The Importance of Understanding History 

Why should we think that learning history is important?

What is the significance or value of stories about dead people, ancient tribes, gory battles, the antics of Kings and Queens, the toppling of tyrants, great conquests of countries, the expansion of empires, the warnings of biblical prophets, the rise of religions, development in industry, world wars, philosophical books, revolutions, great inventions, woman?s movements, trade unions, slave trading, and the perpetual arguments of politics?

There is no end to the areas of historical study

The amassing of more and more detail marches on. One mind can barely contain a fraction of what there is to know, let alone the huge amount of data and stories yet to be discovered and yet to happen. So why bother to try and understand such a behemoth of knowledge? What's in it for me, pal?

History is mainly about the things that people do

This includes their reasons for doing them, including their excuses, lies and mistakes. When we study history we are learning something about ourselves. Caesar faced a decision as whether or not to cross the Rubicon; we have to decide more mundane things like changing our jobs. We recognize we have the same emotions as the historical figure and share the agony of trying to sum a situation up. What will be the cost? Can we get away with it? Will things improve? What will the neighbors think? History in the making is full of such moments when choices have to be made and the consequences lived with. And, for some historical figures, their decisions will affect the lives of many millions of people living and to come. No small deal, huh?

Reading someone's biography

This makes us feel that its events were meant to happen, and the narrative seems to flow effortlessly, but at the time, for the individual, there were important crossroads. Can you trust someone? How strong are the enemy? Will your most important project blow up in your face? Jame the II of Scotland never had an inkling that his siege of Roxburgh castle would result in one of his prized cannons exploding in his face. History was changed in a literal and temporal flash.

How do we know that something is important?

If it makes the news it is important in its day but if it makes the history books it is of long term importance. Actions and events that profoundly change people's ways of thinking and behaving are important. They have value and meaning: a conquest meant subjugation for many and luxury and power for the winners. A book such as Charles' Darwins ?Origin of Species? caused many upheavals as beliefs and attitudes changed. Hitler, inspired by erroneous and distorted ideas wrecked havoc on millions of ordinary person's lives. Karl Marx's ?Das Capital? influenced generations, created revolutions, and toppled monarchies. Ideas are powerful whether they are right or wrong. Sometimes the folly of a concept is only apparent in the light of history, many generations after the events.

Understanding history is a process

From its study we find out as clearly as possible what has happened in a situation and how it affects other situations, current, past, and future. The major problem in making sense of it stems from the difficulty of unearthing enough facts. People misreport things, either deliberately or through poor recall or confusion. Interested parties often seek to distort the facts at the time and subsequently. Historians also have their own agendas to follow.

George Santayana

(born 16 December 1863 Madrid, Spain ? died 26 September 1952 Rome, Italy),

This famous philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist wrote : ? Progress... depends on retentiveness. ...and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.?

Understanding history and the implications of events

By doing this we can hope to extract some guiding principles. History never repeats itself exactly, just as a river is never the same twice but ?coming events cast their shadows?. Informed, alert people with some insights into the past are better prepared than the totally ignorant to deal with the present. We must heed the warnings from the past and use them to deal with the present, and to peer cautiously into the future.

Never underestimate the importance of understanding history.


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