Of course, I'm a bit partial.

Posted by Whit Barringer , Wednesday, December 23, 2009 9:35 AM




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A thread on my old Honors forum asked a question about the most important/least important subject. My answer may seem obvious to those that know anything about me. My feelings are by no means set in stone, and while I describe history as a noble profession, I don't think most noble professional historians are, to paraphrase Voltaire, professional, noble, or really even historians.

My answer:


Alright. I promised that when I cared enough I'd get involved with this, so here I go.

History is the most important discipline. It is also the most interdisciplinary.

At one point, history was simply narrative. Establishing the narrative was the most important part of it all. History, which, when a part of the Trivium, was taught as part of Grammar, is the oldest discipline on Earth. Religion is history. Legends are history. Stories are history. These are all narratives of the human journey.

History only became professionalized as recently as the 19th century, and mostly started in Germany. We didn't really start having professional historians in America until the 20th century. So the history that we study in universities is a relatively new invention. But the discipline itself - with its specialists and its experts - has roots in something much older.

History is the story of the connections between human beings and the events that change them. It is the historian's profession to be more connected to the human condition than any other profession. Biologists look at the components that make us human. Historians look at the components of memory, which is arguably what makes us more human than our DNA.

Today, we can say, without too much argument, that the narrative has been established. The information that would be able to turn the narrative over is mostly lost, or will be discovered by armies of historians from around the world, scouring every archive, or will be declassified by some state agency. But rest assured that children in classrooms will not be learning that William the Conquerer wasn't actually the Battle of Hastings, or that John Wilkes Boothe actually shot a decoy. Nothing so drastic will come about in our lifetimes, I suspect.

So history isn't self sustainable by looking at old documents anymore. The untapped history that remains is not just in documents no one cared to look at before (like the writings of women or immigrants), but in the ground and in numbers. History is now the combination of many satellite disciplines - psychology, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, religious studies, political science, literature, journalism, folklore, and even philosophy - all set to compliment, strengthen, or destroy the prevailing narrative.

Arguments that English and writing are better because they came first are moot, because history is rooted in language, which was at one point only spoken. Arguments for language as the most important discipline because it came first is moot for the exact same reason - history is rooted in the very language we use to tell its story, and the study of language is so modern that it never touched these roots. I am partial to the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), but even they are embodied within history to a certain extent - the discoveries and inventions contained within each are also contained with a historical context. The Quadrivium does not provide the same context for history.

Feel free to challenge me, but I have thought about this a lot and I will take on any challenge without much hesitation. I'll close with this: history is the most important discipline because it is so intertwined with the human condition. No human being can be expected to know all of history. But with historians in the world, they keep the richness of the human experience close to the surface instead of forgotten in the passage of time.
This all according to the history grad student. Take it for what you will.

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