“To write history is to fill our glass with water from the Thames and claim we have captured the river. This is as true of Jane Smiley as it is of Niall Ferguson, but the author of fiction makes no claim to objective truth or authority and so may be more true to our times.”
“Why should anyone bother learning about things that happened far away and long ago? Who cares about Cleopatra, Charlemagne, Montezuma or Confucius? And why worry about George Washington, or how democratic government and industrial society arose? Isn’t there quite enough to learn about the world today? Why add to the burden by looking at the past? Historians ought to try to answer such questions by saying what the study of history is good for, and what it cannot do. But since no one can speak for the historical profession as a whole, this essay is no more than a personal statement, commissioned by the American Historical Association in the hope of convincing all concerned that the study of history is indeed worthwhile and necessary for the education of effective citizens and worthy human beings. Historical knowledge is no more and no less than carefully and critically constructed collective memory. As such it can both make us wiser in our public choices and more richly human in our private lives.”
“In recent decades new challenges have been mounted to the supposedly objective study of the past. Most conspicuously, perhaps, postmodernist theory has raised its ultra-skeptical head to allege that objectivity being impossible, there is no truth. Or to apply the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to this matter, history is like a rabbit in the garden at night, running away as soon as it is caught in a beam of light. If that is the case, isn’t the task of trying to determine objectively, scientifically even, what happened in the past an act of arrogant futility?”
“History is not the past.
The semantic problem is not helped by the fact that in English we tend to use the words ‘history’ and ‘the past’ interchangeably. One of the most useful things you can do in studying history is to begin to use the words to signify very different things. The past is a term used to indicate all the events which occurred before a given point in time: everything that has ever happened to everyone, everywhere at any time before now. The past is neither the present nor the future.”
“Historians do not, as too many of my colleagues keep mindlessly repeating, ‘reconstruct’ the past. What historians do is produce knowledge about the past, or, with respect to each individual, fallible historian, produce contributions to “nowledge about the past. Thus the best and most concise definition of history is::