In a discussion about the progression of historical scholarship throughout history on In Our Time (BBC radio program hosted by Melvyn Bragg), John Burrow, Emeritus Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, made an offhand remark that there was a difference between being a historian and being a scholar. This was encased within a discussion about objectivity versus bias, argumentation and persuasion versus fact.
The implication here is that most historians are trying to persuade the reader of something, often that their subject is truly worthy of study. This is true of the modern historian as well as it is of the historical historian, whether talking about where the world has come from or what is currently happening, often framed in reference to where the world is going. Of course there are the myriad of quotes, from Kennedy, to Santayana, to Hoover, to Jefferson that claim that the best predictor of the future is the past and that the study of history (and by extension historians) are vital to the continued “improvement of the human race. ” (My quotations). This claim would be true whether studying the brilliance and folly of great men, or the winds of cultural change.
The scholar is instead interested in truth. Why did things happen, and, in many cases, what actually happened. This seems to me more important than the argumentation and worth of various events. Indoctrination of values is not what the study of history should be about. At the purest sense, the study of history should be about what happened and why people should care about a given historian is the connections they are able to draw between periods and their ability to persuade people that their information is correct; in this regard the study of history should be about knitting the history of the world and the human race throughout time closer together.
I must be careful; my enthusiasm for scholarship must not be mistaken for disagreement with those who find insight and lessons from the study of history. Quite the contrary, I just don’t think that in scholarly historical research there need be overarching lessons explicitly stated. This is why history, in an ideal world, is discussion based; the lessons are those that each person discovers for themselves or are come to in discussion. It is not the job of the historian to proclaim morals, values and “lessons;” it is the job of the historian to provide stories that are true and well written. There will be enough interest for all, or nearly all, facets of history to be covered. It is the job of the history teacher to provide students a forum and the expertise to mine the lessons for themselves.
Aside from these lessons from history, which people may be steered towards, but ultimately derive from the individual, the purpose of studying history is to prepare students for life. It opens the eyes to a wide world, a rich world, which should in turn open students to new ideas; and above all, the ability to read, write, discuss and argue. These are skills which every person should be endowed with and will serve people in all walks of life. Sure, this information and these skills are available elsewhere, but not in the same condensed location.