Every Thursday I have a historical methodology seminar-like class. So far, we have only examined medieval historiography, but we always end up discussing contemporary issues concerning the writing of history. I came out of the most recent discussion feeling somewhat pessimistic about the prospective course of my life. We delved into some excellent issues and had some very enriching discussions about the historian’s supposed purpose. One point stuck out in my mind, and is the basis for this post: if history is the pursuit of Truth about the past, isn’t the historian’s job inherently antisocial? As it goes without saying that no historian – or indeed anyone – can ever reach an objective truth about anything, it is, fundamentally, the historian’s duty to continuously destroy old myths by replacing them with new ones that supposedly offer a ‘better’ interpretation of the past. Do I really want to be a historian if my job is, when it comes down to it, to make people less comfortable with the accepted views of the past? Good historians have to be anarchists. Do I want to be an anarchist?
I understand that in many cases clarifying the past for people is useful for their own edification. But it’s difficult to reconcile a mentality that it’s all for the greater good without feeling like it’s just being nitpicky. I can certainly see how some view the quest for historical truths as being an antisocial activity. One example to support this immediately comes to my mind: my neighbors from across the street in South Hadley visited Scotland a few years ago. When they came back, they told my family all about it, and how they especially liked Stirling, where they saw William Wallace’s sword! I almost said ‘well, that isn’t really his sword...’ but thought the better of it. Millions of people have seen that sword and believe it to be authentic – is it my job to tell them it’s not? Should it matter? I suppose that that’s a rather benign example, because were it widely publicized that the sword on display at the Wallace Monument isn’t actually Braveheart’s, I don’t think it would radically change anyone’s worldview. But you get my point. A slightly more potent example is that Churchill never actually delivered some of his most famous speeches during the ‘dark days’ of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. An actor was hired to impersonate him on the radio, possibly because he was drunk. Should everyone know that? Does it matter?
What is the purpose of history, really?