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What is History?

Quite a while back I annoyed the readers of this site with a long series of quotations:  “What is History?” My intent was to provide thought on the vast and complicated question of how we understand and best make use of the past.

As a kind of belated conclusion to that series, I quote myself—with a  few ideas about “history” that I have promulgated from time to time. I make no claim that my ideas are original. Probably all of them have been said before and better:

The great poet and classicist A.E. Housman remarked that a scholar searching into the past is not like a scientist examining a specimen under a microscope, but more like a dog scratching for fleas.

This is an example of tough historical thinking (than which nothing is more truly “relevant” to the present) such as we would have taken for granted half a century ago as widespread among those training in the vocation. But it is rare in this day when a weird combination of deterministic social science, on the one hand, and uncritical romanticism toward favoured causes, on the other, dominates historical writing and teaching.

In my own observation the corps of professional historians are far gone in esoterica and onanism, perhaps too far to return. Certainly it will take a long time, given the slowness of institutional change (in no discipline slower than in history) and the tendency of academic mediocrity to nurture and reproduce itself. Never have historians had more influence and never have they been so remote from the common body of citizens.

History repeats itself—but not exactly.

Statistics can help us establish some empirical facts, but there is no really important question in history to which the answer is a number.

One of the few certain things one learns from history is that nobody can predict the future.

Character is destiny, and that is as true of peoples as of persons.

It is quite possible to write a history in which the facts presented are accurate but the story told is false. It happens all the time.

People have a genuine desire to know the truth, but it is not as strong a priority as other desires.

We should never under-estimate the power of inertia and cultural lag in public life.

If we obeyed the injunction to speak no ill of the dead, we could write no history. I think the admonition must originate in paganism—to speak ill of the dead might bring their reprisal. It was not so much a rule for good conduct as a warning to avoid bad vibes. I have always thought it was morally dubious advice. Evils often live beyond the lives of those who perpetrate them and need to be condemned.

Among American academic historians one can make a celebrated new interpretation by simply pointing out the obvious. Most  never see what is there until it is showed to them. They believe they have shown superior wisdom by memorising the currently fashionable idea of what is supposed to be there.

Something of the moral condition of the academic profession of history today is illustrated by the number of plagiarists who are among the most celebrated and highly-paid.

Honest history is one of the many casualties of the ethnic spoils competition that now dominates American society.

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson

Clyde N. Wilson is a contributing editor to Chronicles. A retired professor of history at the University of South Carolina, he is the author of numerous books, including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew and Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture. He is the editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun.

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