What is the purpose of history?

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History is an often complex and valuable subject – but often it is misunderstood (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

History is often seen as a subject having little or no importance to modern society, however, such a belief can be discredited when we look deeper into the value that history provides. It is crucial that history is not just seen through the realm of the past, but also the present and the future, as this is where its true significance is realised. The study of the past lends us most importantly to be able to understand our modern world and without it, our view of the present would be fragmented without seeing the events before it. Furthermore, another key aspect of history is that it allows societies to work towards a better future, often by recognising mistakes of the past and taking measures in the present to establish the foundations for a better future.

One thing that is crucial to consider is that history is far more than just a basic and perfectly objective record of the past. Although records of the past do form the very foundation of history, they do not necessarily provide much value or use to individuals. Knowing basic dates and facts like the Tet Offensive starting on the 31st January 1968 are only valuable if they are put in the context of a bigger historical period through certain perspectives. If we actually view this single event in the context of the whole Second Indochina War (Vietnam War), it is clear that the date marked the start of an important turning point in the war, as the Tet Offensive caused the Americans to change their policy in Vietnam to Vietnamisation, which sparked the gradual decline of the South Vietnamese regime and contributed heavily to their eventual defeat. By taking an overarching, retrospective perspective, we are able to make the the sole historical date far more meaningful. Yes to some extent, this perspective is not perfectly objective, but history is comprised of a range of different subjective, understandings of events that explain them in various ways, and thus, absolute objectivity is realistically impossible. Rather, the perspectives and explanations of events that tend to be part of history are the ones that are most accepted and logically sufficient. By considering history in this light, it is far more meaningful and can truly add some value to events, personalities and societies. If we look at the importance of Tet after the war, we can draw links, such as that future US intervention overseas had to more carefully take into account the power of the media and social trends (such as counterculture in the ‘60s), especially as Tet was a major psychological defeat.

Once we take into consideration that history is more than just a record of the past, it is easier to find its purpose, or rather, its purposes. Firstly, history is crucial to understanding modern day society, as without seeing the past, it people are left with an incomplete image of the present. It is the chain of cause and effect up to the present that must be recognised in order to build a complete link between the past and now, but once it is realised, history shows one of its key purposes. For example, the multicultural society in Australia of today can be seen as a clear product of Whitlam’s abolition of the remaining parts of the White Australia policy and supporting an open policy of multiculturalism. Therefore, in order to see the full extent of current human societies, one must take a look into the past and draw links to what is seen now.

Another important purpose of history is to learn from the past and apply it in the present to attempt to build the basis for a better future. While this may seem idealistic when considering that all historical periods do have their negative runs, it has in the past been applied in a range of situations. It has been seen with the establishment of the League of Nations following World War I and the United Nations (UN) after World War II, both of which, had been created with similar aims to deal with global issues, especially those that potentially threaten world peace. Also, the UN took lessons from the failures of the League of Nations to establish a better future foundation for the organisation, which was seen with their improved representation of global powers in the post-WWII era. Notably, history can be very valuable, as by using lessons from the past, there is always potential to improve the future.
On a final note, history will always be useful, but only if one really considers it in light of the present and the future.


EXTRA NOTE: This post summed up my general thoughts on history and historiography. It was partially inspired by E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, which is a great book on historiography that I  recommend if you haven’t seen it already.

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