If you follow me on Twitter (a highly recommended form of procrastination), you will know that I recently had to express my indignation over an eavesdropped conversation.
It went something like this:
(names fabricated to protect the identity if the real people… and I can’t remember them).
Scientist Bob: “Historical Dave. You study history. What is the point of it? I mean it doesn’t help anyone.”
Historical Dave: “Scientist Bob you have chosen the wrong day to challenge me on this one. I have just had a seminar on this very subject!”
Scientist Bob: “Yeah, but academics are just justifying their own existence! You can’t really think that your degree would lead to actually being able to improve the world? I propose that history is the preserve of only affluent societies with cash to spare and that it is little more a glorified past-time. It won’t help anyone in the future and essentially you are just re-writing and re-wording everything a historian has already said. I mean eventually, you are just going to run out of stuff.”
Historical Dave: “Yeah, Scientist Bob. I suppose you’re right. I mean I think we are still making history. I mean technically the beginning of this conversation is history to us. We just wouldn’t study it. AND there is an awful lot of information in the twentieth century that we have to dig through and that will be true for historians who study us. But yeah, it doesn’t really have a purpose. Haha.”
Engaging dialogue eh. Well you have to ignore the limitations of my ability to write convincing prose, and the fact that much like Thucydides, Herodotus and Tacitus, you are reading an approximation of the conversation rather than a transcript. Nonetheless there is a worrying precedent being set here, One in which Historical Dave rather let the side, and his seminar group, down. You will have to imagine, dear readers, the indignation with which I drank my coffee. Paralysed by my embarrassment plus a mouth full of cheese and pickle sandwich.
But, this is not a conversation that I am new to. In fact I had it fairly frequently at university, particularly in my first year. Funnily enough there is often invariably a scientist (without wanting to overly generalise) involved somewhere on the opposing side. The argument always stems from some misplaced belief that science takes a president over history (and some of the other humanities and social sciences generally) because, and this is the real gem, science actually ‘helps’ in advancing the common cause of humanity to the great and distant beyond we know as the future. I feel that, if you are reading this blog, I am rather preaching to the converted.
Ultimately, to the normal thinking person with better friends, the argument is non-nonsensical. Of course some research has direct and obvious benefit to people. Some clearly doesn’t and some won’t be until a few years hence when suddenly the Zeitgeist and we desperately need that knowledge. Much like Meryl Streep’s dispassionate monologue in that classic of cinema; ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ if you think that it has nothing to do with you, then you’d be very much mistaken. Cinema of course itself being another industry where history has some kind of influence. The 2014 film ‘Exodus’ (reviewed here) brought in an opening $24,115,934.
But, next time, I will just play Billy Joel and flounce out the room as all self-respecting historians should.
*hit it Billy*