Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bad History

Matthew Reisz speaks to the issue of "lessons" to be learned from history in his piece titled "Past Mistakes" from the Times Higher Education. He quotes Miri Rubin, professor of medieval and early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London:

"Studying other times and places is not a search for 'rules' or 'formulae of historical dynamics' - although patterns can be discerned - but equips us with cases of human action that offer alternatives or critiques of the present ways of dealing with fundamentally similar challenges and aspirations: for safety, for support, for friendship, for order, for understanding beginnings and ends."

Reisz then quotes lecturer Ruth Harris from the University of Oxford:

"there is no direct application of historical research to the tasks of policymakers. Occasionally, a history of banking or recent foreign policy might provide easy, transparent lessons. But the 'big' lessons are harder to extract."

After featuring the perspectives of a few other historians on this question, Reisz writes:

"So history may (or may not) be useful in all these different and complex ways. But now we turn to an area where historians can certainly make a difference - exposing some of the daft arguments that government ministers and their critics constantly come up with." Further: "It is part of the historian's job to point out that things weren't quite as simple as is usually claimed."

Reisz's article is the first in a newly-revived series, Bad History.


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