“Does studying history matter?”
This is often asked by students and adults alike. There’s the famous response from George Santayana that goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is certainly true, but let’s go deeper. In The Well-Trained Mind, Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise write that when Ken Burns was asked why history is important, he responded, “History is the study of everything that has happened until now. Unless you plan to live entirely in the present moment, the study of history is inevitable.” Bauer and Wise continue with:
History, in other words, is not a subject. History is the subject. It is the record of human experience, both personal and communal. It is the story of the unfolding of human achievement in every area — science, literature, art, music, and politics. A grasp of historical facts is essential to the rest of the classical curriculum.
Surveys of history, which is the common method in schools, are valuable, but rarely dig very deep below the surface. Often the same sequence is repeated year after year. Perhaps this is why history can seem distant and impersonal. Maybe this is why younger generations are entombed in unprecedented chronological snobbery.
Coined by C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield, chronological snobbery is the belief that “intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations” until modern times. In other words, this self-centered view looks down on the past as if they contributed nothing to humanity and were all primitive and backwards. Yet, even the briefest of logical thought tells a different story. We wouldn’t be where we are without generations of thought and innovation that came before us. We often confuse technological gadgetry with sophistication or intellectual status of civilization. But is it? No, not at all.
Look at this way: People like to say things like, “My iPad has far more advanced computing power than the computers used in the Apollo Program that landed men on the Moon.” True, but so is this: They sent people to the Moon with far less tech, and that tech in your pocket doesn’t do much more than text people and send cat videos.
Professor Camille Paglia reports that this snobbery is rampant in students:
What has happened is these young people now getting to college have no sense of history of any kind. No sense of history. No world geography. No sense of the violence and the barbarities of history. So, they think that the whole world has always been like this, a kind of nice, comfortable world where you can go to the store and get orange juice and milk, and you can turn on the water and the hot water comes out. They have no sense whatever of destruction, of the great civilizations that rose and fell, and so on, and how arrogant people get when they’re in a comfortable civilization, etc.
How do we show students that history isn’t impersonal? Can it be done without dry memorization of facts and dates? Is there a way to pass on the lessons of our ancestors, good and bad? We can by telling the story of history, through the eyes of those who lived it, and suddenly we will be connected to our human heritage.
History as Story
The best histories are told in narrative form, where an individual or individuals are the focus, and through them and their story, the background of the time’s history is interwoven. Want to really learn about early settlers and that era in America? Try Mayflower. Frontier America? Read the story of Daniel Boone in Boone. Or explore ancient Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt in Cleopatra, and the Indian Wars in The Heart of Everything That Is. Dive into the Cold War with Command and Control or Operation Paperclip.
Learning to Learn
These are all windows, glimpses really, into particular times, but they provide far more insight than a rote list of events and people. Where, though, does one start? History, by definition, is quite the vast landscape. Start with an era that interests you by looking for one or two well-regarded books on the subject. When I find an Era of Interest (or Field of Study), I read until I reach a Saturation Point, i.e., I’m running out of good sources or running into repetition and overlap. I’ll then shelve the best books and keep an eye out for future worthwhile volumes in the field.
You may find that, like me, you have a couple Eras of Interest, and that’s fine. There are no time limits in your studies, but if you are pressed for time, or want to engage in Meta Learning (survey wider swaths of material), you can improve on that as well.
It’s true that in a educational setting, this depth of study is difficult to implement, but it is not impossible. The system needs to be changed to allow for both the general survey and in the in-depth wanderings. Ultimately, the individual must decide if their never-ending education is important. As an adult, what you do or don’t learn is solely up to you. Similarly, your children’s education is your responsibility.
And when it comes to history, the realization that, as Mortimer J. Alder said, our studies are a Great Conversation with great minds and people through many centuries, whom define our lives every day, should tell us something very important:
We don’t have to start from scratch, we weren’t the first and we need not forge into the future alone. Our ancestors have already completed the heavy lifting. Let’s abandon our self-centered viewpoint and learn from them. Perhaps we will be able to add our own wisdom to the path, a path that doesn’t lead to destruction and darkness.