Is History Bunk?
Apparently Duke philosopher Alex Rosenberg thinks so, because it can't predict the future:
History is helpless to teach us anything much about the present. The real lesson the history of arms races [something Rosenberg discusses] teaches is that there are no lessons in history. When it comes to understanding the future, history is bunk.
Now, I ought to make it clear that I have not read Rosenberg's new book, The Atheist's Guide to Reality, where this quote originates. I came to it through Michael Ruse, the director of the history of science program at Florida State, who has a pretty convincing takedown of Rosenberg's argument on his blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
[It's] dangerous, culpable nonsense, and a good philosopher should know better. ... The tragedy is that this kind of stuff just plays into the hands of the philistines in our society who want to eliminate the humanities and go solely for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). [Amen to that.]
Go back to [modern British anti-Catholicism]. Of course, there were contributing factors like the tense relationship with Ireland, but the main reason for the anti-Catholicism lies in the past. Most immediately, as Linda Colley shows in her brilliant Britons, it lies in the 18th century, when Britain was faced with threats from the most powerful of continental forces, the very Catholic French. The Act of Union between Scotland and England and Wales, making for a country with the resources to withstand the threats, needed an ideology. Protestantism was it, even though it was more a shared hostility to Catholicism than an identity of belief – Presbyterians and Anglicans are still far apart on that. (Interesting, even 20 years ago, Colley noted that with the decline of outside threat, the Union may be in trouble, as indeed it is.)
This exchange, plus the comments on Ruse's post, highlights one of the biggest gaps between how historians understand history and how others do. Very few historians think that their discipline is predictive. If history does have direct contemporary value, it lies outside of the realm of prediction -- witness the expert testimony of historians Nancy Cott and George Chauncey during the Prop. 8 trial in California. Hell, look at half the articles on HNN on any given week. Leo Ribuffo's article on brokered conventions explicitly says no one can predict whether or not the GOP nomination will be settled on the convention floor in Tampa, but he does suggest that there is an historical pattern around political conventions. Patterns imply that certain outcomes may be more likely, but they are not intrinsically predictive.
That's where the perception gap between historians and their audiences lies: many people -- maybe even most people -- who are not otherwise interested in history assume history is predictive. Whenever I'm asked about what I do for living by strangers, I always go into an explanation of how HNN's mission is at the intersection of history and current affairs, and, after being assured that, "Oh yes, I didn't like history in school, but I can see why it's important," I invariably hear a variation on the old Santayana quote, "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." It implies the reverse is true: if you understand history, you can avoid its mistakes. That's reason #1 for why history is important to the otherwise disinterested.
People who are actually interested in history, though, usually talk about heritage or how they think it's important to understand where we've been and where we're going. That sounds like history-as-prediction, but it's not. It's more about history being of a broader, often intensely personal, narrative -- "It's amazing to think that the original [European] settlers like my great-grandparents came [to the West] in covered wagons and now there's airports and skyways," or "My great-great-grandmother was brought to America in chains from Africa, and now we have a black president."
So what is to be done? I think that the context argument can, should, and is being made to the general public. Public historians are, naturally enough, particularly good at doing this, and in my experience the proverbial history buff is more receptive to the idea of history-as-context-and-narrative than history-as-prediction. Scientists and philosophers who take a purely utilitarian approach to knowledge, on the other hand (I don't know if Rosenberg is one of them, because I'm not familiar with his work), are not going to be convinced by the context argument, but here's where historians might actually be able to use new breakthroughs in biology, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience to make that argument more convincing. If human beings are predisposed to seek out and process stories, if our brains are predisposed toward narratives as a way of understanding ourselves and the work... well, human history is the ultimate narrative. To borrow a phrase from Chris Hedges, history is the force that gives us meaning.