It’s a question we should ask ourselves more often. Or answer, I suppose, because I see lots of people get it wrong.
“To know what happened so we can’t make the same mistakes again!”
“To appreciate and understand the past.”
“To shape the future!”
“To help us understand the present.”
Good tries. And they all factor into history in some way or another. But they aren’t the point of history. More like (un)fortunate side-effects.
The ultimate point of history is to explain change.
(I shamelessly pilfered that from another historian, who got it from someone else, who got it from someone else… etc.)
history is not an inherently political or moral thing. When people say that history will prove your wrong/right, or that history will judge you… they’ve got it completely wrong. Maybe in a few years someone will write a book judging Trump, for example. But equally, someone will probably write a book venerating Trump. Those books would be political books, using history to make a political argument. Either one could be right, but they wouldn’t be history.
A book that analysed Trump? That tried to explain how he won, why he appealed to people, and what his successes and failures were in government (as well as their effects and the rationalisations behind them)? That would be a history book.
Despite what some of us would like to think, history does not judge. It does not direct future action. It does not impose morality. At its heart, all history seeks to do is explain what things were like then, what they’re like now, and what happened in between to make that change happen. History provides context for change, it describes change, and it explains change.
How this information is used (or sometimes twisted) is for other people to decide. But that’s all historians are doing.
You can’t be on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of history. Only someone’s interpretation of it.