Examine the View that ‘History fulfils a social need and that is its essential function’ Paper
History is everything that happened in the human past since the foundation of societies.
History has also been defined as the historians’ enquiry into that past and their attempts to produce an interpretation or reconstruction of it.
The view suggests that society needs history and that it is a necessity. Many reasons have been put forward by historians, such as Marwick, to support this view.
History is all- pervasive – it is all around us. Society cannot go about its everyday life without coming across something related to history. It can therefore be thought that society needs history. Society cannot escape from history as we are surrounded by physical evidence of the past. For example historic buildings such as Edinburgh castle and historic sites such as Stonehenge are all links to the past. Things that happened in the past have had a big effect on the way that society lives today. For example, wars change the boundaries of countries. Society cannot ignore these effects and has to acknowledge them and learn about why they have occurred.
Another argument for the necessity of history is the quote: –
‘What is past is prologue’
The quote is suggesting that there is a necessity for society to know about what happened in the past, as by looking at the past society can understand more about what is happening in the present. For example to understand the religious and communal structure of Northern Ireland today, we would have to go back and look at the Irish Catholic population of the 17th century. Many people in Northern Ireland will not fully understand what they are fighting about until they look at the countrys past history. To fully understand certain institutions such as parliament, the church or the Monarchy, society needs knowledge of what happened in the past. Marwick said that: –
‘Society without history is like an individual without memory.’
In other words, a society that does not know about its past history does not have a sense of identity. He believes that we all need to establish our identity to understand what relationship we have with the past and with other societies. Therefore there is a great need for societies to be aware of their past history and ‘what is known should be widely known’.
Society also needs history to understand what mankind is capable of, both good and bad. The historian J.Tosh suggests that historical figures (such as Adolf Hitler): –
‘alert todays society of the sheer variety of human mentality and achievement- and thus to something of the range of possibilities at our disposal now’.
The wide range that history offers into human mentalities should be seen as extremely valuable to society.
History also offers society to view past human achievement. For example the work of painters and sculptures from the past is often incorporated in work in todays modern society.
Society needs history so that it can challenge myths and stereotypes created in the past.
J.Tosh said: –
‘The historian can make a positive contribution by exploring the myths which mould the consciousness of other societies’.
For example, one of the biggest myths of the Victorian period was that of the frigidity of middle class women, a view now challenged by serious historical research. History is a necessity for society as untrue myths of the past can be realised. The historian who corrects myths has been likened to ‘ the eye surgeon, specialising in removing cataracts’.
Although society lives in a time of change it can still learn lessons from the past. Even though the past can be used to our advantage, it should be made clear that history never repeats itself exactly, so not everything in history can be compared and applied to the present day.
A societies knowledge of its own countrys past history , according to the historian J.Tosh, sustains a popular sense of national identity. This sense of identity is a necessity in bringing a country closer together. However, focusing on what happened in the past does not always bring a country closer together. The fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland stems from events which happened in the past. Sometimes it is necessary for a country to cut away from the past and concentrate on the present to bring its people together and create a sense of national identity.
History can be seen as a necessity for society as a whole, but society is made up of individuals. Individual people also have the need for history.
People need history as it provides enjoyment. We can be sure that people do enjoy history by looking at the various recreational activities linked closely with history. People read historical books, for example Pride and Prejudice. There are many television programmes which are linked with history, for example, Blackadder. People go to see films at the cinema which are linked with history, for example titanic, and Schindlers List, which is about the second world war. There are mnay historical theatre productions, for example Shakespeare and Les Miserable. Todays society enjoys going on visits to historical places, for example castles and Hadrians Wall. As people of all ages are interested in history, theme museums have been set up, for example, Yorvik Viking Centre and Madam Tussards. People also enjoy collecting historical memorabilia.
Historians argue that in todays society history is a necessity to every individual. When people watch television programmes or go to the cinema, they often need a background knowledge of the period of history that the programme was set in. Without this knowledge, the programme would not be understood. For example, when people watch Schindlers List, they need a background of what the holocaust was. Without the background knowledge of the holocaust, they would not understand the film properly. This supports the idea that the knowledge of history is a necessity for the individual. The skills of a historian- the skills of analysis and interpretation and the training of the mind are a great help to the individual in todays modern society when people are in need of these skills constantly. In todays society there is so much information available to every individual, for example the internet, that the skills of a historian are invaluable. When a historian is faced with a lot of information, they are able to condense it into a shorter version. The ability to detect bias in information is also important.
It has been argued that society as a whole has a need for history, but individuals within society have a need for history also.