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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Use of History

The Use of History
by A.L. Rowse
p. 1946
Collier Books Edition

   Why know history?  It's a fair question.  We live in an age dominated by hard science, the so-called "social sciences" are almost at the point of losing their status as "science."  So while, genetics tells us more about who are as human beings, the American Anthropological Association is squabbling over whether to use the word "science" in their mission statement.  It's no wonder that many people graduate from college without ever taking a serious look at history as a discipline or interest.

   And yet.... I've found history particularly relevant to my own path.  Among all the sciences: be they hard or soft, none is so accessible as history- everyone knows something about history and people talk about history all the time.  Rowse makes this point, among many others.  One of the best chapters discusses how the purpose of education is to teach people how to function in society and that history, with it's study of people, their motives and their actions, create an ability in students to make judgments about people they encounter in real life.

     Rowse adopts a smart stance in between the economic determinism of Marxism and the lockstep schematics of Positivism:  History consists of facts, and these facts have reality because people agree of the existence of those facts.  However, it is not possible to extrapolate from generally agreed facts to the presence of historical "laws" that mirror the laws of hard science.  Rowse, writing at the end of World War II was smart enough to rebut the ideas of Social Darwinism and anticipate the flaws of French Post-Modernism.

   History is relevant, because it shows us how people acted in the past.  All other things being equal, humans will tend to act in the same way, even if we can't predict how an individual will act in a given situation.

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