Why Society Needs Historians

‘Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.’

Thus spake Patrick Johnston, Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, in a newspaper interview on 30 May this year.

In doing so, he not only proved the old adage that ‘To err is human, but to really foul things up requires Management’, but he also singlehandedly alienated half of his staff, and pretty much the whole historical profession.

Johnston, it must be remembered, was an oncologist before going into university leadership, so he’s one of the Good Guys. He deserves our respect.

But this doesn’t stop this being stupid, philistine, nonsense. A university VC who doesn’t understand what the humanities do would be like an England football manager who doesn’t understand the point of strikers. And I’m pretty sure we’re about to find out what a disaster that can be.

His ‘apology’ simply claimed we’d misunderstood him by reading his Actual Words, which suggests he either misspoke, or thinks all historians are idiots who don’t ‘really understand how to analyse things’. Ahem.

So why is he so wrong? Why do we need history and historians? Like you gotta ask. But since you’re here…


1. So long as history is part of the public conversation, we’ll always be needed.

Anyone noticed how much politicians and commentators have argued over history of late? Well, who do you think has to call them out on their bullshit? Yep, you guessed it…

Every time Ken Livingstone suggests that Hitler was a Zionist, we need historians to point out that he really, really wasn’t. Every time the Daily Mail gets worked up about a BBC show that has people in the past having sex, we need (it seems) historians to point out that people in the past sometimes did do this. Every time the Guardian goes on a rant about enclosure, or the Telegraph about the constitution, it’s historians who correct them.

We’re custodians of the human experience: a Thin Tweed Line between politicians, journalists, and their abuse of the past. Imagine the chaos if we weren’t there. Unthinkable.

2. It’s the skills, stupid….

Patrick Johnston’s interview comments were so daft you could fill them with bristles and call them a brush, but the silliest moment of all was probably when he dissed the analytical skills of 6th century historians. Historians? Do analysis? Well. I. Never.

Of course that’s precisely what we do. But it’s more than that. What we analyse is profoundly alien to the modern world, which means we are forced – effectively – to analyse in the abstract. And so, for exactly this reason, the skills of a 6th century historian are probably more useful to the 21st century than those of a modernist.

If people like Johnston had their way, we’d all be learning skills that are immediately ‘relevant’ to the world in 2016. The trouble is, there’s no guarantee that the skills we need today will still be relevant in 2036, or even 2026.

The world is changing. Fast. If you can learn to analyse the distant past, then this explicitly makes you comfortable with the unfamiliar. And if there’s one thing we’ll need to get familiar with in the coming decades, it’s the unfamiliar.

And sure, there are other ways of learning abstract skills, but some people just like the 6th century. This is where their passion lies. They find it more fascinating than geography, or sociology, or 16th century history. I mean, perish the thought you might find something of interest in the century of Empress Theodora, the Justinian Plague, Aryabhata and the Prophet Muhammad…

The Past. Weird.

3. … which brings me to my next point: History is interesting.

There is a huge, huge market for history. Everyone who reads Wolf Hall, who watches Roots, who visits a National Trust property, who researches their family tree, or even who looks at an old cottage and thinks, ‘ooh that’s tremendously interesting’, is consuming history. I don’t know what the subject contributes to GDP, I suspect it’s not even measurable. But I do know that the subject, and knowledge of it, contributes vast amounts to people’s enjoyment of and interest in the world. Historians facilitate this. Without this, we’d all be immeasurably poorer. And that’s to say nothing of the artists, the novelists, the filmmakers, even the musicians, who’ve been inspired by knowledge of the past.

I’m sticking my neck out a bit here, but I suspect that our contribution to human happiness doesn’t compare completely unfavourably to that of University Vice Chancellors.

4. And finally: history is Important.

There’s a famous quotation by George Santayana which annoys me a bit. It annoys me because I don’t actually think history repeats itself. There’s been a long, complicated story of social, cultural, and political change which means that no past situation is ever truly analogous to one today. Learning the ‘lessons’ of the past can be dangerous. Just because the Germans got bogged down in northern France in 1914, didn’t mean they would again in 1940.

But… history’s all about comparisons. They that know only the present, do not the present know. If we only look at our own world, we won’t notice the way some things are unusual to  it. We might think that something about us is ‘natural’, ‘common sense’, or ‘only human’, whereas in fact it’s historically distinctive. We only learn this stuff by looking at other, distant, alien societies. In fact, maybe 6th century historians can tell us more about ourselves than many 21st century commentators and ‘leaders’ can.

