We take it for granted that everyone should know something about history. We teach history in schools, we commemorate anniversaries of famous events, we post historical markers along roadsides and on old buildings. On television and in newspapers, we hear appeals to history made on a regular basis: as justification for national action, explanation for conflict, and model for civic, social, and personal leadership and morality.
But what is it we’re looking to when we look to history? Why is history important? What do we actually mean by ‘history’? What can it teach us, if it can teach us anything at all? Our seminar course will explore these and other fundamental questions about history, how it’s told and how it’s used.
We will frame our thought at the beginning of the week through discussion of two similarly titled works: Friedrich Nietzsche’s classic essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”; and The Uses and Abuses of History by acclaimed Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan. In the succeeding days, we will take a close look at history-telling in a variety of media. We will discuss selections of narrative history from two foundational authors of the Western historical tradition, Herodotus and Thucydides; a fine contemporary work of historical fiction by Pat Barker; a classic film by Sergei Eisenstein; and iconic paintings by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Théodore Géricault, John Trumbull, and Eugène Delacroix.
“History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.”