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Why Study History?

by Jonathan Zimmerman on Mar 19, 1997

Jonathan Zimmerman

"That's history."

We've all heard this expression, and we all know what it means. "That's history," or, even better, "That's ancient history," suggests that the past is irrelevant. Sure, history happened. But so what? And why, most of all, should we bother to learn it?

One stock answer is that history teaches "lessons." Trotting out George Santayana's hoary aphorism — "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it" — some people argue that history can help guide us into a more just, humane, and enlightened future. Scholars of social reform are especially prone to this perspective. By performing "experiments on dead people," to quote another well-worn cliche, history allows us to analyze which reforms have failed, which have worked, and, most importantly, which ones we might profitably revive today.

As a social liberal and a temperamental optimist, I find this viewpoint deeply inspiring. As an historian, however, I also find it hopelessly implausible. History can promote human improvement, I've come to believe, but not in the didactic or formulaic manner that terms like "lesson" and "experiment" imply. Instead, history helps us re-examine our most basic assumptions, beliefs, and ideologies. It complicates our lives, making us wiser people if not wiser policymakers.

The current debate over same-sex marriage provides a rich illustration of the use, and mis-use, of history. Pressing to lift the ban on gay unions, proponents correctly note that interracial marriages were also illegal for most of America's past. Sixteen states still prohibited black-white marriage in 1967, when the Supreme Court's evocatively entitled Loving v. Virginia decision struck down such measures. Moreover, segregationist arguments against "race-mixing" (it's unnatural, it violates Christian sensibilities, and it will spark even more prejudice and discrimination) bore a remarkable resemblance to modern arguments against gay marriage. So, advocates argue, history "proves" that bans on same-sex unions are just as bigoted and misguided as the racial restrictions that preceded them.

Logically, however, history "proves" nothing of the sort. Even if we admit that the arguments against interracial marriage were wrong, it does not follow that the same arguments, when applied to gay marriage, are wrong. I am personally and profoundly repulsed by bans on same-sex unions. But I don't think that I as an historian can demonstrate the wisdom of my opinion by invoking the history of black-white marriage.

So, what can the historian do? At a minimum, one can press opponents of gay unions to re-examine their assumptions about what is "natural" and "Christian." The only African-American on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, says that gay marriage is an offense to his religion. But he is also married to a white woman, something that theologians (and judges!) once deemed just as odious.

Moreover, the historian can encourage people on both sides of the debate to question their claim (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) that removing the ban on gay marriage would unleash an avalanche of such unions. The history of black-white marriage suggests–not "proves" or even "shows," but suggests–something else. Despite the dire predictions of white racists, no mass interracial run to the altar occurred in the wake of the Loving decision.

Likewise, there may be much less desire among gays to get married than either their homophobe opponents or their straight allies imagine. In Mississippi, for example, more than three years elapsed between Loving and the state's first black-white marriage. But that, as they say, is history: it widens the road of choices before us, even if it may never illuminate the best road to choose.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).