With thanks to Tony Grafton and his comment on my last post for the reference, here is Natalie Zemon Davis concluding her ACLS Haskins Lecture in 1997:
The study of the past has been a constant joy, a privileged realm of intellectual eros. The necessary constraints under which the historian operates—to find evidence for every affirmation—I have accepted freely: that quest is what makes it so much fun. The mistakes I made—say, a project not finished (or as I like to say to myself, still remaining to be done)—seem trivial compared to really important mistakes, as those we might have made in parenting. Moreover, the study of the past provides rewards for moral sensibility and tools for critical understanding. No matter how evil the times, no matter how immense the cruelty, some elements of opposition or kindness and goodness emerge. No matter how bleak and constrained the situation, some forms of improvisation and coping take place. No matter what happens, people go on telling stories about it and bequeath them to the future. No matter how static and despairing the present looks, the past reminds us that change can occur. At least things can be different. The past is an unending source of interest, and can even be a source for hope.
I like this theory of history a lot. It doesn’t mean you necessarily think things are better than they were in the past, or that they inevitably will become so. But it can give you the hope that they might, the will to make them so, and the inspiration to teach—because however and in whatever venue it happens, that’s the only way anything really gets better.