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The Importance of Applied History

The Importance of Applied History

Table of Contents

This article aims to provide an in-depth exploration of the importance of applied history. We will delve into the methodology that defines this field of study, look at its various applications in diverse sectors, discuss its benefits at personal, societal, and global levels, and finally address its criticisms and challenges. In doing so, we hope to foster a greater appreciation for applied history and encourage its more comprehensive application in our daily lives and societal decision-making.

Definition of Applied History

Applied History is a field of study that seeks to connect past lessons with present decisions. It involves using historical knowledge, analysis, and insights to address and illuminate contemporary issues. Unlike theoretical history, which is often focused on understanding historical events for its own sake, applied history seeks to derive actionable insights that can guide current and future decision-making.

Brief Overview of the Importance and Role of Applied History

The importance of applied history cannot be overstated. As a philosopher, George Santayana famously remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Applied history offers us a tool to avoid such repetition by giving us a clear lens through which we can view the present and plan for the future. It allows us to learn from the successes and failures of the past, informing our choices and providing a greater context for the world we live in.

Applied history plays a pivotal role in contemporary life, from shaping public policy and business strategy to informing educational practices and encouraging informed citizenship. It is a field of study that marries the past to the present, enabling us to navigate the complexities of the modern world with the wisdom gleaned from history.

Origins and Evolution of Applied History

The term “applied history” was first coined in 1909 by political scientist and historian Benjamin Shambaugh, a founding member of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (now known as the Organization of American Historians). He launched the publication Applied History in 1912, which ran until 1930.

The term and discipline receded during the Great Depression but re-emerged in the 1970s with new forms and contexts. Notably, in 1974, Harvard University historian Ernest R. May published “Lessons of the Past”: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy, arguing for more substantive engagement with the discipline of history to improve policymaking. In the following years, many other initiatives, courses, and programs were launched related to applied history.

Key Figures and Seminal Works in the Field

Today, there are several academic programs in applied history, such as the Center for Applied History at Shippensburg University and the Applied History Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Additionally, projects like Corvus at KU Leuven and the State Archives of Belgium use their research in applied history for historical consultancy.

In 2018, historians Harm Kaal and Jelle van Lottum founded the Journal of Applied History, published by academic publisher Brill Publishers.

Examination of Primary and Secondary Sources in Applied History

In applied history, just as in any other historical research, examining primary and secondary sources is crucial.

  • Primary sources are firsthand accounts or records of events created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. These can be diaries, letters, speeches, photographs, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records, or any other source of direct information.
  • Secondary sources, on the other hand, are works that analyze, assess, or interpret a historical event, era, or phenomenon, generally using primary sources. These can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that evaluate or criticize someone else’s original research.

In applied history, these sources are used to gather and interpret historical data, which can then be used to inform current decision-making processes. It’s a process that allows us to learn from the past directly, practically, and relevantly.

The Process of Drawing Parallels Between Past and Present

Drawing parallels between the past and present is a fundamental aspect of applied history. It involves carefully analyzing historical events, trends, or patterns and then relating them to contemporary issues or situations. The objective is not to suggest that history repeats itself exactly but to understand that similar conditions can lead to similar outcomes.

This process can provide valuable insights and lessons for the present. By understanding how different factors have interacted to bring about a particular outcome in the past, we can better predict or understand similar occurrences in the present or future. This can be particularly useful in policymaking, where understanding history can help shape more effective and informed policies.

Objectivity and Critical Thinking in Applied History

Objectivity and Critical Thinking in Applied HistoryObjectivity and critical thinking are vital in applied history, as they are in any discipline that involves research and analysis. Objectivity requires an unbiased approach, not allowing personal feelings or opinions to influence the interpretation of findings. It’s about presenting the facts as they are without coloring them with personal beliefs or biases.

On the other hand, critical thinking involves questioning assumptions, evaluating evidence, discerning hidden values, and examining one’s beliefs and values. It’s about not accepting information at face value but scrutinizing it to determine its validity.

