This question is more complicated than it sounds. In fact, it has several answers.
A short answer could be that history is a set of different but related evidence-based ways of studying and sharing the past. But history is not equal to the past, and the past is not the same as ‘history’.
This short answer offers neither the clarity nor the richness of a longer answer. So, let’s explore in more detail.
How do we interact with the past?
To explore what history is we first need to reflect on how we can study the past via the historical items that remain intact to this day.
Physical artifacts and remains
By its nature, the past is ‘gone’. However, the past lingers on in different ways. Around us, we can find physical remains and artifacts from the past. Remains made by humans and nature. Often, we may not realise that we are surrounded by continuous negotiations of past and present every day.
For example, nature has made coastal, rural, and urban landscapes, plants and trees and so on. Humans of the past left behind artifacts, cemeteries, buildings and ruins, art, and so on. These remains hold the past.
We still be see and feel the legacy of the past in modern society, even though some of physical artifacts may be gone. These intangible aspects affect us in a variety of ways, such as instilling societal norms, values and beliefs into the social construct of the world we live in.
We also engage the past through what Jan Assmann calls ‘communicative memory’, which we create and communicate though our own personal, familial or communal ties and networks. Think of how we remember our school, family birthdays, parenthood etc. Some will call this ‘(in) living memory’.
Yet, the ways in which we remember these parts of our past are also informed in ways we may and may not realise by what Jan Assmann calls ‘cultural memory’ (1995).
In Assmann’s understanding, ‘cultural memory’ is the collective ways in which we remember parts of the past through different vehicles of, for example, national politics, architecture, popular culture, literature, media and more recently digital media and social networks. Though we may not ourselves have experienced those events.
Think, for example, of how both communicative and cultural memories across Great Britain differ from those within the nations of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England and how each nation expresses, celebrates and preserves the past differently.
Or how different communities around the world remember the violence, racism, and exploitation of the British Empire in different ways.
Neither the communicative memories nor the cultural memories of, for example, the many different First Nations and Torres Straits Islanders in Australia will be like those of the White settler communities with enormous differences in terms of what is remembered and how.
Lastly, we also engage with the past by way of the evidence-based academic disciplines of archaeology and history to study the past.
So, history is one of many ways we engage the past.
Why it’s important to study history
Engaging with the past through history is important on several levels for both individuals and society.
For individuals, studying or engaging with the past through history research (whether writing or reading them), visiting museums or taking history classes can lead to several different outcomes.
Appreciate the past
For many, doing history, whether via courses, museum visits or reading books, brings pleasure in learning about and appreciating the past, pure and simple.
No doubt, learning more about histories of genocide, colonial violence, enslavement, gendered violence during war and large-scale violent political repression will not be comfortable.
However, doing so will allow us take on parts of the past that linger on into the present and often cause intergenerational trauma and require transnational and/or societal understanding, reconciliation, restoration and compensation but often fails to be addressed.
Broaden your horizons
Doing history in one form of the other often also brings new understanding and knowledge about particular periods, places, topics, which in turn both build general awareness and expand our ‘comfort zone’.
Whatever the topic, period and place being explored, engaging with history is also likely to lead to new questions and curiosity and perhaps even changed assumptions and broadened horizons.
Build analytical skills
Many will also notably enhance their analytical faculties and critical thinking skills as they engage with history in its many forms.
For example, by studying history we can ponder about how we separate past and present. Who has the right to call something ‘past’ and ‘gone’? Particularly when the past was painful, and the memory of it persists and impacts on ‘the present’.
Better democratic engagement / understand politics and current events
In addition to this, history is also important for society as a whole.
Strengthening the analytical faculties of our society’s citizens will contribute to the functioning of democracy overall. There are several examples of history we could label timely or socially relevant today.
Recently, we have seen histories of Russia and China making the bestseller lists, reflecting their growing importance in global politics.
Another example of socially relevant history could be courses and books on climate change and how they generate new awareness of the links between past, present and future. We now see more and more environmental histories embedded within, for example, global and imperial history and in turn create knowledge on not only but particularly the Western fossil fuel paradigm that, as it was amended and globalised, came to be the driving force behind what we now call the Anthropocene and accordingly climate change.
British historian John Tosh, puts it best with this quote:
What history teaching can do is pass onto the students the intellectual tools they need in order to understand the changing world around them. These tools are not primarily the generic skills of argument and analysis that many historians regard as their discipline’s main claim to relevance. These are the ability to apply historical perspectives and to know what are the historically literate questions to ask of any topical issue which calls for understanding in depth.
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