Points of View

Patrick Geary: The Responsibility of a Historian

APR . 28 2016

Excerpt from Patrick Geary’s speech delivered on April 10, 2016, at Peking University

For whom do we write history? People today, people tomorrow. We may hope that people tomorrow will read what we write today. But when you hear that someone had written a definitive study of something, never believe it. There is no such thing. We are incarnated, infleshed in a world in 2016 here in Beijing. There is where we are. This is the only world we’ve got. Moreover, we are citizens of this world, involved in this world and trying to understand the past for this world. We can't understand the past as it actually was, as seen in the mind of God. That’s not a human capacity. We are situated and limited. Our questions come in part from tradition of history but also to a great extent from our own society. That’s why history is being constantly rewritten because every generation needs to know different things, different perspectives on the past. So yes, we hope we are going to write books that will last for centuries, but let’s be realistic. We are in a process of communicating about the past to our present. We want to get it right and we hope that future generations will not find what we’ve said factually wrong or stupid. But they will have to do this again; they will have to write other books about the past, because they will be writing for a different world. The danger, though, is to simply take our answers about the past from our present, and project them onto the past. We start in the present because this is the only place we are but if we start out with an ideology or with an assumption about how the world works based on what we see, and we simply prove what we already know by collecting information from the past, then we are being extremely poor scholars.


The present is a point of departure, it doesn't have to be our destination but too much history does this. Not only history, literary scholarship, theology, philosophy, too much intellectual work is simply confirming the prejudices of the present by selecting what is useful to that end from the past, that’s frequently, but not always what makes very popular historians. If you want to sell a lot of books, tell people what they want to hear, and put it back in the Middle Ages and they will love it.
But there are better ways to make money and I think there are more moral ways to be a scholar. I think that what happens with the past: the past is constantly being claimed by the present in order to justify actions, ideologies, beliefs. Humans are historical beings, and our identities are formed in terms of what we think the past was, our own personal memories, collective memory and history. Thus, the past really matters. You know Americans like to say the past doesn’t matter, it’ s all engineering, you don't need to understand the culture, the past, and you can solve the world’s problems if you just have a good algorithm. So far, Americans have not done a very good job of solving problems with that approach. I think we need to understand the past but we must be very careful that we are not simply using the past to justify what we think we are going to be doing. And this is very tempting to politicians and to ideologists of all sorts. As professional scholars, we have an obligation to observe and to correct. We may not know everything about the past; we are not going to write perfectly objective history, but it doesn't mean that anything goes. We must be responsible guardians of the past, ready to say that something is not an appropriate interpretation of the past. Who among you is working on crusades, or crusade stories? Crusades are very popular now in the West. I wonder why. Clashes of civilizations, Islamism against Christianity is also very popular in certain Jihad circles in the Islamic World. The vocabulary used by Al-Qaida constantly refers to the crusaders. Is that good history? Actually, Jihadi idea of the crusaders is something that develops from reading western historians in the early 20th century. There is no long-term memory of crusades in the Islamic World. At a popular level, this is really reintroduced from the West, and certainly, there are westerners who are very eager to talk about this kind of clash. This sells books. If you really want to make a splash, write books about how the crusades were the prefiguration of the contemporary world. However, I think that would be deeply irresponsible.
What we have to do as scholars is to point out why that does not work. We need to understand these explosive and violent periods, periods of terrible violence when horrible things happened in both sides-- but the past is not happening again. We have to understand the importance of the past to the present. We have to understand the difference between the two, because history is about change. If one assumes that the past is repeating, this is surely wrong: the past is not happening again. Currently in Europe, there is great interest in the barbarian invasions, my field of study, because of the refugees from Syria and the Near East and North Africa. Politicians are saying that these are the barbarian invasions again. This is the fourth century all over again. To say that it is not the fourth century all over again does not mean that the refugee crisis is not a very serious problem that must be dealt with and that it is not being dealt with well. However, to say we should do what the Romans should’ve done is not a very creative way of dealing with this serious issue.
Our jobs as historians, very often is to be (one European scholar like to say) the watchdog of the past. We need to bark in the night if people are misusing the past and sometimes we have to bite, but don't expect to be liked. No one likes the watchdog, but watchdogs are very important. History, properly studied and properly applied is a critical discipline. Not critical in the sense of saying bad things, but thinking independently about the past and its relationship to the present. And not being afraid to make those distinctions even when there is a great desire on the part of popular society to see it differently, to connect the past with the present, to imagine the past in order to justify the present.

Peking University Global Fellowship