17/02/2012 05:06 GMT | Updated 16/04/2012 06:12 BST

Why The Past is More Important Than Ever

Most people probably think of Steve Jobs the late founder of Apple, and the man behind hi-tech gadgets from the iPod to the iPad and iPhone, as one of the high priests of restless modernity. And as a man who would have no time with the past - someone who was more interested in ripping it up than learning from it.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that he himself ascribed a crucial role in his success to history - and not just any old history, but a particularly minor, perhaps even obscure, branch of it.

The young Steve Jobs, however, wasn't much interested in the modern mantra of relevance and utilitarianism. In fact his success was founded on a discipline thought stunningly irrelevant: calligraphy. In 2005 Jobs addressed Stanford University, one of the great centres of scientific and cultural excellence, and recalled an episode from his time at Reed College in Oregon, where, even though he had dropped out, he attended classes in calligraphy. 'None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life," he said. "But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.'

It would be hard to find a better argument for studying history - or for why it remains as relevant today as it has ever been - though not in a way people can guess in advance.

History, at its best, calls everything into question. It offers no comfort, no shelter and no respite, it is a discipline of endless revision and argument. It forces its students to confront the different, the strange, the exotic and the perverse and reveals in full the possibilities of human existence. It is unafraid of casting its cold eye on conflict, both physical and intellectual. It has no end, as the benighted Francis Fukuyama discovered when the permanent present ushered in by the fall of the Berlin Wall came crashing down on September 11th, 2001. History opposes hubris and warns of nemesis. It doesn't value events by their outcome; the Whig interpretation of history expired long ago.

Theses days there is a substantial audience for serious history. Programmes such as BBC Radio 4's In Our Time and The History of the World in 100 Objects have captivated audiences worldwide. Historians outside the academy such as Simon Sebag Montefiore, Antony Beevor and Amanda Foreman sell large numbers of critically acclaimed books to readers unafraid of challenging narratives. History Today continues to gain new subscribers and readers from around the world eager to explore history from every continent, encompassing all periods and genres. The reputation of British historians and the history departments in which they work alongside an international cast of excellence, remains high. History departments in universities elsewhere, from Turkey to China, now teach their students in English. At its best history forces us to step outside of our skins and inhabit those of others.

Yet stepping outside one's cultural skin is sadly not an aim endorsed by Britain's teaching establishment. In schools, history is seldom taught as it should be. It has become obsessed with relevance. But as Steve Jobs taught us, we never know what will be relevant and what won't be. Maybe many of today's students want to be historians. But quite a few of them would probably like to be the new Steve Jobs - and paradoxically the study of history, even its more obscure avenues, might be what enables them to become just that.

'History Today and Tomorrow' by Paul Lay is published by Endeavour Press.