Tuesday, January 25, 2011

History: Its Life and Times

HistoryItsLifeandTimesMany of my students take history because it is a general education requirement.  When I poll them at the beginning of a semester, a good percentage say that history is boring and they see little value in learning dates and arcane facts.

This puzzles me, someone who has had a passion for history since childhood.  To me, it is not simply a subject but a great adventure, populated by colorful figures and revealing a keen insight into the human experience.  So, why the disconnect—not only among students but also adults who see the past as something dead?

One reason is that K-12 teachers often do focus on dates and dry information.  And that has only increased as we move toward more standardized testing in an effort to show quantifiable outcomes.

The real value of history is looking at trends, developments and overarching themes.  What were the contributions of certain societies?  How did we progress from the Near Eastern to the Greek and on to the Roman civilizations?  It is not so much that history is linear—that we move forward with ever greater progress—but that we do build on earlier achievements.

Perhaps the most famous commentary on history is from philosopher George Santayana:   “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  The quote is recalled in various forms but the intent is clear:  Missteps will reoccur unless we evaluate earlier failures.

Having served in the government and having been a student of history, I am convinced that few public officials—regardless of their party or level of education—have learned much from the past.  The record is replete with examples.

If we don’t learn from the past, what is the meaning of history?   This may be a nuanced view but I firmly believe that we need an appreciation of the big picture.  If I were to encapsulate American history in one sentence I would say:   It has been the continual tug-of-war between the role of government to provide security and the desire of individuals to maintain their freedom.  Everything can be be boiled down to that.

What does this tell us?  There is a spectrum, running from the Founding Fathers to the present, on which we move up and down depending on changing needs.  At no time will all citizens be satisfied with the current marker.

Consider two other instructive points.  One is that history is organic; a stroll through a flea market will help provide insights into the ongoing human saga, whether we see a diary, old diploma, World War II medal, etc.  The past is more than great battles and personalities—it surrounds us.   Never forget the importance of “everyday” history.

And the other point is that history can only really be understood by looking at how it interacts with geography, economics, politics, science, religion and other sectors.  To fully appreciate the story of mankind, it must be viewed in an interdisciplinary way.

Understanding history and its impact is essential to being a good and engaged citizen.  Rather than looking at history as stuck in the past, we would be wise to see it as a guide for the future.

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