Historians en masse say that History is the study of the past and change over time. This is misguided. While I have previously written about this topic (History, intertextuality, and how Barack Obama has influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not the other way around and The Nature of History and the History of History), I have a few thoughts on my mind this evening and would like to start a conversation about them.
History is the study of the present because:
1. we see, understand, and interpret the world according to the everyday world in which we live – fully or even partially escaping it is impossible
2. interpretations change over time – if History where the study of the past, interpretations wouldn’t really change that much
3. we subjectively define events and periods and chronologies
4. historical memory looks at how most people, even scholars, understand the past, especially events for which they have little familiarity
5. the evidence we save, deem important, and use is subjective according to then-popular mores and/or what has survived the test of time
6. versions of the past taught by institutions are heavily, heavily censored and shaped
7. the past is, simply, inaccessible
If History were simply the study of the past and society was comfortable with studying the past, we wouldn’t have the textbook debates we do and wouldn’t have the very important field of historical memory (per se). If History were simply the study of the past, we would have ready access to the past – in this way, the aim of studying the past is impossible, as we can’t keep careful details of how billions and billions of creatures have lived.
Elsewhere I have argued that there is no such thing as “the present” – that everything is “the past” or “the future.” I still stand by this, but for purposes of this blog and given the lack of appropriate words in English, I’ll have to stick with using “the present” in various ways, depending on the purpose at that time.
What thoughts do you have?