In applied history, critical thinking might involve questioning the validity of sources, assessing the context in which a historical event occurred, or examining the various factors that may have influenced a particular outcome. Objectivity is essential to ensure that the lessons drawn from history are not skewed by personal bias.

Benefits of Applied History

Applied history offers several personal, societal, and global benefits.

Personal Benefits

  • Understanding One’s Place in the World: Through studying history, we can better understand the context of our existence. It helps us recognize the social, cultural, and political forces shaping our world. By applying history, we can draw parallels between the past and our own experiences, fostering a sense of perspective and identity.
  • Learning from Past Mistakes: Applied history allows us to learn from past mistakes to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. It provides a unique perspective on issues we face, as we can analyze how similar problems were handled in the past, what outcomes resulted, and what could have been done differently.

Societal Benefits

  • Informed Citizenship: History provides the knowledge necessary for citizens to make informed decisions. By applying historical insights to contemporary issues, citizens can better understand the implications of their choices and actions. This understanding promotes active and responsible participation in society.
  • Improved Public Policy: Policymakers can use historical analysis to inform their decisions, helping to create more effective and equitable policies. Policymakers can anticipate potential pitfalls and make better-informed decisions by understanding historical trends, contexts, and outcomes. This can improve areas like healthcare, education, and economic policy.

Global Benefits

  • Promoting Understanding Between Nations: History provides insight into the cultural, political, and social contexts that shape nations. By applying history, we can foster a deeper understanding of different nations, promoting empathy and cooperation. This understanding can help reduce cultural misunderstandings that can lead to conflicts.
  • Avoiding Historical Repetition: As the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Applied history can help the global community recognize patterns and trends that have led to undesirable outcomes, such as wars or economic crises. This understanding can inform actions to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

Challenges and Criticisms of Applied History

Like any discipline, applied history has challenges and criticisms, including the risk of oversimplification or misinterpretation and the problem of bias and subjectivity. While I could not find specific examples or discussions of these criticisms within the time limit, it is not difficult to imagine how they might manifest. For instance, the risk of oversimplification or misinterpretation arises from the complexity of history itself. Historical events are multi-faceted, influenced by various social, political, economic, and cultural factors. Therefore, applying historical knowledge to contemporary issues risks oversimplifying these complex dynamics or misinterpreting past lessons.

As for the problem of bias and subjectivity, history is written and interpreted by individuals, each with their perspectives, preferences, and backgrounds. This is even more pertinent in applied history, where the aim is not just to understand the past but to use it to address present problems. Therefore, the historian’s personal views can influence which aspects of history they deem relevant, how they interpret it, and how they apply it.

Addressing these criticisms and refining the discipline is an ongoing process. An example of how the field is being refined can be seen in the book “Applied History and Contemporary Policymaking” edited by Robert Crowcroft. The essays address some of the most important geopolitical challenges today, focusing on statecraft, policy, and strategy. The essays explore various policy areas and historical problems, considering the nature and limits of historical judgment and examining how applied history can be used to rethink contemporary challenges.

The Future of Applied History

New directions and trends in the field

The future of applied history will likely continue to evolve in response to the changing world. The field will likely incorporate more interdisciplinary perspectives, reflecting the broader trend toward intersectionality in academia. Additionally, the future of applied history could involve more work in policy-making, with historians taking an even more active role in public life. Historians could be increasingly called upon to apply their knowledge of history to contemporary challenges, helping to shape responses to geopolitical crises, ideological shifts, and other pressing issues. This could involve work in government and business, NGOs, and other areas of public life.

The role of technology in applied history, such as digital humanities

While I encountered difficulties finding specific examples of how technology and digital humanities influence applied history, it is clear that these areas are likely to impact the field significantly. The increasing digitization of historical sources and the use of computational methods in historical research could enable new types of analysis and interpretation. This could change the way historians work and broaden the reach and impact of their work.

Potential Impact on future societal decisions

The potential impact of applied history on future societal decisions is vast. By drawing lessons from the past, applied history can inform policy-making, help societies navigate change, and promote a more informed citizenry. This could involve everything from shaping responses to geopolitical crises to influencing economic policies and educational strategies.

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