What is History For? is a new series of posts in which historians reflect on the value, purpose and potential of their craft. Each of the series contributors took part in a day-conference — What is History For?’ –– held at the University of Birmingham in May 2022.
The series begins with texts from two of the day’s speakers. Dr Tom Cutterham points to inherent tensions in the purposes of historical study, making the case for vision over fragmentation. The series begins with conference organiser, Professor Karen Harvey, on why ‘What is History For?’, and why now.
On Thursday 12 May 2022 the Department of History at the University of Birmingham hosted the conference, ‘What is History For?’ The event comprised 18 speakers from across the world and an audience that included students of history (at school, college and university), teachers of history, those in other sectors who work with and produce historical knowledge, and attendees who came out of a deep personal interest. The event was an exciting, challenging and at times moving one. Rather than try to reflect the breadth and depth of the discussions in this short introductory blog, let me discuss why and how the event came about.
This was, in more ways than one, always going to be a special event. Our department, like so many others, had experienced a pandemic-induced separation since spring 2020. Yes, our departmental seminar had continued to meet via Zoom and some of those virtual meetings – on topics such as ethics, the imagination and the archive – had been among the most searching conversations I had ever enjoyed with historians. And yet, we had not all been together, in one room, for some time.
We searched for an appropriate overarching theme for the event, one which would capture the breadth of our interests and our sense of this urgent historic moment.
Planning began in autumn 2021. In the first (online) department meeting in which we discussed the event, the first words I wrote down under ‘Objectives’ were ‘us together’. Our initial aim was to showcase our own work to each other. But if this was where we started, it was not where we ended up. As we searched for an appropriate overarching theme for the event, one which would capture the breadth of our interests and our sense of this urgent historic moment, Tom Cutterham (whose roundtable contribution begins this blog series), suggested ‘What is History For?’ By the end of that short discussion, it had been firmly established that the event would focus on how history engages current issues in our contemporary world.
A team of seven colleagues began sketching out the day. Three core principles underpinned our planning.
The first was inclusion, of different kinds of speakers and audiences: practitioners and collaborators from other sectors, students as well as staff, from our own as well as other institutions, speakers from different career stages, from different national backgrounds, from BME backgrounds.
The second was values. As a Department we had been discussing the values that inspired and sustained us. Those values clustered around the responsibilities we felt, towards our students, each other, the discipline, our wider academic community, and the publics beyond higher education.
Taking the lead from that space ‘beyond’, the third principle was public responsibility. From the beginning, we sought to provide a space in which to critically reflect upon and celebrate the life and power of historical research outside the university sector.
These principles generated the four themes of the panels: Pandemics and crises; Public engagement; Race and colonialism in an age of climate crisis; and Afterlives – the legacy of those individuals who refuse to be forgotten (or whose lives historians work to recover) and our contemporary kinship with them. These themes encapsulated some of the most important ways in which historians are currently responding to that question, ‘What is History For?’ Throughout the day, they focussed our attention on the here and now, the present moment, even as we reached back into the past. Speakers discussed history’s role in restructuring social relations and enabling greater social inclusion, in generating new and critical narratives, in providing the tools for ethical reflection and spiritual resistance and in connecting personal histories with larger narratives.
Those present were left in no doubt of the power of history to bring joy and to heal, to inform political choices with wisdom, and to effect positive change.
Professor Emma Griffin, President of the Royal Historical Society, launched the closing roundtable of five speakers addressing our overarching question, ‘What is History For?’, moving our attention from the ‘What?’ to the ‘Who?’ That roundtable was a dizzying and inspirational account of what history can do and why a society needs it.
Those present were left in no doubt of the power of history to bring joy and to heal, to inform political choices with wisdom, and to effect positive change. This power of history derives precisely from the dialogue the discipline initiates between the past and the present. The four blog posts in this short RHS series, each originally a contribution to the conference, exemplify the form of that dialogue during the conference.
Professor Karen Harvey is Professorial Fellow and Professor of Cultural History at the University of Birmingham. Her latest book is The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder. Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England (OUP, 2020).
Karen’s current major research project is the Leverhulme-funded ‘Material Identities, Social Bodies: Embodiment in British Letters c.1680-1820‘ (2021-25) which uses thousands of letters by men and women to explore the relationships between the physical body, self and social identity, and experiences of ‘embodiment’.
There are three kinds of important things we can do with historical thinking. The first is critique. Historians take apart conventional assumptions and convenient myths about the past and its relation to the present. We challenge narratives founded on faulty premises, misunderstandings, and sometimes wilful fraud. Claims and assumptions about history shape both public discourse and our private moral worlds. Even the very recent past is subject to myth-making, both unconscious and deliberate. Historical thinking makes it possible to break down spurious historical constructions, a task vital to the health of our society. That’s not a task exclusive to professional historians, either. It’s something that anyone can do if they’ve learned how to do it.
The second thing historical thinking can do for us, I want to label recognition. Historians try to recover past perspectives and experiences, and to grasp the meanings and the feelings of things as they were for people who lived them. We work to recognise the uniqueness and specificity of human experiences, and in the process, we make space to welcome difference. Perhaps more than ever before, I think many historians are engaged in this project of recognition—a project intended to bestow respect on marginalised people, and to help repair injustice rooted in the past. This kind of practice is an act of love. It’s part of learning how to love one another—or, at least, to show one another recognition as full, equal individuals.
Historians are world-builders because they try to show how human things work, how they fit together, and how they change over time.
The last of the three things, I’ll call world-building. (I’m not sure if I’ve taken that term from literary criticism, or just from the way people sometimes talk about TV and video-games.) Historians are world-builders because they try to show how human things work, how they fit together, and how they change over time. This kind of historical thinking demands abstraction. It concerns general rules rather than specific cases. Consciously or otherwise, historians build mental models of the world (which, because they are models, are simplifications of reality). Then they try to test and improve them against evidence and alternative models. Rather than the uniqueness of individuals, world-building is about the connectedness of things. It’s how we learn to make predictions about what will happen if we do one thing and not another. In other words, world-building is essential to our social functioning, and on a grander scale, to moral and political life.
Historical world-building is indispensable to the task of confronting the present and the future.
Critique, recognition, world-building. We do all these things. But there are tensions between them that I think are central to the present fragmentation of intellectual life. For the most-part, we are better at critiquing models than constructing them. And because we love the world, we want to celebrate its specificity and difference, not dissolve them in the abstract. But historical world-building is indispensable to the task of confronting the present and the future. For me, this is the most important answer to what history is for. The better the model of the world we can construct in our collective imagination, the better equipped we will be to change the world, and save it, in reality.
Dr Tom Cutterham is Senior Lecturer in United States History at the University of Birmingham and the author of Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic. (Princeton University Press, 2017).
Tom’s contribution to the conference appeared as part of the ‘What is History For? concluding Roundtable.