Why We Study History

It’s interview season in Oxford. The place is always strange around this time – the nights have drawn in, the weather is cold, and an army of awkward-looking teenagers can be seen, nervously clutching paper maps of the City, trying desperately not to get lost.

The History interviews are now over, and this is the first time in eight years that I’ve not been involved. And to be honest I miss it, a bit. Interviewing potential Oxford historians is a tough task – difficult decisions have to be made in order to select candidates from a pool of excellent students. Of course, the interview itself is only part of the process – candidates come to the city with GCSE and AS Results already achieved, A-levels predicted, essays submitted, the History Aptitude Test taken. The interview is an important part of the selection process, but it is only a part of it. Something the press usually forget.

The reason I’ve not been doing it this year, for the first time in ages, is that the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education doesn’t run a BA. We have undergraduate courses, but we’ve not (yet) set up a part-time undergraduate degree. But I was reminded of my time as a college interviewer the other day when a student on our fantastic MSc in English Local History posted something on our online discussion forum about how we justify the study of History. Why should we – in these times of austerity – continue to fund research into societies long gone? Why should intelligent people (as some historians are) spend their time looking at the lives of obscure humans long dead?

It’s exactly the kind of question we used to ask in undergraduate interviews.

And whenever I asked it, I could pretty much predict the answer. History, said the young, nervous candidate, gave us lessons for present. History repeats itself.

But it doesn’t, does it? Ever. History shows us that events are always unique; societies change. Medieval folk thought about their worlds in very different ways to the ways we do. We could try and learn lessons from our past, but in the face of the chasm of social change between the past and the present, those lessons are meaningless.

Candidates would often be quite surprised to hear a diatribe like this. The last person they would expect to see dismissing History in such a manner was the professional historian sat opposite them. But it was a credit to the candidates that the discussion that ensued was often fascinating. Anyone who thinks our schools are going down the drain and failing our brightest students should sit in on a few Oxbridge interviews, where candidates from all kinds of schools engage in intelligent and thoughtful discussion, rarely – in fact – about Hitler or Stalin. And it’s often those from the comprehensives who are the most imaginative thinkers.

My argument, though, was pretty much always the same. What makes the distant past so valuable is exactly its distance. It’s the fact that it is so different to our own society: different values, different ideas, different technologies, that is so important. For this difference means that the distant past can hold up a mirror to our own times. In other words, we can never know what is distinctive about our own, modern world, if we don’t compare it to societies past. He that knows only the present, does not the present know.

It’s a subject I’ve written about in much more detail here. I also spoke at a Radio 3 event on it back in November 2012, at which I was asked – with no sense of irony – whether I was a Marxist, even though I’d just spoken at length about how I thought History never repeated itself.

So this post is partly a lazy one, linking back to a piece I wrote some time ago (my excuse is that I’m finishing off my book). But it’s also an issue that – thanks to the annual cycle of college interviews – is coming up year after year.

Mostly because it’s such a fascinating one.

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