A historian on why history matters

Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson, who writes a daily online newsletter titled “Letters from an American,” felt obliged this Columbus Day week to say something the role of the historian in society.

“Historians are not denigrating the nation when they uncover sordid parts of our past. Historians study how and why societies change. As we dig into the past we see patterns that never entirely foreshadow the present, but that give us ideas about how people have dealt with circumstances in the past that look similar to circumstances today. With luck, seeing those patterns will help us make better decisions about our own lives, our communities, and our nation in the present. As they say, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

“If we are going to get an accurate picture of how a society works, historians must examine it honestly. That means seeing the bad as well as the good, because, after all, any human society is going to have both. Sometimes good human actions change society; sometimes bad ones do. George Washington’s heroic refusal to be a king is no truer than his enslavement of other human beings, and both changed our nation in ways that we need to understand if we are to make good decisions about how to take care of our own society.

“History, though, is different than commemoration. History is about what happened in the past while commemoration is about the present. We put up statues and celebrate holidays to honor figures from the past who embody some quality we admire. But as society changes, the qualities we care about shift. In the 1920s, Columbus mattered to Americans who opposed the Ku Klux Klan because he represented a multicultural society. Now, though, he represents the devastation of America’s indigenous people at the hands of European colonists who brought to North America and South America germs and a fever for gold and God. It is not “radical activism” to want to commemorate a different set of values than we held in the 1920s.

“What is radical activism, though, is the attempt to skew history to serve a modern-day political narrative. Rejecting an honest account of the past makes it impossible to see accurate patterns. The lessons we learn about how society changes will be false, and the decisions we make based on those false patterns will not be grounded in reality.

“And a nation grounded in fiction, rather than reality, cannot function.”