And not only this. History isn’t the study of the past. It’s the science of humanity. All, literally all, human experience, literally everything Homo sapiens has ever done, is contained in the past. History is our curriculum vitae and our criminal record as a species.

Historians are essential. And I reckon we’ll be here long after university managers have joined the ranks of astrologers, alchemists and pardoners as relics of a distant age.

Grueze Facepalm


44 Comments Add yours

  1. Tiffany says:

    This is brilliant, Jon. Truly. You rock.

  2. persnicketythecat says:

    Such good points! I often wondered myself what the whole point is, even though I love history myself!

  3. This is the first time I’ve ever wanted to hit the LIKE button more than once. Fabulous! 🐾

  4. tmezpoetry says:

    Nice article! History is part of humanity’s evolving social conscience and memory. While is a weak area for me because of my own lack of memory retention, I love watching period pieces and trying to understand different times and cultures.

  5. First the scientists trashed philosophy, now they’re trashing history. Okay, I exaggerate, but as someone who works in science communication, I have found that many scientists have little knowledge of the history of their own fields or the philosophical foundations and implications of their research practices and outcomes. And as the replication crisis shows—and the recent methodological reflection on p-values—they often have imperfect knowledge about how to design experiments. An understanding of the epistemology of science should produce profound humility. I happened to read C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures this week, a book that is little read but often summarized as a scientist’s critique of literary blindness; yet it thrums with the necessity of history to scientific progress.

    You should footnote the Basil Brush allusion—most non Brits will be lost.

  6. emgallows says:

    Reblogged this on emgallows and commented:
    Well written and I quite agree. Humans need their history.

  7. busygreenmum says:

    Reading the quote out of context I presumed he was saying those were exactly the skills you get from being a 6th century (or any other period) historian but presumably he wasn’t. These are evidently useful and quite transferable skills.

    1. akamran2014 says:

      That’s what I got from the quote as well. But I loved the post anyway — you had me at “a Thin Tweed Line” 😉

  8. Very interesting points raised here. Enjoyed the read. By the way a few years ago it was revealed that the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch reflected what the majority thought of the Hapsburgs’ rule in the Netherlands and not just his mad thoughts: ‘The Past. Weird’ – I agree

  9. EMC says:

    A little bit of sarcasm but a great article overall and I loved this point:
    “The world is changing. Fast. If you can learn to analyse the distant past, then this explicitly makes you comfortable with the unfamiliar. And if there’s one thing we’ll need to get familiar with in the coming decades, it’s the unfamiliar.”

  10. Heather says:

    Great piece (but please – it’s Homo sapiens, not Homo Sapiens).

  11. A.J. Sefton says:

    Excellent piece. So many people do not see the point of history and it’s worrying. I was a secondary school history teacher and always began the year by explaining the importance of history. Sadly, the principal did not understand the significance of the subject. He said a degree in history was a ‘wishy-washy’ degree and useless.He cut the lessons to one a fortnight. It somehow escaped him that the skills needed to be a good historian were the same skills for leadership – analysis, interpretation, evaluation, organisation, development and change.

    ‘The science of humanity.’ Brilliant.

  12. A.J. Sefton says:

    Reblogged this on A.J. Sefton and commented:
    Everyone should read this…

  13. joezias says:

    Here in the Middle East, history does repeat itself, in the words of Abba Eban, ‘the future of Israel is the past repeating itself’- unfortunately.

  14. Domenico Bolledi says:

    Reblogged this on Diario di un realista ribelle.

  15. Elena Vasilescu says:

    No doubt we need to know our history and that historians are important – they record the events happening to people as theologians acknowledge what happens to their souls.
    A very good writings!
    Have really enjoyed it!

  16. Morville says:

    It’s ingrained Thatcherism – you don’t need historians, philosophers, artists, historians, librarians etc, because from them there’s no quantifiable organizational income generation. We’re moving towards money makers = societal value. Move to Asia: they work to the bigger picture, historians welcome.

  17. art askey says:

    da uncle says: rely on “scientific method” for gaining our truths.

