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The uses of history in a high-tech society

As a future-oriented people, Americans have never been enamored of history. Nineteenth-century European visitors often observed that life in the bustling, expanding United States was not conducive to an appreciation of the past. In contrast to Europe, even the oldest American historical landmarks seemed of recent vintage. Except for patriotic purposes (which a few historians like George Bancroft fulfilled) or as an adjunct to the classical curriculum of the colleges of that era, the study of history was not considered important.

The professionalization of history at the end of the 19th century, the establishment of history requirements in high schools, and the tremendous expansion of higher education in the 20th century brought a knowledge of history to a larger number of people than ever before. History received a certain degree of acceptance - if not admiration - from the citizenry.

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Since the 1960s, however, history has been a discipline in decline. Even in more historically conscious regions - New England and the South - college history enrollments have fallen off, and in some schools history is no longer considered an essential requirement. The number of history PhDs has steadily declined and, regrettably, few young scholars are now entering the profession.

History is increasingly perceived as irrelevant in a high-tech society. When new technologies are transforming life around us, concern for the past seems anachronistic, if not positively quaint. Of course, this disdain for history is only part of a larger assault upon the liberal arts, which in many universities now compete disadvantageously for funds with law, business, and engineering schools.

But history bears a special burden. It appears to lack both the presumed entertainment value of literature courses and the seeming contemporary relevance of sociology and political science.

The prevalence of this stereotype shows how little some people actually know about the nature of historical studies today. History is not dull. Knowledge of the past can tell us a great deal about the world we live in. Historians now survey virtually all aspects of human experience. Black history and women's history are standard offerings in most history departments, and courses dealing with the cold war, Vietnam, urban history, and the third world are no longer unusual. Historical researchers regularly employ interdisciplinary techniques. And yes, historians now use computers in their work. The analysis of quantifiable data has become a normal part of much social and political history. But the importance of history is not derived solely from historians' ability to trace the origins of contemporary issues, however valuable this may be. There are at least three other reasons that history remains indispensable in a high-tech society.

* Specialized occupational training and the instantaneous information provided by television create an ever more fragmentary view of the world. Never was there a greater need for the sense of context that history supplies. More than any other discipline, history offers a unifying system of understanding that helps us see the relationships between social, political, and cultural trends.

* In light of the lamentable decline in the study of foreign languages in the US, history provides perhaps the most important bulwark against the rise of a dangerous provincialism in our culture. This is not only because the study of history now encompasses all major areas of world civilization, but also because knowledge of earlier time periods necessarily broadens our view of the world. The course of third-world revolutions today is made clearer by an understanding of the history of the English, French, and Russian revolutions - and by the history of our own revolution of 1776. The nature of the American political system is better appreciated when we have some understanding of the development of democracy in ancient Greece and the evolution of political parties in 19 th-century Europe.

* Finally, above and beyond these ''practical'' uses of the past, there remains an irreducible humanistic value to the study of history that cannot and should not be justified in strictly utilitarian terms. Whatever the American Civil War tells us about the political history of the US, its continuing appeal as a historical subject lies in the intense drama of ordinary people caught up in events beyond their control. The same could be said for the history of immigration to the US. It has an intrinsic value beyond any perspective on current immigration policies derived from studying it. Knowledge of great historical subjects puts us in touch with our own essential humanity and enriches us in innumerable ways.

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However technologically advanced, a society without an appreciation of history is a vacuous culture, clinging to an evanescent moment that slips away before we can grasp its significance. One electronic impulse replaces another on the screen, but there is no context, no sense of tradition, no identification with the generations that have preceded us.

''Societies have a need to find ways of checking their own tendencies,'' the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter said 20 years ago. In our own time, history provides a powerful tool to achieve this goal. A high-tech society does not make history less valuable; it makes it more important than ever.

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