In his new book, Reappraisals, Tony Judt claims we live in an "age of forgetting". We regard history, he says, not as something that has shaped us, but rather a litany of error and delusion from which we have escaped into sanity. And because our economy is undergoing the most rapid and extensive transformation the world has ever seen, we believe history has nothing to teach us: we think "that was then; this is now."
Which raises the questions: is this true? If so, why?
It certainly hard to square with what seems an active market for history. The BBC's History magazine sells as well as the New Statesman and Jewish Chronicle combined; two TV channels are devoted to history, albeit sustained by Nazi-porn; and popular books on history sell well.
And yet, I suspect many might be guilty of Judt's charge. Here are three possible causes of the problem:
1. An undervaluing of academia generally. Knowledge for its own sake - be it history, Latin, pure science - has a low priority. The function of education is thought to be preparing people for work.
2. Managerialism. The most famous saying of the quintessential managerialist Henry Ford is: "history is bunk." And it is for managerialists, who are always "moving forward", "progressing" away from an irrelevant past: Tony's Blair's ignorance of history was limitless. The managerialist faith that all problems are soluble requires a blindness to history, which tells us this is not so. No boss values the employee who tells him: "we tried that a few years ago, and it didn't work."
3. Narcissism. In an era when we all think ourselves unique and special, we flatter ourselves that we are self-made men rather than bearers of historical and social relations. We don't therefore need history to tell us who we are.
As Oasis put it in one of their most popular songs:
I'm free to be whatever I
Whatever I choose
But the point is that the Gallaghers were not free, but were instead products of history; men who used musical history as refuge from a dysfunctional working class family. History made them, as it made us all.