Cliopatria is running a short essay by noted sociologist Herbert J. Gans entitled “Some Uses of History.” Most historians will find this a rather basic introduction, but it seems that Gans is writing to his fellow sociologists, trying to convince them that they might benefit from the study of history. Whatever the case, Gans piece would certainly work in an undergraduate seminar on historiography or historical thinking. Here is how he defines his terms:
Present-oriented history recounts historical events, processes and other social situations that are useful for understanding what is happening now, even if such comparisons are risky when incompletely done or decontextualized. This kind of history also reports and analyzes the origin of present organizations, institutions, social processes etc. with special attention to how their pasts continue into or shape the present…
Past-oriented history is about events and people that are not relevant in any way to the present, for example a history of Lake Michigan area Native American settlements during the 15th century. I suppose one could even write a history of Reconstruction that makes no connection to the present, although given the continuing interest in the subject, not to mention the role it played in the arrival of Jim Crow, that would be a difficult task. However, who would find a study of the farm tools of 19th century sharecroppers helpful in understanding the economic condition of today’s poor urban African Americans.