Opinion Piece: Why Study History?

Rather than write about a specific historical topic today in my succession of articles (I have the time now since I’m taking time off from work this week vacationing in Colorado and Idaho), I thought I’d write about why I believe studying history is a critical part of education and daily life. There are many historians out there who will tell you the importance of a well-rounded historical education–better engagement with other cultures, understanding government policy, socio-economic reasons, etc. The tired trope of ‘history repeats itself’ carries an element of truth, but it takes a careful eye to discern the subtleties when similar historical patterns make the rounds.

I often think of Hari Seldon, the central protagonist in Isaac Asimov’s cornerstone science-fiction book series ‘Foundation‘. As he debates the merits of his psycho-history theory, whereby one can determine a future event based on the difference between stated intention and actual behavior, his listeners filter through the complex mathematics and only hear the word ‘prediction’. Seldon rejects that his theory is proof that a person can predict the future, claiming that one can only determine large scale social changes and not individual action. Despite his reservations, Seldon is given resources from the Galactic Empire to refine the mathematics and develop a working formula for developing multiple probabilities. Fast-forwarding through the narrative though, predictions about the fall of the empire are fulfilled and the following chaos are manipulated by the Seldon’s successors in the Foundation society. His prophetic ability bestows him the moniker of ‘Raven’ Seldon.

Now why did I give that example? Because just as Seldon’s psycho-history is premised on the fact that we cannot predict individual human behavior, we can develop firm understandings of societal behavior and the trajectory of certain actions. The academic study of history incorporates elements of anthropology, sociology, and psychology because history analyzes human behavior, interaction, and customs on multiple levels of organization. We don’t only study the American Civil War by regurgitating battlefield statistics and tracking the movement of armies. We also look at the economic factors of the Union and Confederacy, the political machinations of certain parties, racial issues concerning slavery and emancipation, the emotional challenges faced by families on the home front, and other innumerable things. History compiles everything together, but it also takes time to uncover the primary sources and conduct our own research. Go to any history conference and you’ll see firsthand how specific a presenter makes their topic. They uncover new evidence challenging a traditional argument, or venture into new territory that can open up a new niche market of historical research. The duty for historians is not only to recount past events, but make them relatable today. This can be difficult for many because the historical education they receive in school routinely teaches only essential, memorizable segments. Wider comprehension on more complex and interconnected historical narratives are more prevalent in higher and post-graduate education, but most mainstream historical education ceases after the 12th grade. After which, most historical learning is self-taught or consumed through mainstream or entertainment media. The latter of which, as we know, is consistently inaccurate.

History teachers go to great lengths to educate their students, but not every student receives the same level of instruction. I was fortunate enough to have a well-rounded set of teachers who gave me multiple interpretations of a historical event and encourage my critical thinking. One teacher, Mrs. Dickey, instructed us on Central and South American history; a subject that I might not have had any exposure to in high school had it not been for her own curriculum and not followed only what the state of Missouri allowed. I came away with not only stronger knowledge of Central and South America, but a heightened awareness that what we take away from history should be made to improve lives, not glorify the problems that still exist. If there’s a problem, should you do something to fix it?

I study history to improve my life and the lives of others. Everyday I work with veterans and when they have issues of not getting the financial or medical benefits, I use my historical research skills to discern what they need and how they can get receive correct answers if it’s beyond my jurisdiction. I also study history to improve people’s knowledge of the world. If one’s historical education is reduced to sound bites or a conspiracy vlogger on YouTube, or even worse, watching Oak Island and Swamp People on the “History” Channel, that can adversely impact their decision making process on real-life decisions. How can one be an informed voter if they don’t research what government policies have worked or failed in the past? How can diplomats engage with other countries if they remain insensitive to another’s cultural heritage and history, especially if they were colonial subjects?

The concept of ‘history repeating itself’ is more abstract than we think, honestly. We may not wholly prevent a specific event from ever happening again, but they can happen in new forms, which can take time to recognize. This month I closely followed the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Afghanistan after twenty years of operations combating the Taliban. There were billions spent on supporting a democratically elected Afghan government, equipping and training the Afghan National Army, and a peace agreement with the Taliban. Now getting into the weeds of our role in Afghanistan since 2001 and Middle Eastern policy is NOT for this article. Despite the accomplishments made by coalition forces against the Taliban, it echoed in many respects from another conflict; Vietnam. I couldn’t help but discern similar patterns; the U.S. entering a foreign nation to defeat an insurgency, partnering with the domestic government, equipping and training a national army, prolonged fights with said insurgency, and the eventual withdrawal following a peace settlement and leaving the regime behind to fight the insurgency on its own terms. A gross simplification for sure and its hard to judge both conflicts with the same mold, but the broad spectrum of activity in both Vietnam and Afghanistan do share many of the same characteristics. Whether or not the Afghan government will endure and defeat the Taliban, my personal thought is no, and to go one step further, a total collapse of the government in Kabul is highly probable in the coming years.

I’m not Hari Seldon (especially since I suck at math) but one doesn’t need to be a Hari Seldon in order to educate oneself on the patterns of history. Without studying history, human civilization would be far worse off and far less intelligent by not taking lessons from our ancestors. The human experience is very much trial and error and it’s the errors that allow us to adapt and progress. History chronicles those errors, but people are far more reluctant to adopt those lessons since they don’t often happen in their lifetime. That’s why we have educators who teach us everything they can about history. It boils down to us, the individual, to make decisions that positively impact the wider world. Only then can we all be more like Hari Seldon.

(Header Image: Reading to Children, Germany, 8/1950, Image Courtesy of the National Archives, NAID 23932386)

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