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The Uses and Abuses of History (Modern Library Chronicles #31)

3.56  ·  Rating Details ·  849 Ratings  ·  144 Reviews
History is useful when it is used properly: to understand why we and those we must deal with think and react in certain ways. It can offer examples to inform our decisions and guesses about the consequences of our actions. But we should be wary of looking to history for dogmatic lessons.We should distrust those who abuse history when they call on it to justify unreasonable ...more
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published April 15th 2008 by Viking
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Paul Bryant
Well, 170 pages full of good examples of the fact that history is very FRAUGHT - you can't say a thing without someone being mortally offended. Just like most family get-togethers! MM says that "professional historians have largely been abandoning the field to amateurs" - that's a bold thing to say. Does she name these phonies? No. She says that the professionals have been dragged into inscrutable theorising, in the same way the semioticians and the post-modernists dragged English literature int ...more
Bill  Kerwin

This is an interesting collection of lectures that discuss the way in which the knowledge of history--or the lack of it--may affect our ways of acting in the present. I particularly liked McMillan's explanation of why eyewitnesses have no particular advantage--let alone a precedence--in historical interpretation, and her exploration of the importance of particular parochial versions of history in the forming of nations and the fomenting of nationalistic attitudes.

Each of her arguments is illumi
Riku Sayuj
Humility is one of the most useful lessons that the past can provide the present.

As John Carey, the distinguished British man of letters, puts it, “One of history’s most useful tasks is to bring home to us how keenly, honestly and painfully, past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful.”

If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility and scepticism, then it has done something useful. We must continue to examine our own assumptions and those of others an
May 20, 2009 Eric_W rated it really liked it
This book is especially timely given the proposed changes to history textbooks by the Texas Commission on Education that would increase the visibility of Newt Gingrinch and Phyllis Schlafly at the expense of Thurgood Marshall. (This problem is not new. Frances Fitzgerald wrote a terrific book several years ago about the problem of textbooks in America Revised.)

Nations use history as a way to inspire nationalistic feeling. They do so by selectively inculcating "lessons" gleaned from the past to i
Mar 25, 2011 Sesana rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
Mislead by the cover copy. Reading the book jacket would lead you to believe that this will be a sort of history of who has misquoted and misused history, and how and to what purposes. There is a bit of that, a very little bit. But it's really more of a lengthy essay on the very general whys and hows of what makes people try to use history to their own ends. There are examples, sure, but not nearly as many as I had thought there would be. It's still very well-written, and interesting, and I thou ...more
Nov 17, 2014 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook
MacMillan writes what can best be called a soapbox on history and its common misconceptions, from her perspective as a 'professional' historian and academic. Some readers may label the book as the historian's manifesto against the ongoing bastardisation of the subject and how its abuse can (obviously) completely change the future. MacMillan examines the various means by which history can be used as a tool and how those uses can, and commonly are, used to push a specific view. While the adage sta ...more
Nick Davies
Nov 21, 2016 Nick Davies rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
This is an interesting read, not without fault, but (despite the first half raising more queries from me as a reader than it offered answers) overall I found it more deserving of merit than deserving of criticism.

MacMillan aims to define the role of history, and seeking and publicising historical knowledge gained through research, and also to explore examples of the pitfalls of misuse of historical fact/opinion by leaders and followers alike. There are plenty of examples of so-called abuses of '
Lyn Elliott
Jul 02, 2015 Lyn Elliott rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
This excellent little book is drawn from a lecture series and has the liveliness and easy flow one would expect as a result. It is certainly not a work of high theory on the nature of history or the way history should be written, rather a plea to be both wary of using it as a basis for territorial expansion, for instance, and to be aware of histories and cultures before we, for instance, embark rashly on invasion of another's territory.
It is sensible, practical, uses many examples from the twen
Anna Pearce
“History is about remembering the past but it is also about what we choose to forget….Some of the most difficult and protracted wars in societies around the world have been over what is being omitted or downplayed in the telling of their history – and what should be kept in. When people talk, as they frequently do, about the need for “proper” history, what they really mean is the history they want and like. School textbooks, university courses, movies, books, war memorials, art galleries, and mu ...more
Jim Coughenour
Reading this book was like sipping a cup of tepid cocoa. I picked it up with high expectations – MacMillan is the much-heralded author of Paris 1919 – and was almost immediately disappointed by a style crafted to offend and interest no one. In the spiky sub-genre of the "uses and abuses of history," this book is all soft round edges. Here's a typical sentence: "History has so often produced conflicts, but it can also help in bringing about reconciliations." (p. 136) I'm tempted to say that the b ...more
Margaret Mehl
Feb 11, 2017 Margaret Mehl rated it really liked it
While humanities departments at universities are increasingly under pressure because they supposedly have little practical use, history, one of the oldest humanities subjects, remains hugely popular with the general public. The eminent historian Margaret Macmillan acknowledges this fact in The Uses and Abuses of History, first published in 2008 and written for a wide audience.

