding such myths separate the amateur historian from what we hope to become as professionals.  For it is much too easy to use history as incontrovertible evidence to explain present phenomena.