1. "What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun." That's the poet of Ecclesiastes speaking, and he makes it hard to get excited about history. Ecclesiastes also says that human endeavor is vanity upon vanity upon vanity. The poet repeats this latter point rather more often than is necessary.
If I were an historian, and if I accidentally read a couple of chapters of Ecclesiastes before breakfast, I'd go to a pancake house and order a double portion of artery-clogging cheese blintzes with bacon and a cinnamon roll and black coffee. Because why not?
I'd borrow a stained copy of The National Enquirer and read several extensive articles about the Kardashians before staggering home, uncorking the gin and drunk-texting old girlfriends. I'd blow off writing any history for the week.
2. The literary critic Harold Bloom advanced the notion that every serious writer tries to erase the work of his or her ancestors, so as to write upon a blank page. This idea puts historians in a bind: if you erase the efforts of your ancestors, you destroy your material. Sure, you can go back and reinterpret primary sources. For instance, you can look at George Washington as the great patriot who fathered a country or as the slave-owning oligarch who refused to pay his fair share of taxes. Same data, different conclusion.
But George Washington still manifests as the heavy, dead hand of the past. There's been a bunch of stuff written about him, so you'll never begin with a blank page if you're honest. A lot of hostility toward the past results from our ancestors being so hard to erase—and how little room to maneuver their accomplishments allow us. It makes you sympathize with the history-hating folks who burned the Library at Alexandria, even if it did contain all the lost plays of Sophocles and a simple kitchen formula for eternal youth and the schematics for the faster-than-light starship that brought our alien ancestors to this planet.
3. Insecure rulers have burned the libraries and defaced the statues of kings and queens that preceded them. The French Revolutionary calendar started with Year Zero and got to year 12 before Napoleon abolished it. The Muslim calendar marks 2015 as 1436. In the Chinese calendar it's 4709. It's 5775 in the Jewish calendar.
The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, perhaps inspired by their long ordeal as a French colony, also declared a Year Zero and set about slaughtering anyone who remembered otherwise. It is not good to know history in the midst of a revolution, whose leaders tend to insist that there is indeed something new under the sun. It's the nature of revolutionaries to prefer blank slates, clean sheets of paper and new ideas. These things testify to the palpable nonexistence of their predecessors.
In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the records of archaeologists trying to reconstruct ancient Khmer temples, leaving carefully-numbered piles of building stone and statue fragments: three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles with millions of look-alike pieces.
4. "History is more or less bunk," said Henry Ford in 1916. Ford should have remembered his own assertion when he came across The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but he treated that piece of malevolent fiction as an authentic primary source. It formed the foundation for his anti-Semitism, provided the impetus for his anti-Semitic newspaper, and ultimately inspired Hitler to keep a picture of Henry Ford on his desk.
Ford's example shows that it's hard to escape a naïve faith in history, even when you say it's bunk. Rejecting history doesn't get rid of the past, it just ensures that you don't look critically at the artifacts the past has delivered. Any old piece of junk can be a valuable antique. Any piece of propaganda can be true. Any belief can be justified by historical facts made up on the spot. The United States didn't start out as a fundamentalist Christian country? No problem. It was now.
The story goes that Ford remained an unrepentant anti-Semite all his life, railing against Jewish bankers and war profiteers until he saw films taken by the liberators of the Nazi death camps. Upon witnessing the endgame of his own propaganda, he had the cerebral hemorrhage that killed him. This story could be true, but it has a symmetry that suggests it is propaganda disguised as history.
5. In our own time, technology may create a Year Zero. Certainly the folks who gutted the Boise State University history department seem to think so. Human intelligence will be made obsolete by artificial intelligence, which will go on to invent a future that has no connection to the past. It will be a revolution in the truest sense of the word.
"We just can't afford to subsidize [History] anymore," is how Boise State administrators are introducing a brave new world of corporate grants, branded classrooms, technology initiatives and pay-as-you-go liberal arts.
They've reduced the number of credits required to graduate. Students are being told that history is vanity, which indicates that these administrators have been selectively reading their Ecclesiastes, or that they devoutly wish for a Year Zero to free them from the impossible burden of two already-played Fiesta Bowls, or both.