Sample answer: CSSA Trial 2021



For copyright reasons, we cannot reproduce the CSSA question in its entirety. It consisted of two passages: Source A was an extract from an op-ed piece by Kyle Harper in the New York Times, February 15 2021, titled Ancient Rome Has an Urgent Warning for Us; Source B was an extract from How Do We Learn From History? (2005) by the ex-President of the American Historical Association James J. Sheehan. This sample answer does not claim to be definitive; it is important to remember that History Extension allows great latitude in the structure and content of students' responses, as long as they are 'comprehensive, logical, and sustained'. The answer was hand-written in 60 minutes and then typed up. Only minor corrections (spelling errors) were made.

The question was To what extent have the reasons people study history changed over time? Use Sources and and at least ONE other source to support your argument. 

Students had one hour to write their answer.

Superficially, the reasons why we study history have changed a great deal, probably as a result of changes in attitudes to the components of history – the individual, the state, our relationship with Nature, our understanding of the human capacity to learn and adapt. Yet whether we believe, with Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, Kyle Harper and James Sheehan, that the study of history serves a Classical ideals of public virtue by an elite of educated citizens, or, with the early Christian historians, that it is an act of spiritual reflection and justification of the salvation oeconomia within which each individual soul has been situated by Providence, the reasons for the study of history boil down to a common belief that we cannot exist, as individuals or nations, in a state of presentism. Whether historians are Classical Greek, early Christian, 18th century Volkische, or practitioners of the microhistory of the 1970s and 1980s, they concur that it is not only morally, practically, and psychologically beneficial to study our past, but an unavoidable part of the way humans live. Measuring the extent to which reasons for historical study have changed is frustrated by the different angles of view which History (when critically practiced) encourages us to take: in one sense, philosophical categories and thus the reasons which they inform, have changed greatly; on the other, the persistent underlying reference to ideas of the good and beneficial has changed very little.

The claim that reasons for studying history have changed greatly is indeed supported by a survey of different schools. Once – and recurringly, as Kyle Harper and James Sheehan show – history was studied by publicly-minded men, who understood themselves primarily as citizens, whose service to a state was in the form of advising its policy by reference to its history. Even Herodotus, whose wanderings around Greece and Asia served a uniquely new form of narrative, did it to answer a question that was fundamentally public – why did a little collection of quarrelsome states unite against a vast empire, and how did they pull off their triumph? Polybius’ interest in ‘choosing the best policy in a particular cause’ is the forerunner of Sheehan’s interest in the ‘politically useful and practically important’ and Harper’s warning against pursuing ‘neatly packaged solutions for our own crises’. For these men, the intellectual endeavour of History (outlined by Sheehan in virtue-ethic language which consciously evokes Seneca, Cicero, and Tacitus) serves the promotion, stability, and maintenance of the state which largely defined them and their families. Despite Harper’s proposal that ‘it sensitizes us to perceive dimensions of history that we had missed before’, his preference for the lessons of Ancient Rome (rather than, say, the ancient Mesoamericans, or the ancient Chinese) suggests that he remains firmly in the camp of ‘manly men historians and the Glories of the State’. In the service of this ideal, concepts like the truth-value of knowledge, the ethics of research, and the value of the chronological narrative direct their method: an interrogative skepticism to public documents, legends, accounts, and narratives at the service of Polybius’ pragmatike historia (a history of ‘things’ or pragmata, as well as pragmatic). As the fora in which Harper and Sheehan are published suggest, it is not an inclusive struggle, and privileges members of the political and academic Establishment over those ruled by it.

Thus it is in response to this res publica project that different styles of historical thought, and reasons for study, arise. Such initially-oppositional schools of history included the early Christians, who studied the past as a way of contextualizing and preparing for a messianic return – an entirely different reason (and chronology) from that of their Roman oppressors, to whose empire they ‘wrote back’ (and still do, if the rise of Creationism is anything to go by). A similar dynamic of oppression and response affecting reasons for historical study is evident in the Medieval Jewish traditions, which not only sought to record their existence and treatment, but to validate that record-making process. The external, objective, public focus of those historians like Sheehan who refuse ‘to believe something merely because we wish it to be true’ stands in stark contrast to Christian history, where the salvation oeconomia functions as the proscenium arch over all earthly history, and in which the individual soul is both the currency and focus of historical reasoning. It was in an attempt to marry these two strains of historical thought, and their different attitudes to the concept of the polis that Augustine’s massive work was named The City of God, situating the individual, temporally-bound human (theoretically if not practically regardless of social state or education) in a much wider, spiritual chronology. Although the rise of a secular, scientific world disregards eschatological reasons for historical study, movements like Big History and Eco-history use aeons rather than fiscal or liturgical years to remind audiences that both the Heavenly and Earthly cities are little more than narrative products of a species which is probably very transient. These narratives are as various as the ‘histories’ which have driven recent Wars in the Academy, and they deliberately emphasise cultural, linguistic, and political diversity to break the general homogeneity of values in the Classical model. The reasons for the study of history from the kitchen, the canefield, the empire and so on are often to show that there are multiple versions of Ranke’s wie es eigentlich gewesen (and for postmodernists, whether ‘It’ really was at all, or as Hayden White argued, wasn’t simply a ‘product of discourse’). These versions can be as numerous as the individuals involved, as the 1970s and 80s school of microhistory argued. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms offer the opposite of the Polybian fascination with the Grand Narrative of the State – Ginzburg’s focus on Menocchio the miller’s treatment by the Inquisition shows ‘both the extent of and the limits upon human agency’ (in comparison with a public history which seeks to advise the state as the embodiment of those limits).

Yet despite the vast variety of ‘anxieties and sensibilities’ informing the reasons for historical study, they share one factor: the belief that knowledge of the past is intrinsic to a current sense of identity, whether as individuals or groups. It is, in other words, healthy for states, peoples, and people, to understand that they have a history, and thus to ‘do’ History. From an individual’s perspective, it requires those faculties which make us uniquely human – imagination, reasoning, comparative recollections, metacognition – and for groups, it involves performing research which puts people in touch with each other, acting as critics and transmitters of a common heritage. In both senses, it requires the development of a question in which the historian’s values are evident and tested. The alacrity with which historical narratives are consumed – from the work of David Hume, the first financially successful ‘popular historian’ to the telly dons devoted to refighting WWII – suggests that the core reasons for historical study are concerned with a good life, however that is defined. Thus, the answer to the question about the extent to which our reasons for studying history have changed is therefore dependent on our angle of view and the rigor of our terms. The categories to which those reasons belong, and the binaries implicit in such categories – state and individual, imperial and subaltern, mass culture and minority tradition – may look different from age to age. Yet as part of our pursuit of a good life, in which the individual (either a ‘citizen’ or a non-state-defined person) understands themselves within a continuum which has informed their engagement with the world, and asserted a rigorous sense of causality, those reasons are remarkably unchanging.