History is not the study of the past but the study of the present traces of the past. Discuss.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I am not sure that I agree with this statement completely, but I certainly do agree with it to some degree.  Much of what we study in history and much of what we conclude about history is determined by our attitudes about the present.

Many historians choose the topics that they study based to some degree on what they are concerned about in the present day.  For example, we as a society have come to place more value on women and non-whites in the present day.  As we have done so, historians have started to ask more questions about the experiences of those people in historical times.  As another example, in the United States today, many people are worried about the impact of immigration.  This can lead them to study history, asking how immigration has affected the US in the past.

In addition, much of what we conclude about the past (how we answer questions about history) is affected by our attitudes about the present.  This should not be the case, but it is.  For example, a person like Howard Zinn will find lots of evidence of class conflict in the past because they believe that we have class conflict in the present.  People who want to keep honoring the Confederacy will find that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not about slavery.  Because history is such a subjective topic, people can and do allow their attitudes in the present to shape their interpretation of what happened in the past.

However, I do not believe that this statement is completely true.  Many historians ask questions about the past just because they want to learn about how different people lived in different times.  I am currently reading about the Napoleonic Wars even though I cannot imagine how that relates to anything that is important to me in the present.  History can be fun simply because it allows us to understand the lives of people in other times and places.  This has nothing to do with the present.

So, I do agree with this statement to a great degree, but I would also assert that it is not true for all students of history at all times.

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