The future does not exist, the present moment is so fleeting as a wisp of smoke and instantaneously becomes history.
In the broad scope of our linear existence the majority of what is real is history. Understanding history, appreciating it, and attempting to learn from it are crucial components to a fully formed education and are important means by which life can become more comprehensible.
History Gives Context
How can one understand events of today without knowing what happened yesterday? Another way to consider this is that everything happening today has antecedents in the past that can shed light on issues of the present day.
History Provides Continuity and Comprehension
When one knows the events and people of the past, events of today become easier to comprehend. With knowledge of the origins of events and circumstances in the present, speculation on possible outcomes is founded on much more than mere conjecture and guesswork.
History Illustrates Character
Relationships rely on accurate estimation of character. We do not know how people living today will behave in the future, we do however know how people in the past responded to the challenges in their lives in what was their future at any given moment. The attempt to understand the behavior of those who lived before and decisions they made is fundamental to the study of history. This element is meant to build a storehouse of learned experience through reading and study as to how people live, decide, act, and react. With this knowledge we are (hopefully) better equipped to understand those around us in our personal lives and those whose decisions impact many more than only our limited social and professional circles.
Since much of human existence is that which has already occurred there can only be value in learning about those people and events that occurred in the past. That is, there is no “down side” in the study of the people and events of the past.
For example, how can one understand the current political and social crises in the world without knowing the history of Communism, World War Two, Democracy, the Civil War, the American Revolution, the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Soviet communism, certain areas of philosophical and religious thought, and the forms, patterns and purposes of national and international institutions? Understanding the present then is a matter of the continuity of events, the themes of thought and institutions, and the general goals, actions and reactions, of people and nations.
History is the examination of the continuity of humanity and civilizations across the ages. Importantly, it examines why civilizations experience crises, how the people involved created them (or not), and how they responded.
Viewing the past through the lens of today, using current biases and beliefs as foundations of interpretation is an unfortunate but common error that many historians and other analysts of human action indulge. This is called “Presentism,” and is the mark of something other than historical analysis.
Since the vast majority of human experience is found in history it is the deepest pool from which interested people of the present can pull knowledge and insight. No dipped cup ever comes out of the pool empty.
This quote from Santayana is widely known: “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.” And there is Winston Churchill’s spin on the same concept, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Here we have the two problems, ignoring history (that is, not reading history books so that one is ignorant), and failure to learn the lessons of history either from misunderstanding, inability to understand, reading and being influenced by false or failed histories, or again, being ignorant of history.
The great challenge is to not repeat the same mistakes made by those unfortunates in the historical record who caused catastrophes or failed to prevent them. A great example of this is Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” which describes the stumbling into World War One which resulted in millions dead and the fall of empires. Another is Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” which describe the horrors of Soviet communist prisons for people deemed political opponents. Then, again, there is the excellent novel “Darkness at Noon,” by Arthur Koestler, about a Communist official who no longer accepts the “party line.”
What Does It Mean to “Learn from History?”
It means we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
What keeps alive the historically proven false idea that Communism is a viable political system when the lessons of history clearly show that it is a failure?
Communism is a utopian concept. Utopianism has been the driver of many wars and many acts of cruelty and horror over the centuries of human civilization. This idea that humanity can be perfected, that humans are not limited by natural or man-made law, that political systems are perfectible, and that human suffering can be ended, and happiness and equality reign are fundamental to utopians. Utopian solutions are not limited to nations only but are applicable to the entire species. What is also fundamental is that those who do not accept the utopian program are considered opposed to human advancement and perfection and are thus deemed enemies not only of the program, but of humanity itself. Utopianism is the foundation of totalitarianism. This is the lesson of history. For a superb examination of this plague of utopianism and how so many fall under its dark shadow there is Eric Hoffer’s excellent “The True Believer.”
How can the rise of utopian concepts so prevalent today be explained? They can be explained through a reading of history.
Whittaker Chambers explained the conflict, its origins, purposes, and possible outcome in his exceptional autobiography, “Witness.” If you read no other history book, Witness is the one to read. The sooner the better.
The present is a wisp of smoke and is gone in an instant; the future does not exist; only the past then is knowable.
We cannot know the future but we can help to guide it using knowledge of the past.
This is what the study of history is for: using the past to better understand the present and create a functional future based on justice, freedom, and the limitations placed upon us by biology, psychology, and the essential truth of the fallibility of humanity.
We need all the tools we can get – studying history and learning its lessons are essential then to avoiding (as best we can) the mistakes of the past. Being ignorant of history is not a mistake we should make because it must then lead to new mistakes, likely ones that have already been made (and thus should be avoidable – but sometimes are not).
It is said that knowledge is power. The lack of knowledge then is powerlessness.
Why study history? Because it’s entertaining, it’s important, it’s valuable, and it furthers human growth and development on the personal and the societal levels. We study history to learn about ourselves, in a sense. We are all part of the human family; some of us succeed, some fail; some nations rise and others fall; wars begin and end, or are avoided entirely; why do these things occur and how can we best prepare to respond and make decisions?
History Holds All the Keys and Obscures All the Locks
History is not only about facts of people, dates, places, and events but more importantly it is about learning how to learn, and learning how to ask questions.
Learning gets you the keys – knowing the questions to ask reveals the locks.