Her first chapter is entitled, “The History Craze.” Subsequent chapters describe the different way in which history is u
Aug 07, 2009 Gordon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russians came up with the saying, "These days, we live in a country with an unpredictable past". History is always about the interpretation and re-interpretation of the past from the perspective of the needs of the present. Ever since that realization hit home with me a decade or so ago when I read E.H. Carr's great book "What is History?" it has made me carefully check the year that any work of history was written, before I decide whether ...more
Mike Clinton
Aug 01, 2014 Mike Clinton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've had this shelved for a year or so and finally picked it up to give it a quick read. The new academic year will start at the end of this month, so I want to begin getting myself gradually into the mental flow of reflecting upon the critical nature of history. I'm giving this five stars not so much because it has the attributes of a profound and influential classic, although it is profound in an understated way, engagingly written, and accessibly describes examples from around the world that ...more
Meg - A Bookish Affair
This book fell sort of flat for me. It's been said that 'history is written by the victors' and MacMillan, a noted historian, believes this is true (as do I). MacMillan's premise is that what we understand to be our history is really subjective. Yes, there are facts in history but there is always story and that is the part that becomes subjective. What facts are left in? What facts are left out? What's glossed over? What's emphasized? I think this is something that historians struggle with a lot ...more
May 19, 2015 Richard rated it really liked it
Professor Margaret MacMillan writes a lucid and compelling analysis of the importance of History in our lives. She illustrates the way History can be applied on a macro- and micro-cosmic level. Of course it can be misapplied in many ways and she gives examples of that too. Paramount in her approach is her concern with the power of History to develop personal understanding and awareness:

"... History helps us to understand: first, those with whom we have to deal, and second, and this is equally im
Apr 23, 2014 Wise_owl rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Short, succint and covering some ground I've already seen, this is a book that I would recommend to people. MacMillan touches on the ways in which people utilize history in their lives, in their politics and to devices. Classic examples, such as how the German understanding of the end of WWI led to the rise of the Nazi's. Less well known examples; the struggles over the Enola Grey exhibit in the Smithsonian, the questions of how to deal with the French Revolution in French Schools.

Ultimately it
Vikas Datta
Jan 22, 2016 Vikas Datta rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent... a most articulately but accessibly argued account of what history is and shouldn't be, where it can be legitimately used and where not, and the perils of ignoring it or using it selectively or lop-sidedly, all backed with a wide gamut of examples from all over the world...
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 21, 2017 Melrose rated it liked it
Go read this review on my blog:

It’s January. People are looking at gym leaflets, trying again to stick to the resolutions they made in vain last year. Trying as best possible to hide from last year's events, (whether it was political, or that Dinner Party at Fred’s which no one dares mention,) using the new shiny '2017' as a shield. It is at this time of year that most people try and avoid history, in whatever form. However, we shouldn’t shun history. It should
Sense of  History
A collection of lectures given in 2007. Does not contain much new insights, and at one time MacMillan is very one sided in pleading for a purely academic study of history. But the final chapters are very interesting, with an analysis of how examples from the past (such as the trauma of Munich 1938 afterwards was used and abused in a wide variety of ways).
And of course I can surely subscribe the final conclusion: "If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility, scepticism and aw
Dec 05, 2016 Palimp rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
La historia está de moda. Cada vez se publican más novelas históricas. Con frecuencia se hace uso de acontecimientos históricos para defender determinadas políticas. Es habitual simplificar los hechos para que encajen con una historia bonita.
Pero los hechos son tozudos. La historia no se compone de buenos y malos, de héroes sin tacha y villanos inmisericordes. La realidad siempre es compleja, y si queremos comportarnos como adultos debemos investigar los hechos y dejar de lado los prejuicios.
Magnus Halsnes
Mar 04, 2017 Magnus Halsnes rated it really liked it
Short and easy to read introduction to history and its use and role in society.
Jan 31, 2017 Duane rated it really liked it
Timely book given the preponderence of "alternative facts" in the news of late.
Jamie-Lynn Christie
Mar 18, 2017 Jamie-Lynn Christie rated it did not like it
Awful. Critical thinking for beginners
J. Pearce
Jan 14, 2010 J. Pearce rated it liked it
“History is about remembering the past but it is also about what we choose to forget….Some of the most difficult and protracted wars in societies around the world have been over what is being omitted or downplayed in the telling of their history – and what should be kept in. When people talk, as they frequently do, about the need for “proper” history, what they really mean is the history they want and like. School textbooks, university courses, movies, books, war memorials, art galleries, and mu ...more
Jul 23, 2011 Malcolm rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: historiography
I have very mixed feelings about this book: part of MacMillan's case is that the recent turn to the reflexive in History, manifest mainly as a debate among historians about how we do what we do, has taken serious scholarship out of the public domain. There seems to be a clear case being made that methodological reflexivity shoud be abandoned. I may have misread her and imposed meanings that she did not intend (but I don't think so). These two points are not necessarily related – we can be more m ...more
Heidi Archer
Feb 15, 2017 Heidi Archer rated it it was amazing
A must-read for anyone living in these weird #fakenews times, especially in light of the "unreasoning forces of ethnic nationalism" that are gaining huge traction around the world at present.

