So Really, Why Should I Study History?

“Time has shown none understand
The course of history’s well-laid plans.”

Raise your hand if you hated history class in school. If I polled any of my peers, most of their hands would certainly shoot up. It wasn’t my favorite subject by any means. And why is that?

While everyone seems to acknowledged the validity of the “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” sentiment, few people will follow that up with an active study. Considering that save for a few glowing exceptions history classes in our school systems have been reduced to the memorization of names and dates, I guess that’s understandable. Most of us learned the facts and figures for the test, then quickly forgot them to make room for subjects that actually mattered to us. I mean, really, what impact is remembering the 11th president of the United States really going to have on my life?

Very little, honestly.

History is more than just names and dates.

Or at least it should be. While it’s great to know that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776 (though most historians conclude it wasn’t technically signed until August 2nd of the same year), it’s far more important to understand why. What events led up to it? What previous works inspired this one? How did signing that document affect the lives of all those who signed it?

A true study of our past is not simply committing some event to memory to be able to regurgitate the details on command later; it involves examining the choices and ideas of those who have gone before us and learning from what they have learned. In his book RESOLVED: 13 Resolutions for LIFE, best-selling author and leadership guru Orrin Woodward quotes from actor Will Smith:

“The ideas that there are millions and billions of people who have lived before us, and they had problems and they solved them and they wrote it in a book somewhere – there is no new problem that we can have that we have to figure out by ourselves.”

History has left some hints for today.

I wrote an article a few months ago comparing the conditions surrounding the fall of the Roman empire to the conditions surrounding the modern-day United States. Edward Gibbon, the historian whose research I primarily used on the matter, didn’t come to his conclusions by knowing the date the final emperor came to power. We ignore history, we ignore warning signs (or flashing neon lights).

The Founding Fathers of the United States were all history buffs. They were voracious readers and passionate learners; the combined knowledge and perspective of their own life experiences, as well as the experiences of the men and women they studied, is responsible for the longest running free society on Earth. Over the years, our society’s love of entertainment has overshadowed any love we may have had for learning. And it’s showing in our leadership.

It’s not just a nice idea to study the past; it’s absolutely necessary if we don’t want to share the same fate as the mighty civilizations before us. And we’re closer to that fate than some would think.

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4 comments

  1. Catherine, Excellent article!

  2. Rob Crichlow · · Reply

    It is actually quite scary how little most of us know of the historical events that our founding fathers studied to be able to construct a constitution that not only was unique, but has not been improved upon by any other country to date. I often ponder if we depended on 50 people today, with the ‘trade school’ education we were exposed to, to write a document that would allow freedom to occur for our country, would we even have 50 people who could do it today.

    History is critical for us to understand … keep pursuing it … keep challenging us … keep the light shining.

  3. History might be relevant for historians and politicians, but for the average man in the street plumber or engineer, how important is it really for them to know the ancient history of how Tutankhamen died, or how his tomb was discovered? Is it really relevant to anyone other than archaelogists?

    Even if you look at the “why”, you’ll find that a lot of the “why” in history is completely mundane and banal. For example, Why did the Romans build aqueducts? Probably because they needed running water. Why did the Romans invade Dacia? Because Trajan wanted to, and they had been preparing for a while. Why did Rome fail to conquer Parthia? Because Trajan died and Hadrian didn’t think he could finish Trajan’s work. It’s banal, mundane, and really just generally irrelevant stuff. We no longer have a monarchy, leaders are no longer all-powerful and they are not hereditary.

    The further back you go in history, the more irrelevant and blurry it gets. Prehistory has very little resemblance to modern society. What use is studying some random tribes in Africa or South America? Our society had long evolved past that stage, and we are unlikely ever to go back. Are we about to lose written language? Or are we going to have some sort of reverse-industrial revolution? No? Then why bother learning what life was like pre-industrial-era? If we take this logic further, why bother learning anything pre-electricity, since modern society is so reliant on electricity?

    Then you learn about some random European empires conquering various places. Yes, it explains why these places now speak European languages and have European institutions. But do you really need to know that? Do you really need to know the “why”, rather than the “what”?

    I’ll give you an example. In 2004 the Indian tsunami happened. Naturally, everyone was asking the questions of “what happened”, “how serious is it”, “who are affected, and how” and so on. These are the “what” questions. Now a historian comes in and asks “why did the tsunami happen?”, “what events led up to the Tsunami?”, and perhaps “what is the history of tsunamis?”

    These questions are obviously quite irrelevant to relieving tsunami victims. But they are also useless for practically everything. If we want to prevent future tsunamis, or find out whether if it is even possible, we might ask the question “how can we prevent future tsunamis?” or even “is it possible to prevent tsunamis?” or “how can we predict tsunamis?”. The history of tsunamis would only be relevant when it is used to test models for predicting tsunamis, and even then it would be of limited utility. Science provides the answer, not history.

    To give a more common example, a commonly asked question is “Why did the Roman empire collapse?”. The answer, as commonly agreed upon by historians, is that the endless spates of civil wars weakened Roman power and the ability to conduct war. But the more fundamental answer is simply that the later Roman leaders weren’t as good as the earlier ones. Caligula and Nero were bad, but Hadrian and Macrinus were even worse. Early Roman generals such as Scipio Africanus, Lucius Sulla, Lucius Lucullus, Marcus Agrippa, etc. were undefeated in battle. Trajan conquered Parthia, but before he could consolidate his gains he died. His successor, Hadrian, abandoned his gains in Parthia and Mesopotamia and even considered abandoning Dacia. The Goths were not much different from earlier tribes that Rome routinely annihilated with minimal losses. So the blame rests entirely on the later emperors (emperors of the third century, mostly). It is not that surprising really. And the lessons are not particularly applicable to modern societies, apart from the common-sensical suggestion that we should not pick incompetent leaders.

    So really, why should you study history if you are not planning to become a historian or a lawyer? There isn’t much reason to be quite honest. A builder does not need to know the history of construction, a car mechanic does not need to know the history of car mechanics, a pilot does not need to know the history of flight.

    Knowing the history of something does not help you master it. At all. Knowing the history of cars will not make you a better driver. Knowing the history of the piano will not make you a better pianist. Knowing the history of keyboards will not make you a faster typist. Knowing the history of weightlifting will not make you stronger.

    So the answer to your question is, you shouldn’t study history unless you need to, which the vast majority of the time you don’t.

    1. I agree with you that there are certain pieces of history that are not as vital as others to understand, but it almost sounds like you’re saying there’s no value in understanding anything about our past, as there is nothing we can learn from it. I find that I must disagree with you there. The very foundation of this country was built upon the vast knowledge leaders of the time had about previous political systems and structures. If you are saying that it is only important for leaders to have that sort of knowledge, I can agree that is probably a commonly-held belief, though very, very dangerous to the people who follow the leader. It’s during times of highly-trained but poorly-educated populaces that dictators can flourish. It’s the responsibility of the people to keep their leaders in check, and that can only be done through understanding the system under which we are governed, the evolution of that system, and the warning signs that tell us when the system is moving away from its original intention.

      Thanks for your comment, though! Good stuff to think about.

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