It seemed a harsh question from the lips of those wondering how a 'dead' subject could lead to some kind of lucrative career while I was a young student of history and ancient history.
Well, I argued, it is interesting - and if you are going to pay to study someting for three years plus you'd better vaguely like it - and a good solid humanities subject teaches you a good deal of analytical and presentation skills.
But now, with a bit of hindsight I know there's more to it than that.
History brings perspective. It can help us see our place in the vastness of time, help us see that the ideologies we cling to are just recent inventions and that what we strive to gain and defend probably won't last that long in the big scheme of things. To put it another way, we really aught to learn from the lessons (and mistakes) of the past. Understanding history helps us know why we are here and allows us to do things better.
And yet, I strongly feel, history in dry books is stone cold dead. Not to pan academia, but I can remember being struck by a research student (not physically) in the department where I was studying, working on a research project into tax and import records for the port of Calais in the Fourteenth Century. On the one hand, I'm certainly not a number-crunching kind of guy to say the least, but it really made me think - what's the point of this data if it only ever stays in academic journals?
For me, this is where the creative historical imagination comes in. Tax records from Medieval Calais, on their own, would do little for the general public, but added to other information, such data could give depth and reality to an innovative museum exhibition, a historical novel, a TV documentary. For me, to be understood, history has to be interpreted and democartized to help people understand their own world and where it came from.
That's why I am so heartened and at the same time dismayed that their are now so many superb and accessible historical documentaries on TV these days - yet still so many awful historical dramas which miss out the sheer depth, fascination and wackyness of the past. (Take privacy, for example, unless you were royalty or a member of the very upper echelons of society, private space to live, work and sleep would not have been heard of until well into the nineteenth century - just think of how that would change the action and scripting of a whole host of movies and TV series!)
Us creative folks need to do more to bring the REALITY of the past to life in a way that provokes and inspires. The past was a harder place to live, but there is much to learn from it and while there are mistakes we can learn from, so too are there positive lessons. The past was slower paced and more eco-friendly, organically built and (for much of history) sourced from the local environment - utterly sustainable.
So don't write history off - just seek out the evidence and interpret it creatively...