Paradoxically, the problems and limitations of history only bolster the case for studying it. History is anything but simplistic, and a serious study of it demands that we think rationally, critically, and comprehensively. The principle of multiple causation, one of the central tenets of modern historical analysis, recognizes the complexity and interconnectedness of issues and events. Because history encompasses so many fields of knowledge, it compels us to integrate all the contributing factors that impact an issue including the economic, social, political, religious, philosophical, and cultural components. This often calls for a good bit of intellectual energy, but until we assess history comprehensively we can never rest assured that our conclusions are valid.
There are other, more endemic reasons why history matters and why we should study it. A few years ago in the Q&A session following one of his lectures, someone in the audience asked the renowned historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “Why should we study history?” Schlesinger could have pontificated at length on the intellectual and cultural benefits of the discipline, but instead he simply replied, “Because, first of all, it’s a lot of fun.” He was right in a sense – it is undeniably enjoyable. History is, after all, the story of the past, and who doesn’t love a good story? Like all good literature, it stimulates the imagination. It inspires us with great examples of heroic sacrifice and accomplishment, while also warning us of the deceitfulness of power and wealth. (Biography can also do this, except that in biography, scale and proportion are skewed in the sense that everything revolves around a single life.) Even more fascinating is the fact that history deals with true stories about the most interesting people who ever lived and the most important events that ever occurred. How could anyone not enjoy it? –
unless, of course, their souls are impoverished by over-exposure to the stultifying effects of contemporary pop culture.
History is integral to making sense out of life, although one would never know it from the way it is often written and taught. Most people probably consider it largely irrelevant, little more than a mind-numbing litany of names, dates, and pointless factoids from the murky and musty past. Some probably perceive it as a curious preoccupation with dead people. Others view it as an antiquarian scavenger hunt, a kind of trivial pursuit of information that may be interesting in a quaint sort of way but is nonetheless disconnected from the realities of contemporary life. But in fact, history is remarkably relevant for those who access it for knowledge and inspiration. Those who are wise, or want to become wiser, delight in exploring the past because of the light it sheds on the present. Without a sense of historical consciousness, we are like amnesiacs groping in the dark with little awareness of who we are or where we came from.
History also provides valuable insight into human social and cultural development. We study it in part to gain a sense of shared humanity and discover where ours and other civilizations came from, how they developed over time, the philosophical and theological foundations on which they are based, and how and why the various world systems function as they do. We all know people who are disinterested in anything that’s outside the boundaries of their own life experience. In their immaturity, they inhabit a small, ego-centered universe in which nothing matters unless it affects them personally. For such people, history holds no interest – in fact, it’s a bore – presumably because it’s not about them. They often express the same indifference toward politics, philosophy, religion, current events, or anything else that strikes them as irrelevant to their own personal existence.
When we study history, we broaden our scope of awareness and begin to understand how the major forces that impact our lives have developed over time. In the process, we also acquire greater insight into human nature. We are all familiar with George Santayana’s oft-quoted comment about history repeating itself: “Those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them.” Now that may be true in academia in the case of those who fail a required history course, but outside that context history does not in fact repeat itself. Every historical scenario has its own unique and complex matrix of ideas, personalities, institutions, social and cultural factors, and a myriad of other conditions and variables that collectively affect the outcome. History isn’t predictable like an experiment in a chemistry lab. What is true, though, is that basic human nature doesn’t change, and there are general patterns and cause-and-effect relationships in human social interaction that are manifest repeatedly in history.
As Cicero implied, all of us are intimately connected to the past. None of us operate as isolated individuals; we are all part of the human community. More than just being influenced by what came before, we are to an extent, whether we realize it or not, products of the past. Most of our values, beliefs, and life situations are rooted in earlier realities. Human beings possess a measure of free choice, but within certain parameters. Our heritage, culture, environment, and life experiences all condition who and what we are. So when we study history, we glean greater understanding of the people, ideas, events, and other factors that have directly or indirectly influenced our lives.
I often remind college students that the world did not begin when they were born. We are all characters in a real-life epic drama that began thousands of years ago. But with no understanding of the past, we are like actors shoved out onto the stage of life in the midst of a long-running play that we don’t understand. We are disoriented. We are ignorant of what’s going on, why things are as they are, or where we fit into the script. We have no understanding of the plot, the major characters, or anything that preceded our arrival on stage. Furthermore, what’s the point of the whole production? We are truly clueless. As C. S. Lewis once noted, “The unhistorical are, without knowing it, enslaved to a fairly recent past.” All we see and know is what’s going on immediately around us. And while it’s true that the longer we’re on stage, the more oriented to our surroundings we become, that doesn’t necessarily translate into understanding the ultimate purpose or goal of the play. To gain a clearer perspective, we have to transcend the strict limitations of just our own personal experience.
History matters because knowledge is innately valuable. Like art, knowledge needs no justification. It is the fundamental means by which we comprehend reality, understand the world around us, and access ultimate truth. History, along with other humanities-based disciplines such as religion, philosophy, literature, geography, political science, and psychology, is essential for processing the issues of life. Whether we realize its value or not, and whether we think that it directly benefits us or not, we need to know about the significant people, ideas, issues, and events of the past. Regardless of one’s level of education or how many advanced degrees one has earned, no one is truly educated if he/she lacks a basic understanding of history.
An understanding of history is essential if we are to maximize our potential as human beings. Historical consciousness provides breadth, depth, and substance to our values, beliefs and opinions. Those without a firm grasp of history will always be limited in terms of their understanding of the world and humanity. To speak with authority and command respect, we must do so out of a reservoir of knowledge, experience, and wisdom, of which history is a fundamental and integral component.