History is a discipline, not a virtue


There has been much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the past few days on the part of white supremacists who suddenly have a heart-felt attachment to the ‘history’ of Confederate monuments in the United States. The monuments, they argue, must be preserved because they honour the legacy of a bunch of guys who lost a war to enslave other people and participation trophies are important. Never mind that the majority of Confederate monuments have not survived to us from the American Civil War, and were erected during the Jim Crow era of the twentieth century. No no! They must be preserved, in situ, because they are a part of history.

I regret to inform you that this thinking makes no sense to actual historians.

The sudden cri de coeur about the importance of preserving ‘history’ is absurd because history isn’t the act of simply remembering a series of events. It is the act of combing through documents and artefacts from another era and analysing them. We then use this analysis to inform our view of how society functioned at that particular time, and how people lived within it. A statue is not, therefore, in and of itself, valuable because it recounts a particular time. It is valuable because it tells us about the values of the people who erected it.

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