I’ve loved history as long as I can remember, so I can’t really understand this: “History is boring”, or “History is irrelevant” or “Studying history is so hard—I can’t remember the dates.”
Actually, I can’t remember the dates either, but anyway…
It seems that history is taught as an esoteric list of dates and names of dead people, battles, kings and other irrelevant things. That’s a shame. Chris Brady said that this is like “giving you an ice cream sandwich that you spit out because you don’t like the taste of the paper. If no one unwrapped it properly for you, or taught you to do it for yourself, you might be stuck your whole life thinking ice cream sandwiches taste like paper”.
And many people I know were handed wrapped ice cream sandwiches. They left it wrapped, set it on the shelf, or took a bite and threw it out. And once you’ve tossed it or shelved it, why would you pick it up again?
But I’m telling you, if you threw out history the moment you left high school, you’ve severely short-changed yourself. Lemme ‘splain.
1. History shows us why we think what we think.
My ethnic background, as many Canadians, is a blending of two heritages. On one side I am Dutch, the child of a 1st generation Canadian. My grandparents emigrated just over 50 years ago, bringing with them a ‘time capsule’ of Dutch language, customs and thinking. That’s why at family gatherings we greet each other and bid each other goodbye with kisses on the cheek. That’s why we eat speculaas, olie ballen, slaatje and other things most people haven’t heard of.
There’s also still fall-out from World War II in my family. My grandparents were very young when Holland was occupied by Germany, still in their formative years. Many of the health issues my grandmother has now are related to malnutrition when she was young, growing up in wartime Holland.
On the other side, I am Mennonite. A hundred and fifty years ago my ancestors emigrated from Russia in order to find religious freedom. They brought with them a conservative, peaceful, separatist worldview. All these years later I live in one of the original towns they planted, a town that still retains much of its conservative, rural mindset.
I get the bulk of my belief system from the Mennonites, and the more I study my history, the more I believe in what they believed. But the blending of cultures in my family has softened the Mennonite conservatism and given me a broader look at life.
You look at life through the lenses of your heritage. You interpret events the way you were taught to interpret (however deliberate that teaching was). Thus, if you want to understand why you do what you do, you should study your history. And also, you must keep in mind that others have their own unique history that makes them see life very differently.
2. History shows us why others thought what they thought.
As an amateur Bible scholar, I’ve been studying the book of 1 Peter for almost two months. 1 Peter is a letter, written by the Apostle Peter, to the Christians of Asia Minor. At this time the Christians were a socially marginalized group, either because of their faith or because they were aliens, scattered in foreign nations. This was also during the reign of Nero, a time in which Christians were persecuted throughout the Roman Empire. Given this social and historical context, the book means something rather different than if it were written to middle class, Canadian, Evangelical Christians. As a Christian my beliefs are considered old-fashioned and intellectually inferior, but they don’t affect my ability to get a job, support myself or remain safe on a daily basis. When Peter talks about ‘suffering’ he doesn’t mean going without air conditioning for a week.
When we read or learn about historical events, it is crucial to understand the context. If we project our 21st century, North American worldview on everything, our interpretations will be sorely misguided.
3. History helps us see where we’re going.
It’s an axiom that history repeats itself. Much of what we’re doing now has already been tried. We can consult history to see how previous attempts have concluded.
For instance, Canada, the United States and many other countries are on a paper, fiat money system, not tied to any real backing. What is the likely result of this? Well, we can read the example of John Law and France in the early 1700’s. Fiat money flooded the economy, creating a boom. Orrin Woodward said “Since France was printing inherently worthless fiat money with both hands, the prices of everything in France were rising dramatically… the timeless axiom that bad money drives good money out of circulation, came into full effect. Gold coins were hoarded and smuggled out of France, and paper fiat currency was spent as rapidly as it was received.” This could not be sustained forever. The bubble popped, and for many years there was widespread economic chaos.
And that’s not the only example. You could read about Germany post World War 1, or about Argentina in more recent times.
So why did our governments instate a fiat money system? Well, it’s a democracy. We let them. Did we not know any better?
In recap, you should study history to understand yourself, understand others, and understand where the world is going. These are three of life’s huge questions and they all find their answers in history.
So what should we do about it?
Why don’t you start with your own history? You can read books about your town, country or region. You can visit museums. But the most interesting way of studying your history is by talking to your parents and grandparents, if you are lucky enough to still have them.
Please comment. What has your relationship with history been? What parts of history interest you?
For further reading, see excellent examples of lessons learned from history at Chris Brady’s blog at http://chrisbrady.typepad.com/
and Orrin Woodward’s Blog at http://orrinwoodwardblog.com/