Does history matter?

In todays Washington Post, Jonathan Yardleys review of Margaret MacMillans new book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, begins thus:

In this provocative examination of the ways in which we use and abuse history, Margaret MacMillan passes along a story originally told by the writer Susan Jacoby. She was in a New York bar on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, and eavesdropped on a conversation between two "bewildered" men. First man: "This is just like Pearl Harbor." Second man: "What is Pearl Harbor?" First man: "That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War." To which MacMillan responds:"Does it matter that they got it so wrong?"

Later on, Yardley comments:

MacMillan's emphasis is less on how history is taught and written in academia than on how it is used in the public arena by politicians, journalists and others who seek to influence and rally public opinion.....What goes unmentioned in MacMillan's otherwise astute analysis is the trend among professional historians to view the past through whatever contemporary lens they find most congenial. A persistent theme in Gordon S. Wood's collection of essays The Purpose of the Past, published last year, is that this practice of "presentism" is now so widespread in academia that it threatens to become standard and accepted practice. The hegemony of the "Holy Trinity" of race, gender and class theory has turned the writing of history in too many instances into propaganda machinery for certain political and ideological points of view popular among the rebellious young of the 1960s and '70s and still regarded as gospel in many university departments of history, the social sciences and literature.This is a matter about which I have written often, and I do not intend to labor it further now. The point is that complaints by professional historians about abuses of history by politicians and other amateur malefactors lose some of their force when one considers that the history departments themselves are much in need of a housecleaning. This is scarcely the case with MacMillan, whose high reputation has been earned through scrupulous research, clear-eyed interpretation and eminently readable prose. But "Dangerous Games" would be an even better book had she placed this issue squarely on the table.

The ignorance of history in incoming college students is well-documented, and its not necessarily any better among many graduate students.. One of my colleagues, a Frenchman, is still recovering from the moment when in response to his having mentioned it, one of his students asked: "Whats the French Revolution?"But does it really matter?

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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