In an age where tuition fees are higher than ever and research suggests vocational degrees are the best way to find a graduate job, studying History at university is regarded by some as somewhat indulgent, if not even a little useless.
Joseph Jones, a recent History graduate, gives his two cents on this view of his discipline of choice, and explains why studying History is, in fact, more important than it has ever been.
The historian today bears great responsibility.
“Why is history important?” the teacher poses to an apathetic classroom. After some unenthused back-and-forth, one student answers: “so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.” Most people, I imagine, remember that class. But how many people took the lesson to heart?
Human society has a short-term memory problem. Rather than learning from our mistakes, we seem to continually repeat them, even as the risks grow exponentially.
Despite over two hundred years of cyclical economic turbulence, we have retained the largely unreconstructed free-market capitalist model. Despite clear warnings from history that indulging in nationalistic populism is dangerous, the radical right is on the rise in the west. And despite historical precedence that the transition period between a rising and declining world power tends to lead to conflict, we continue to believe that a war between China and the United States is impossible.
As war clouds loom over the Korean peninsula, it is vital for historians to challenge the naive zeitgeist that the world of today is incomparably different to the world of yesterday.
A common thing I hear is that China and the United States will never go to war because they both have “too much to lose”; they are each other’s biggest trading partners; the world is too globalised. This is completely wrong.
In 1914, the world had experienced what has been called ‘the first golden age of economic globalisation’. Germany and Britain were each other’s biggest trading partners. And yet, the First World War happened. Human error triumphed over reason, and there’s no guarantee that it won’t happen again.
The war in Afghanistan, having wounded the prestige and emptied the pockets of the United States, may signal the end of Pax Americana in the same way that the Boer War signalled the end of British supremacy a hundred years ago.
The transition from a unipolar geopolitical situation to a multipolar one, where the ascending BRIC countries assert themselves, creates the same sort of dangerous, competitive instability that lead to the First World War. Another World War in the nuclear age is feasible.
We need to remember our history or our history will come to an end.
“Nonsense,” many people will say. “Things are different today.” But are they?
Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon predicted war with China over the South Sea Islands within the next thirty years; and the Korean crisis speaks for itself. It is therefore urgent for historians to remind people that war is always possible between major powers and trading partners. If not, we may sleepwalk into a war from which humanity may not emerge.
We also ignore history with regards to the economy. A classic example of this can be seen in the decisions of the Conservative Party since 2010. They chose, in the wake of the 2008 recession, to introduce austerity measures- the exact same mistake that the Conservatives made during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Lo and behold, living standards dropped and growth stagnated.
Worse still, George Osborne introduced the ‘buy-to-let’ scheme, intending to kickstart the housing market. Surely enough, house prices and confidence began rising again. The problem, however, is that an inflated housing market bubble was the exact cause of the 2008 crash in the first place. The initiative almost guarantees another housing market crash. Osborne (a history graduate, ironically) completely ignored the lessons of very recent history for short-term gain.
He’s not alone: as Zoe Williams discusses in her recent article for The Guardian, the British public have returned to their pre-recession spending habits: household debt now exceeds pre-2008 levels. Britain’s current economic health is illusionary; built on money we don’t have, evidence that in less than decade we have already forgotten the lessons of 2008.
One period of history that most people will probably be familiar with is the rise of fascism in the 1930s: the tale of a hateful politician, fanning the flames of division and riding a wave of socio-economic discontent to become the leader of their country. Seem familiar?
The person I am comparing to Trump is not, in fact, Hitler; but Benito Mussolini. Oxford academic Margaret MacMillan has made the same comparison; citing their shared macho cult personality, the labelling of entire groups as enemies or friends, and their attention-seeking natures. The hyper-nationalistic agenda, deflecting blame for people’s poor living standards away from the elite and towards the ‘other’ (in Mussolini’s case, Jews, in Trump’s case, Muslims)- it’s all too familiar.
But not familiar enough to dampen Trump’s popularity, apparently. The fact that some Americans thought that a dose of right-wing populism would improve their wages and job prospects again reinforces the fact that people are ignorant of history.
Britain’s own dalliance with right-wing populism has resulted in Brexit; a self-inflicted disaster. Many older people who voted for Brexit seemed to think they were doing so out of some kind of loyalty to their parents’ generation, who had lived and fought for an independent Britain through the Second World War. And yet they cannot see the resemblance between Brexit and the right-wing populism of the 1930s that lead to that war in the first place.
History is more important to us now than it has ever been.
We live in a critical era. In our current form, humans have been around for about 50,000 years. Nuclear weapons have been around for just 72 years. Since 1945, we have come close to self-inflicted extinction a disturbing number of times.
We cannot count on our luck running forever, and this is why the role of the historian has never been more important: we urgently need to educate ourselves on our past mistakes because we are entering a dangerous geopolitical world.
The historian today bears great responsibility. The 19th century philosopher George Santayana wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Humanity has, it seems, forgotten the past.
So if you’re a history graduate reading this, tired of having the validity of your degree questioned – because what on Earth can you do with a History degree, right? – remind them of the importance of learning from the past. If we don’t, another one of Santayana’s aphorisms – “only the dead will see the end of war” – will surely come true.