  18. Gohar Aslam says:

    Excellent piece of writing. I am aghast that a university VC mocks historians. We need to stand up and valiantly defend humanities primarily history against the onslaught of science and technology bullies. Hats off to the author of this article.

  19. Tim Lacy says:

    Reblogged this on Thinking Through History and commented:
    Well done, Jonathan Healey!

  20. An awful lot of words and some nice pictures. However, I was looking for some calculations to figure out if we needed to increase the number of historians we produce (as they are clearly so useful), but couldn’t find that. Silly me.

  21. Excellent!

    Thank you!

  22. LisaSimpson says:

    I enjoyed the article very much, but just wanted to toss this out there for consideration. In defense of the oncologist, most likely the only history classes he ever took were at an undergrad level. I don’t know how they do it in Belfast, but in the US, undergrad history courses are basically exercises in regurgitation. You read. You listen. You write papers and answer essay questions showing that you remembered all you read and heard. The end. You don’t analyze history! You read it and spit it back for good grades and possibly a chance at a teaching job where you get to do the talking to elementary & high school students.

    So while the 21 year old who got his 4 year degree majoring in 6th C history might be able to toss out some interesting factoids at cocktail parties, it is no indication that this same 21 year old has any capacity for analysis or critical thinking. Now, put that student through the rigors of higher degrees and then maybe you have something. I would posit that an undergraduate degree (which you would receive generally at age 21) does not create critical thinkers. At least in the US. Perhaps that was the point. University history programs targeted at the undergraduate audience should be making sure that its students are not simply memorizing information and spitting it back, but beginning to do the sort of critical thinking and analysis that you discuss in your article. Just a thought.

    1. Different system to the US: Johnston did not do a liberal arts degree prior to medicine—medicine is a five/six-year undergraduate degree in Ireland and the UK. His only exposure to history would have been secondary school, with the possibility that he dropped the subject at age 15/16. Similarly, a single hono(u)rs history degree would be three/four years of nothing but history, so the depth of knowledge and analysis, would, in theory, be higher than a US undergrad who just majored in history.

  23. Tiffany says:

    Spot on, Trevor. Also, speaking as an American who did complete an undergrad History degree there (at a State Uni, even), very few of my history ‘profs’ would have given me ‘good grades’ had I simply read the material and ‘spit it back’ to them.

    Frankly, in my experience, it was the undergrad courses in sciences/maths that were simple exercises in regurgitation…yet, somehow, I know those subjects foster great critical thinking skills the higher you go…

    1. The grad level courses in history and philosophy I took in the U.S. (also open to senior sophs) were terrific.

  24. I came late to history. The most useful thing I’ve learned from primary source research into early 19C Chancery cases is that when doctors give me conflicting advice, it doesn’t mean that some are right and some are wrong. It means there’s a reason why they disagree.

  25. I came late to history. The most important thing I’ve learned from primary source research into early-nineteenth-century Chancery cases is that when doctors give me conflicting advice, it doesn’t mean that some of them are right and some of them are wrong. It means there’s a reason why they disagree.

  26. kanikamontha says:

    I really love this point, “But… history’s all about comparisons. They that know only the present, do not the present know. If we only look at our own world, we won’t notice the way some things are unusual to it.[…]”
    This article is perfect.

  27. Glory-June Greiff says:

    Thank you for explaining even better I ever manage why I do what I do! I am a public (read: social, cultural) historian here in the Midwest US. I have given lively presentations only be asked afterward “Wull, dang, what’s your day job?” Sigh.

  28. G Wade Carmichael says:

    As an History-ologist the importance of the history of history is abundantly clear as presentations are prepared on a wide range of topics. As students of these presentations are reminded, any history is written of a time, by an individual at another time, for an audience whose context is within a time. The author/historian invariably has a narrative objective beyond a dispassionate chronicle of events, and for these reasons the works of multiple historians, as well as divergent or collateral data sources, are important to better understanding of today.

    A challenge to many historians is recognizing history as an art form rather than a science. History itself recognizes history as one of the seven arts of Greece, and the oft cited earliest “history” is a poem by Homer.

  29. David Brooks says:

    “Thin Tweed Line!!!!!!” – Gold!

  30. drppsmithgoo says:

    Thank you. I cheered. But I still can’t think of a justification for the existence of the book I am currently reviewing. Some products of historians just don’t do the profession justice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s