History is the experience of humanity. To be ignorant of it is
to form one’s world views as a child. To live life in ignorance of history is like picking up a book, turning to some random page and reading it out of context. Without knowledge of the past, there is no conceivable way one might make any sense of our own time for our present society is the product of a complex sequence of events that preceded us. A frequent question put towards history is: “Why should I care about all those dead people?” After all, all of that is come and gone, never to be seen again. This approach, however, evidences an extremely shallow understanding.
To many people, history is indeed synonymous with memorizing names and dates. To be fair, this is a common scholastic approach, a source of rote work that effectively inures millions to one of the most valuable storehouses of knowledge—that of collective human experience. True enough, history in the classroom tends to be reduced to an insipid swill of superficial facts and state indoctrination. Too often though, this becomes an excuse to dismiss all that came before as irrelevant information about dead people. It is a poor excuse because without understanding how our present reality came to be, one can neither understand the present nor have any insight into the probable courses of the future.
Without the barometer of history, one is slave to the fashions of the hour. In ignorance of the long term and the larger scale, there can be no means of distinguishing a transient cultural fad from the deeper truths of human nature. There can be no determination whether one’s pervasive local society is representative of a larger whole or merely an anomaly. For instance, many cultural attitudes taken for granted as universal truth in Western industrialized societies have existed for less than a century. Ideas such as the ‘fact’ that teenagers are always ‘surly, angry, and lazy’ is one such fabrication. ‘Teenagers’ for instance is a term that didn’t exist until the mid twentieth century. Closer examination tells one that this current widespread attitude is an insignificant blip against the larger human experience. For most of human history young people have been active participants in society, so much so, that only recently in the English language was there a word to distinguish them as a specific group loaded with connotations of materialism, selfishness, and rebelliousness. Without knowledge of history no such critical examination is possible. Thus, in ignorance, one is prisoner to a host of fleeting ‘truths.’
For this very reason, there can be no such thing as an informed citizenry without an understanding of history. Without knowledge of history, one becomes the dupe of demagogues. Without any means of evaluating the truth of claims about past states of society or even the essential needs and nature of humanity, even the most absurd claims can be put forth by the sufficiently charismatic and powerful as serious propositions. Without history, there is no means by which a citizenry might judiciously decide the course of the state. As much as autocracy is looked down upon in the West, the founders of the American republic understood all too well that a body of uninformed, shallowly reactive citizenry can be even more capricious, tyrannical, and shortsighted than any single person. These founders were likely quite familiar with the tendency of the ancient Athenian citizenry to destroy their greatest generals and philosophers the moment something went wrong. An illustrious career in service of the people or works of genius mean nothing against a transient aggregate tantrum. Thus, a great lesson of history is that ignoring the past is to be the unwitting pawn of fleeting fashions and passions, whether evoked by chance or through the deliberate manipulations of the clever.
The moment someone says ‘the lessons of history.’ One gives an inward, if not an entirely audible groan and one’s eyes begin to glaze over. After all, common wisdom is that the “lesson of history is that no one ever learns from the lessons of history.” What’s the point? From this perspective, the whole thing is dismissed as a waste of time anyway. Once again, such an attitude is merely the result of common misunderstandings perpetuated by rote academics. When one thinks of ‘lessons of history’ the age old chestnut “Never get in a land war in Asia” comes to mind. We instantly think of Napoleon, then Hitler, then the board game, Risk and say to ourselves “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.”
However, this sort of sentiment is not an example of how one should learn from history. , It is silly advice to begin with. Why should the German Wehrmacht have backed out of its Russian invasion based on Napoleon’s experience? It was a different time with different circumstances, with different logistics and equipment when it came to making war. The Germans were not the 18th century French, nor were they led by a Corsican, and they had the means to reach Moscow before winter ever came. Why suppose beforehand that the result must be disaster and defeat as eventually occurred?
The trouble with such ‘lessons’ and the reason why they are uninspiring is because they only ever seem to apply in armchair hindsight and rarely, if ever are any use in the present. Upon further reflection one realizes these ‘lessons’ are indeed more or less meaningless. After all, the Mongols had a long series of extremely successful land wars in Asia; conquering the Russian principalities was a relatively minor task for them.
The misconception here about ‘lessons of history’ is that it presumes a cyclical, repeating, predictable human experience.
History according to the traditional Chinese perspective was based on the concept of dynastic cycles. Now, there are no more dynasties, the cycle upon which their very definition was based is broken. True historical study on the other hand, allows one to transcend the historical cycles and patterns of one’s isolated time or culture. The sentiment “History repeats itself” is taken far too literally. What it really means is that the fundamental forces and principles driving human beings are constant and that certain trends and types of trends will therefore appear across generations and civilizations. It is not the events in history that repeat, but the principles behind history. Critical analysis of history provides a reliable guide to human tendencies as well as plenty of extremes and departures from the norm that give one a far more expansive and accurate idea of human potential.
The German defeat could be used as a warning against cyclical thinking: The Fuhrer had enjoyed so many easy victories that he was lulled into overconfidence by expecting the same result would continue to follow. The Germans proved woefully unprepared when events failed to conform to their leader’s highly optimistic plans. Unlike the rather unhelpful ‘never fight a land war in Asia’ the lesson that unbroken success can lull humans into making fatal mistakes can be applied across times and places, in an office or on a battlefield. It is a weakness in human nature that if recognized through the study of humanity, can be accounted for.
One of the most important principles that can be learned from history is among the reasons why one should study history. Benjamin Franklin succinctly sums it up as “The present age is never the golden age.”
Those detached from the past and thus without perspective tend to look back with longing on ‘the good old days’ and be ungrateful of the good in the present. Without knowledge of history, there is no possibility to appreciate the ways in which they live more happily than their ancestors or the ways in which quality of life has degraded across the generations. Their lot is merely a dim dissatisfaction which they are powerless to remedy. Without perspective, one can feel no more satisfied with a sewing machine than a prehistoric human felt with the first crude bone sliver to serve as a needle.
Thus through studying history, one increases their wellbeing through knowledge as well as their potential to do good in the present. One expands the domain they live in far beyond their immediate surroundings. A student of history becomes an active citizen of humanity across time. Examination from historical principles allows one to see the larger human nature that one’s time and place can only hint at. To eschew history as the irrelevant study of ‘dead people’ is in a sense to divorce oneself from the continuity that is humanity and by so doing to actively choose ignorance of one’s own nature and identity.