"History provides much of the fuel for nationalism..." - let's be wise as we read history!

"History that challenges comfortable assumptions about the group is painful, but it is...a mark of maturity."

Dec 30, 2009 Edward rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author's perspective is clear, as given in the introduction, “validation, whether of group demands or for justification, almost always comes from using the past.” Everyone uses the past; whether they use it wisely or foolishly is the topic of this book.

A key comment that she makes is that “history should not be written to make the present generation feel good but to remind us that human affairs are complicated.” Most of the book is devoted to showing how history IS usually written to make th
Stephen Goldenberg
Mar 31, 2016 Stephen Goldenberg rated it really liked it
This does exactly what it says on the cover, although it's rather more about the abuses and misuses than about the uses. The chief villain of the piece is nationalism/patriotism - the reason why so much of history is falsified or, at the very least, used selectively. Margaret MacMillan's short book is stacked with examples, many from North America, including her native Canada. But she also covers the way the Iraq War should never have taken place if the politicians had listened to the experts on ...more
Shonna Froebel
Nov 25, 2012 Shonna Froebel rated it it was amazing
Shelves: canadian
This book is basedon the 2007 Joanna Goodman Lecture Series at the University of Western Ontario. MacMillan is a Canadian historian, who previously taught at the University of Toronto, and is now warden of St. Anthony's College at Oxford University.
This book talks about the various ways history is used: for cultural identity, for nationalism, to push a particular agenda, to predict what will happen in a future situation. She looks at how history can be a trap that we fall into when assessing a c
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uses and abuses of histroy 1 6 Jun 07, 2014 04:24AM  
  • In Defence of History
  • Sources of the Western Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Present
  • The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
  • A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century
  • The Woman Reader
  • The Story of Spain: The Dramatic History of Europe's Most Fascinating Country
  • What Is History?
  • History: A Very Short Introduction
  • The Victorians
  • The Romantic Revolution
  • In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis
  • America: A Narrative History
  • The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters
  • Democracy: A Very Short Introduction
  • Ancient Worlds: The Search for the Origins of Western Civilization
  • Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince
  • The Red and the Green (Vintage Classics)
  • Classical Literary Criticism
Margaret Olwen MacMillan OC D.Phil. (born 1943) is a historian and professor at Oxford University where she is Warden of St. Antony's College. She is former provost of Trinity College and professor of history at the University of Toronto. A well-respected expert on history and current affairs, MacMillan is a frequent commentator in the media.


More about Margaret MacMillan...

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  • Communism: A History
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  • The American Revolution: A History
  • Law in America: A Short History

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“As the American historian John Lewis Gaddis put it, it is like looking in a rearview mirror: if you only look back, you will land in the ditch, but it helps to know where you have come from and who else is on the road.” 2 likes
“In a secular world, which is what most of us in Europe and North America live in, history takes on the role of showing us good and evil, virtues and vices. Religion no longer plays as important a part as it once did in setting moral standards and transmitting values. . . .History with a capital H is being called in to fill the void. It restores a sense not necessarily of a divine being but of something above and beyond human beings. It is our authority: it can vindicate us and judge us, and damn those who oppose us.” 2 likes
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