Home » Philosophy of History » Why study the public’s understanding of the past?

Why study the public’s understanding of the past?

This is a work in progress, and will serve to hash through, in very short form, some thoughts I’ve been working on for the book project I am currently writing. The reason why I bring it here is that it is a large and difficult subject, but speaks to the heart of this society’s existence. This society, and the field it represents, is part of a new(ish) approach to public history.  Public history has, in the past, largely addressed questions of how the past is presented to the public. In the UK it is often elided with museum studies, public archaeology or other academic approaches to the heritage industry—though less so in recent years.

What this society is dedicated to is the flip side of that coin; studying how the public understands and receives the past and, ostensibly, what they do with those understandings. Studying the form of instances of public medieval history (whether they be in museums or in the form of Victorian buildings, TV shows, poetry editions, or show-dog-names) is useful and important, but of primary interest here is what those instances do.

Or perhaps, as a better way of looking at it what people do with them. Purely theoretical examinations are good and useful but can sometimes overlook things. A hammer is, theoretically, a tool used for driving and removing nails. But, theoretically, it is also can used as a weapon, a paperweight or a percussive adjustment device for an unruly washing machine. But that is hardly all. Until seeing how hammers are actually used by people, it is impossible to know to what degree the theory applies universally.

Putting aside the hammer metaphor, the past can be approached similarly. History, theoretically, is useful to the public (in which I am including myself along with everyone) in a number of discrete ways, all of which have been explored by scholars before.

History gives us narratives. This is the importance of the ‘story’ in history. On one hand history gives us ripping imaginative fodder which can be didactic or purely entertaining (or, at its best, both). It gives us heroes and villains who engage in epic struggles.  And even further, history gives us settings in which to place fictional stories which make them seem more real. Making fiction historical is a powerful tool. Historical settings can be as realistic as a video showing us yesterday or as vague as ‘once upon a time’.

History tells us who we are. History plays a, I would argue, central role in identity formation; it tells us where we come from and what it means to identify ourselves in the way we do. Being American is, on its face, a simple thing: I was born in the United States and hold US citizenship. However what it means to be American is far more complex and loaded with history, both recent and less so. Similarly, what it means to be British. Or Chinese. Or working-class. Or female. History can define how we understand our town, neighbourhood, and family. This is history in the first person. History gives meaning to our identity, no matter how we define it.

History tells us who they are. Similarly, history tells us what it means to be a group that we do not consider ourselves. This can be useful in terms of building understanding and bridging the gaps between ourselves and others, or it can be destructive when used to promote prejudice or validate antipathies.

 History can help us build empathy. Related to the two above (but I feel its own category), studying history can allow us to understand people separated from ourselves—whether they by time, space or both. This is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of the humanities: seeking to overcome the gaps between ourselves and others. While it is important not to assume that people from other times and cultures are like us in every way, it is equally important to understand that what separates us is almost exclusively cultural. If done well, this can inform us as much about ourselves as it does about others.

Pyramids of Giza

History gives us perspective. When confronted with the great swath of that-which-has-come-before, it is difficult not to feel one’s own life is insignificant. However, when confronted with the stories of the great people who lived before, it reminds us that we do have efficacy, that we can change the world. And history can make us feel less alone—our actions, no matter how small, are part of something far greater than ourselves. Whether that gives our lives meaning is a question for philosophers, but the simple fact is that we are making history every moment we live.


History tells us what (and what not) to do. You all know the George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is pithy, and in some ways true, and is thus useful at cocktail parties when justifying to hostile combatants why history departments should retain their funding. But using the past as a predictive for future action is problematic in the least. Does the history of World War II mean we should intervene in Syria? What about the history of Somalia? Or the American Civil War? Or Iran? History gives us examples of what to do and what not to do, but I fear that the weight of history has given us too many examples which can be used to justify a host of positions– right or wrong– in the present. 

All of these are good and important uses of history. But they do not exist in a moral vacuum. Each can be used for negative purpose, to promote hatreds and divisions, to justify atrocities or apathy in their face. One does not have to look very far into the past to see how history can be manipulated to suit a dangerous political agenda.

The question thus becomes, how is history understood, how do those understandings develop and change, and how are they used? In this very public realm, the historian’s focus can shift from ‘is it accurate or inaccurate?’ to ‘is it for positive or negative effect?’  And moreover, these are only some of the ways history might be used. The list is surely not exhaustive. Nor is it sophisticated—it does not indicate how often it is used, and how actively. Some of these uses may exist purely unconsciously, whereas some motivate us to action (whether that be to take our children to a historical site, watch a particular TV programme or join a revolutionary movement). The only way to understand these questions is to study them, not only with theory and conjecture, but using rigorous empirical methods.

  • Note: Apologies for the advertisement which I have only just been informed has taken up residence at the bottom of this page– I will do what I can to remove them, however from a cursory exploration, it seems it will cost on the order of an extra $30 a year to do so.


  1. Jeffrey Hull says:

    Would it not be more accurate to use the phrase “public’s misunderstanding of the past”? Hah! Enjoying the essays here, thanks. 😉

    • Hi Jeffrey,

      Glad you’re enjoying the essays here.

      I actually disagree. I know that often the public’s understanding of the past is flawed, but to dismiss it all as misunderstandings is, I think, not only unhelpful but a little snobbish (no offense). I’ve encountered this perspective when presenting my research at a few universities and conferences– there often will be an academic (or many) who either assume that the public knows nothing, that what they know is all wrong, or that we shouldn’t care what the public thinks about the past.

      I disagree with all of that. I don’t have the time to get into it at the moment, but at the very least, on the last point (that it doesn’t matter what they know), the examples whereby the past has been used to justify atrocities of all stripes is a useful enough example (if perhaps an extreme one) to justify at least knowing what they do understand… and not just assuming it’s nothing, or that it’s all wrong. At some of the public lectures I’ve given– you’d be surprised, often they know more than many historians might think they do…

      Thanks for reading– I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

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