22 July 2019

Ortal-Paz Saar on the importance of history

Dante Alighieri by Luca Signorelli  (–1523). Bron: Wikimedia
Dante Alighieri by Luca Signorelli (–1523). Source: Wikimedia

On 21 July Dr Ortal-Paz Saar (Ancient History and Classical Civilization) was interviewed by the History News Network of the George Washington University. 

Why did you choose history as your career?

I started out as a classical archaeologist but fell in love with magic-related artifacts during my MA studies, which led to a doctorate focusing on manuscripts and history. For me, historical research is fascinating in a way similar to a detective investigation: you have clues, some of which are misleading and others fragmentary, and you need to piece together an image. You strive to achieve an accurate one, although history (especially pre-modern periods) precludes certainty.

Raison d’être

We need to ask: What does history really teach us, why is it needed today?

What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

If we want to maintain history as a subject worthy of being taught even when increasingly more historical information can be found online, we need to seriously think about its raison d’être. We need to ask: What does history really teach us, why is it needed today? These questions seem to be even more pertinent when we talk about ancient history – why should people care about what happened more than two millennia ago? I do not often come across discussions on the philosophical aspects of this discipline; maybe because people working within the discipline love it, so they do not stop to ponder on its future or its relevance. They climb the mountain because it is there. However, I find it important to pose these questions, both in class and among colleagues. 

One of the things I often tell students is that I would like to teach them critical thinking, and that history provides a toolbox they can take with them once they finish the course. This is increasingly important in the age of fake (news-, deep-, you name it). It may not be long before distinguishing true history from its other forms becomes impossible, and worse: irrelevant. My hope is that we, and the student generations we help shaping, will be able to prevent this.