Historical Awareness

For the History 297 class, we were required to read from John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History. Tosh opens by trying to convey his opinions on the general idea that humans, as we currently exist, rely more on experience than instinct. The culmination of all of our experiences, our memories, are what ultimately make it history. I like to think of this in the sense that history is the memory that tells us we will burn our hands on the stove. Tosh continues in the first chapter by establishing that all societies have this type of “memory.” These are the things that can unite a culture, as they focus on certain ‘defining’ events.¬†However, this ‘memory’ that these cultures share can often be historically inaccurate. In here is the difference between Historical Awareness and Social Memory. Both are important for a historian to understand. With Social Memory, these are the ideas which some societies operate on. It is how they answer the question “why is x the way it is?” Even if the answer is not entirely accurate, it is the answer that forms their societal policy. Historical Awareness, however, refers to the observation of the past for what it is. It marks the significance of many points in history without influence from modern politics. Historical Awareness was particularly popular with the¬†historicists, who believed that the presentation of history must be done without bias. They also believed in three main principles: difference context, and process. Understanding the difference between each time period, understanding the context of the actions of that time by knowing what else was going on, and understanding that these actions made more of an impact later on.

We also had to read Chapter 2 of Pursuit of History, Uses of History. In a similar fashion as the first chapter, Tosh opens by pointing out two contrasting views on history: Destiny and ‘bunk’. One tells us that human history has been on a progressive course that will ultimately lead to our destiny. The other states that nothing can truly be gained by learning it, or that the past does not justify actions in the present. It also states that it may be better to advance society if we do so without the continuation of tradition. However, both ideas have their problems. The first would believe that history could prophesize the future and, in doing so, would negate the idea of human agency. The other would state that we should not hold on to certain ideas and leave nothing for social order. From history, we can try to attain “experience that is simply not possible in our own lives.” Tosh continues by stating that the point of history is not to see what we have already done, but to see “the possibilities.” It is indispensable, for both society and the individual, to seek out this “experience.” Which is why we are here, as historians.

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