The “Usefulness” of History

Posted: October 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

Teachers in Chicago’s South Side held a sign up on the first day their recent strike that read, “If we can’t teach history, we will make history.”  The picture went viral through social media sites as it struck a chord across the world.  The significance of the sign was multifaceted and drew on many different aspects of working people’s experiences, grievances, and self-activity.  For the purpose of this essay, however, the significant thing to draw from this action, captured in a photograph by a supporter on the picket line early that Monday morning, is that the teachers conceptualized themselves as historical actors.

            To people already entrenched in the study of history, this might seem an insignificant or obvious point, but for a person, or in this case, a group of workers, to conceptualize themselves as active agents in the creation of history while an event takes place is not a foregone conclusion.  Rather, it reflects a knowledge of that history advances, and that the dynamism of history rests on human agency.  Would the teachers have conceptualized themselves as historical actors if they did not understand something about the role of rank-and-file unionists in previous struggles, as different as those struggles might be in terms of time, place, and material circumstance?  Historical lessons, both from previous CTU strikes and from more a more general working class history, were central to the union’s strike preparations.  CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators, which currently holds union leadership) held mass meetings in the run-up to the strike on the history of past Chicago teachers strikes, particularly the 1987 strike.

The meetings clearly had a political goal: to place the union in the strongest possible position to win contract concessions and an ideological battle with a neoliberal education agenda.  In addition, however, it is important to recognize that the meetings also served a historical function in their analytic and didactic natures.  In other words, the meetings sought to analyze an (admittedly, very recent) historic events and to impart from that analysis a perspective of workers as driving agents of history that functions in both political and historical ways.  To try and separate the political use from the historical value would misunderstand the relationship between history and the time it is written.  As Bloch argues, “a science will always seem to us somehow incomplete if it cannot, sooner or later, in one way or another, aid us to live better.  Moreover, should we not feel this sentiment with particular force as regards history…in that it has man himself and his actions as its theme?”[1]  Fasolt continues this conception, “our knowledge of the past cannot be separated from the actions we take to change our fate [politics].”[2]  “Usefulness,” after all, implies “use.”

Bloch and Fasolt are both influenced by their own positions in history, and though both The Historian’s Craft and The Limits of History have much to offer historians writing in different historical moments, the works are products of their time.  The rise of fascism in Europe after World War I may have partially guided Bloch’s humanist outlook, just as an expansion of Western neo-colonialism around the turn of the twentieth century likely informed Fasolt’s perception of the practice of history as a political act in itself.  Commensurate of a historian’s responsibility to take into account how the sources one examines may influence the outcome of a work is the very real necessity of realizing the role our own place in the historical arc influences our theory and perceptions.  This understanding, and the understanding (and even intent) that a work of history be taken as a political act has no bearing on facts, nor must it undermine the commitment to historical truth.  Instead, as Zinn argued in The Politics of History, the historian’s placement in time, combined with her social responsibility (alluded to by Bloch but fully articulated by Zinn) inform the questions she asks, not the answers she finds.[3]  In fact, the very usefulness of history lies in this distinction: that interested questions, pursued through scientific historical methodology, can confirm the hypothesis of experience, but can also open our thinking to contradictions and solutions that otherwise might remain veiled in obscurity. 

This argument has been set on a collision course with the conclusion drawn by Fasolt.  At the center of this conflict lies a fundamental question of how one conceives history, and the answer will depend on the historian.  Is history an individual or social endeavor?  What is the productive relationship of the historian to different layers of society?  I posit there are multiple answers, and that it is, as Bloch suggests, less valuable to judge them than it is to understand them.  Understanding the reasons, motivations, limits, and potential of different historical approaches and their material basis allows us to perceive works of history themselves dialectically, as historical documents and political acts.  Like the teachers in the midst of the strike, the historian researching and writing commits an act of historical agency, and like the teachers, knowledge of ourselves as the dynamic force of history, knowledge that the work we do can and will shape the world around us, is essential to meeting the balance between scholarly pursuit and social obligation.  History is not only an intro- and retrospective endeavor, but outward reaching and forward thinking. 

It is not a contradiction to know one wants to tell the history of people who fought back, who overcame racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, even if it was only for a brief period, who won battles with the bosses, and who envisioned what another world could look like and at the same time to pursue the truth of a historical moment because people have won.  History shows us they have also lost.  Why?  Why have fights for liberation always ultimately been defeated?  History can show us the answers.  Hidden by veil of bourgeois propaganda and history, scattered among the moments where victory seemed possible to history’s actors, are the gaps in the armor, the exposed structural weaknesses.  That one’s goal is the piercing of the armor, the dismantling of the structure is based on the fact that the gap exists, that the structure has weakness, and not the other way around.  That a historian has an interest in one side triumphing over the other has very little to do with the historical basis for an ultimate victory.  



[1] Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (New York: Vintage, 1953), 10-11.

[2] Constantin Fasolt, The Limits of History, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004), xiii.

[3] See Howard Zinn, The Politics of History, 2nd edition, (Urbana: University of Illinois).

  1. Tom says:

    “Is history an individual or social endeavor?”

    Given the recognition that “the dynamism of history rests on human agency”, this seems to be the question our age is needs to answer. “Is effective human agency an individual or social endeavor?” “Can we make accurate predictions and choices on the social level?”

    Exactly why videos like this – – leave a bittersweet impression.

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