An ordinary workday can, occasionally, be the source of unexpected revelations.

Today, as I was working (doing historical research at the offices of the Union of Danish Smallholders' Cooperatives, Dansk Familielandbrug), I found myself in a philosophical conversation with one of the journalists working at their weekly trade paper.

As any historian will tell you, most lay people are convinced they know all about history. They're mostly wrong, but peace be with them, I have no problem with that. Unfortunately, some of them are militantly ignorant, and are eager to inform you of their misconceptions about history.

This particular layperson had a preconceived notion he wanted me to agree with: that history as a field of study was essentially a giant circle-jerk, and that historians mainly worked to give other historians something to do.

As with all statements of boundless bigotry, this one has a core of truth. But only a core. Sure, a lot of historians spend their time doing meaningless detail work which doesn't really contribute anything - but any field of research is like that. There'll always be someone else who can put the details together into a meaningful whole.

Nevertheless, I found myself actually having to defend my field of study, my career, and even my personal integrity to this gentleman. Since his mind was all but closed, this was far from easy.

Even so, I found a chink in the armour of deliberate ignorance, finally:

Me: Okay, look at it this say you don't understand what history is for. That's fine, you don't have to understand what it's for. What you have to understand is what the lack of history means.

Him: What do you mean?

Me: Go home. Take all the pictures in your photo album. Holiday snaps, portraits of yourself, your wife, your family, your parents, grandparents, kids. Go outside, build a bonfire and burn them. Now go inside and gather up all your old love letters, postcards from friends, the first crayon drawing your kid ever drew for you. Burn them.
Next, destroy any family heirlooms - your grandma's china tea service, the paintings you inherited from your aunt, that kind of thing.
Now, you'll have effectively erased most of your history. How do you think you'd feel by then?

Him: Not so happy, I guess.

Me: Well, now you know what makes me tick.

I could tell this had made him think. I'm not sure I won a convert to the Church of Historical Preservation that day - but I really don't think he'll ever kvetch about historians again.