I’ve often said, and heard it said by others, that lots of Americans are interested in history. I’ve decided that’s not true. I think a genuine interest in history is a comparatively rare thing. What we have in this country is, instead, a widespread interest in the past. That may seem like an unnecessary distinction, but I think it’s a crucial one.
History and the past are not synonymous. History is the art and/or science of reconstructing, understanding, and explaining the human past. It’s not the same thing as the past itself; it’s not even necessarily the same as talking or thinking about the past. Humans have been referring to the past and telling stories about it for millennia, but something like actual history—a reasoned and systematic inquiry into the past—is a comparatively more recent phenomenon, going back to Herodotus and Thucydides. In fact, the very word “history” means “inquiry,” and comes from the title of the classic account of the struggle between Greece and Persia by Herodotus. He and Thucydides weren’t the first writers to set down accounts of the past, but they pioneered the practice of trying to make sense of it and explain it. They wanted to understand what happened, and not merely to recount it.
When most people claim to be interested in history, what they actually mean is that they’re interested in its raw materials. The notion of a time filled with dramatic events, colorful characters, and nifty gadgets appeals to them, but the idea of conducting a systematic inquiry into that world doesn’t factor into the equation. Thus books about the past top the bestseller lists, and shows about the past abound on television networks, but these productions neither draw upon nor inculcate a genuine historical sensibility. As often as not, they’re actually detrimental to the historical sensibility of the general public. We’re up to our armpits in information about the past, but much of it is either inaccurate or so superficial and isolated as to be of little use.
This is doubly shameful, because while learning about the past is one of the great benefits of studying history, an equally important benefit is learning how to think. A proper education in history, whether gained in a formal academic setting or by one’s own personal efforts, should nurture useful habits of mind—the ability to digest and make sense of complex information, to appreciate human activity outside the bounds of one’s own time and place, to consider that activity with sympathy but simultaneously with a certain unemotional detachment, and to organize and present one’s conclusions in a persuasive and elegant manner. To understand history is to be better equipped to make sense of reality in all its scope and untidiness. It’s too bad many people who love the past never get to enjoy all the pleasant side effects of grappling with it.