What History is Really For

Syria-BostonA bright spot on an otherwise sad landscape this week was the chance to become acquainted with the Boston College History Department’s Facebook Page.

On Friday, when everyone in Boston had been told to stay indoors, the following was posted: ‘Historians (profs, grad students, undergrads), since we are all locked up with nothing to do by stare at our computer screens, we might as well all weigh in on what we’ve learned this week about the power of thinking about the world like a historian.’ This led to a marathon of musing by students and professors, from a senior academic with an Irish surname recounting his own experience of ‘ethnic profiling’ by British security forces at a time when terrorist attacks were common in the UK, to an analysis of how ‘eye-witness’ accounts can be misleading, from an Anglo-Saxonist. Another comment noted how reporters seemed to be trying to ‘help’ students who had known the Tsarnaev brothers in high school to ‘remember’ things about them that would ‘explain’ their subsequent behaviour.

Then, on Sunday, the same page was sporting not only the now-viral photo of solidarity from Syria (see above), but also a long list of links sourced from around the web to show how many conflicting stories were being told about what had happened, and the following advice: ‘Here are just a few of the links out there that are informative and thought provoking, and when read together show the complexity of the historical moment in which we are living….We suggest you read and get confused, two necessary first steps for every historian.’

I do get asked, every now and then, what history is really for, and I often hear myself saying something alarmingly high-minded about how historians are the conscience of a civil society. I am truly grateful to my colleagues at Boston College for suggesting, by their thoughtful response to the recent events in their city, that this might be true after all.

***

Post Script: After I posted this, a Tufts student published an article, Boston reciprocates love to Syria in wake of attacks, on an effort by Tufts students to reciprocate the lovely gesture from Syria.

In a different vein, a Times Higher Education article, Boston Attacks: The Aftermath, surveys how other Boston-area students tried to make sense of what had happened.

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