Of course it can.
But even if it doesn’t have an immediate or direct relevance to a particular contemporary issue or event, the practice of doing history cultivates virtues that are essential to a democratic society. In other words, I continue to stand by what I argued in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.
Given that history is so policy-relevant, the scepticism of the majority of professionals about ‘applied history’ is a shame. First, it displays a lack of awareness of the provenance of the discipline. Second, it implies a misunderstanding of causation – the very thing that historians are supposed to be specialists in. If one makes a claim to expertise in cause and effect, one should be trained to discern patterns and project trends forward. Third, it disregards what the public want from their historians (who they largely fund): a willingness to tackle big problems. Finally, the professional wariness about the ‘relevance’ of history is arguably one important reason why thousands of university students fret that their history degree will prove ‘useless’.
History is fascinating in itself, but what makes it so stimulating is that it offers deeper insights into the human condition that are of enduring value. The past is not a foolproof guide to the present or the future – it is simply the only guide we have. Here, Collingwood is again helpful. He believed that the past is ‘incapsulated’ in the present and thus ‘lives on’: when one peels back the layers, one quickly realises that the present is nothing more than the accumulated decisions and actions of the past. History is ‘alive and active’ and stands ‘in the closest possible relation to practical life’.
Read the entire piece here.