Why save history?


Perhaps it isn’t just the names and dates

“By studying history, you get to know a lot of people … dead, but all very interesting”. This is what my professor of medieval history once said, before going on to explain the Chronicle of the great gossip known as Salimbene from Parma, a friar of the thirteenth century with a marked trait of blunt, if undiplomatic, sincerity.

This sentence came back to mind this year, when the study of history returned to the forefront of the news, after the Minister of Education Bussetti announced the removal of History from the list of national post-liceal exams. The reason given was that very few students chose it.

This news provoked reactions on many levels. Many students and young people got mobilised and made their disapproval known through social media. An example is the launch of the hashtag #RiprendiamociLaStoria (#Let’sTakeBackHistory) promoted by the Repubblica on Instagram and Twitter. Then came the acamedics’ turn. On April 25th, 2019 the writer Andrea Camilleri, the historian Andrea Giardina and the senator Liliana Segre, together with a group of professors and scholars with a background in the humanities, signed an appeal to the Ministry (now open for all to sign), published by the newspaper Repubblica. Recently, the decreased study of history was also a theme during the annual conference of the Guild of Teachers.

This debate made me think back to the times when I studied History in Milan and what these studies have left me with. And my professor’s phrase, even if said as a joke, perhaps hides something deeper.

Surely, one of the most tiring and boring aspects was to learn an infinite series of dates, places and characters with unlikely names by heart. Having to remember which battles had been fought or which edicts had been promulgated. How can we forget all the various ramifications of the PSI (Partito Socialista Italiano – Italian Socialist Party) during the 1900s! How many times we had to repeat the litany “Turati, Prampolini, De Felice, Bissolati …”!

Beyond this, however, what fascinated me most was the exercise of entering the world of another person for a while. When you read contemporary reports, documents, diaries, when you visit some monument, you are given the opportunity to enter another person’s world. A man or a woman who no longer lives, possessing a way of thinking, a way of seeing things, a language, a system of values which are, sometimes more, sometimes less, different from mine.

It is probably the most difficult exercise a historian has to carry out. It requires three steps:

  • The first is to take off one’s glasses: when we look closely at the life of a historical figure, at a particular event, we run the risk of looking at him with the glasses of us 21st century men, with our yardstick, with our scale of values. The most insidious lense, probably, is that of “hindsight”: we know that Napoleon “made a mistake” when he chose to invade Russia, but only because we also know that it was the beginning of his end, which Napoleon himself did not imagine.
  • The second is to put yourself in the shoes of another: it is not enough to know one’s own prejudices, but one must also try to understand who the person I am studying is, what the world in which he lives is, what he thinks, what he reads, what his ideals are, so as to thus empathise with him, to see things as he saw them. A wonderful example is found in The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg. This historian reconstructs in some chapters the whole world of Menocchio, a miller of the 16th century who had been accused of heresy by the Inquisition.
  • Finally, the third step is to come back to the future: in effect, we have a greater knowledge of  our historical character than what he had of himself, we have a broader view of the context in which he lived and the consequences of what happened, so we can understand (not judge) better than he himself could have.

In the debate of the past few months there has been talk of history as a discipline that develops one’s critical sense. Of course, when you read various documents that tell the same fact in completely different ways, you must be able to look at them critically and understand where the truth lies. One need only realise that at university there are entire courses dealing with the exegesis of historical sources to do just this.

Yet I also believe that the critical abilities that the study of history allows us to develop reside on another, deeper level. The appeal on Repubblica written by Camilleri, Segre and Giardina holds that “the historian has his own political ideas but must submit them to the documentary evidence and to debate, comparing them to the ideas of others and involving himself in their spread”. Perhaps, the critical abilities developed are aimed not so much at the sources as at ourselves.

As I have said before, my favourite exercise was to try and understand people, putting my prejudices aside and myself in their shoes. This helped me see them in a sympathetic light, it made me rejoice in their successes and get angry at their mistakes. Above all, it helped me get to know my own prejudices, my way of thinking, sometimes better and sometimes worse than theirs. Thus, returning to myself, I had a more critical view both of my culture and of my ideas.

Who knows whether the increased study of history, as requested by the signatories of the appeal, will come to be a more qualitative rather than quantitative improvement as, in a certain sense, even Minister Fioramonti had hoped. Perhaps, if we could more clearly see how the study of history can help us grow as men, as citizens, then would we finally come to a greater appreciation of the learning by rote of so many names and dates?


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