Thinking Critically About History

Have you ever taken part in a conversation where you have an epiphany? Recently I sat down with some folks and while we talked about a great many things, the most poignant was why we thought history was important. Common answers we exchanged pointed to studying in understanding our past, or looking into how we’ve changed as a society. Just read the news and one can see the turbulent forces we face as a society today (and with the COVID-19 pandemic, historians in every succeeding generation will discuss it in-depth). Many people look to history as an afterthought, but there’s something to be gained by seeing the past.

In the past 40 years, our society has homogenized through popular culture. We find new interests to keep our attention focused until the next pop culture cycle. A hundred years prior, before Netflix and even radio, people gathered as communities of all types to preserve a common identity. Whether they be churches, cultural groups, or fraternal organizations, community and history were blended together in a social setting. People shared a history that they could learn about together and it bonded us together. Slowly through, we moved away from that communal discourse. Institutions that had significant community involvement are aging with almost no new members to replace them. History is unfortunately a casualty from this slow decay. How can that collective historical and public memory survive without a younger generation to carry on?

History is infinitely layered and complex that it’s impossible to find a simple answer to anything. There’s no perfect response to why the Confederacy fought the Civil War, or how the Cold War ended. In an time when we want immediate, simplistic answers, people begin to dangerously misinterpret history. Therein lies the danger; as cultures change, how we interpret history changes. Critical thinking about our historical narratives are crucial. By examining a narrative in a multitude of lenses; economic, political, racial, gender, ethnic, etc. we develop a complex, but intensively rich knowledge that’s central in understanding a people’s history. We should continuously ask ourselves ‘why is this important?’ ‘why should I care?’ and ‘how will studying this improve our lives?’.

Remember that history happened and there’s nothing to change our past. It exists so that we can understand and learn from mistakes. Should we change street names, remove statues, or rewrite narratives? Only as a society should we think critically about decisions that impact our belief in history’s purpose.

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