ALMOST A CENTURY AGO, in a celebrated essay, `Clio: A Muse', G.M. Trevelyan appealed to British historians to resist the rising tide of `scientific', highly professionalised history that he saw arriving on his shores from Germany. He sketched out an alternative programme stressing the educational benefits of history, not just for a professional elite, but for the whole of the population. It was capable of making them better citizens of Britain and the world, with a richer imaginative life, as well as the better reasoners aimed at by scientific history. Yet it cannot be said that the profession heeded his call. For most of the twentieth century, scholarly historians became more dependent on a captive academic audience, more specialised, more `scientific'. And, sometimes for good reasons--resisting political control or crude utilitarianism, for example--they stood aloof from efforts to justify history on any ground but their own professional turf.
Today the popularity of history amongst the general public is dramatically on the increase and scholarly historians are becoming more welcoming of the lay audience. But this tentative rapprochement makes urgent the need for professional historians to clarify in their own minds what history can do--and what it can't.
History is in the main, as the scientific historians always said, `an activity of the reasoning mind'. It ought to develop the capacity to measure, to judge, to balance, to compare. It helps us assess change over time, to separate and determine causes and effects, and to identify and compensate for scarcity of data. With its incredible range of subject-matter, it lays special burdens upon the memory; today's integrated, multi-factorial history tasks the mind to keep in play a bewildering host of dates, facts, actors, levels of causation, spheres of human activity and shades of meaning.
Does history also teach `lessons'? Many who in their hearts know better still fall back on cliches such as `You can't know where you are or where you're going without knowing where you've come from'. This justification ought, in honesty, to be avoided by all but the most contemporary of historians. Those who study the recent past are in as good a position to offer predictions and prescriptions as those who study the present. But you do not have to go far back in time to lose this capacity almost entirely. Historians of the eighteenth century have a fatal tendency to draw pictures of `modernity' as it was being born in their period, and then to draw a straight line from these origins to the present--in the process nearly always doing violence not only to the present, but also to all the intervening periods.
Beyond its intellectual functions, history does also have great imaginative power, as Trevelyan insisted. Simply put, the study of history broadens the mind. It exposes the student to the full range of human possibilities unlimited by our own experiences. This imaginative capability Of history is connected to its ethical capability. One of the purposes of historical time travel is to transport our modern selves into alien situations which allow us to highlight our own values and assumptions. In this aspect history asks us not to lose ourselves in the past but to view the past from our own standpoint; in fact one of its functions is to help us define our standpoint more clearly. Nowadays we call this `the search for identity'. The collective identities that people once inherited and had to live with, whether they liked it or not, have broken down: `community', religion, social hierarchy and class, ideology, nation. Identity is now a much more individuated business, which means both that people have to construct it for themselves and also that they are freer to tailor it after their own fashion. If we see through the fancy language, we find that this `identity' is not very different from what used to be called philosophy or morality, and the `identity-building' function of history is not so very different from what the ancients called `philosophy teaching by example' or what Trevelyan thought of as exercising the moral imagination. …