Monday, May 9, 2011

What is the use of studying history?

When I was eleven, our teacher initiated an interesting discussion in our class, that is, "Why do we study history?". Many answered that we study it out of curiosity alone, but the teacher was only satisfied when someone suggested that "we study history in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes". A few years later, when I was sixteen, another teacher (finally) explained us that the idea that history could be a "teacher of life" (historia magistra vitae) just does not work. Mistakes present themselves each time in a different form and there is no way one can learn from the past how to avoid future ones.
However, history is not (in my opinion) just an interesting part of fiction. Knowing the past of mankind makes one aware of its depth. One becomes, through that, less sensitive to naive sensationalism. One knows that it does not make sense to claim that "X is the first… ever", that "Y is the best … ever", or that "Z is the worst possible…" because we only know a small fraction of hundreds of thousands of years of history. In other words, one acquires through the study of history, a mild skepticism towards every form of foundamentalism. One knows that there will never be a "final war against…" but that one can be convinced to take action against evils also without such a misleading sensationalism. At the same time, learning to look at the depth of the past makes one more aware of what takes more than one lifetime to happen. One is, for instance, more likely to be scared by the disappearance of rain-forests (although there will be enough Amazonia to visit until the end of one's life), by the decrease of the global amount of drinkable water, by the increase of desert areas all over the earth.
To sum up, one becomes at the same time less aware of every day's alleged "tragedies" or "events" and more aware of long-term real events.

Does this happen also to those among the readers who have been studying history? Also to the ones who studied it in the US or UK, where the approach seems (to me) to be rather thematic and less focused on the whole sum of millennia?

On the importance of history, see this post (on local and global history) and this one (on history as methodology). For the omnipervasive presence of history, see this post.


Jayarava said...

I like this one Elisa. I came late to the study of history. We did little at primary school (and I later discovered that our 'history' was lies anyway) and then at secondary school I wanted to do chemistry and could not do both. I only started to think about history in my 30's when I become interested in ancient India and Japan.

I think it is true that we keep making the same mistakes - regardless of culture we all make the same mistakes! We do not learn the lessons of history, at least "we" collectively do not. This is one of the things I've learned. Human beings and human civilisation has not changed as much as we like to think.

Perhaps we study history to confirm that we are making the same mistakes?

I also discovered that in 2 or 3 generations 99.9% of us are completely forgotten. History doesn't care about us personally, only about the grand narratives. We mostly leave no trace, except perhaps in our genes (and mine are not being passed!)

elisa freschi said...

Thanks Jayarava, interesting comment. I would adjust your statement by saying that we find new ways to do the same mistakes, so that they are not evidently the "same" ones. In this sense, the history of mankind resembles that of an individual always claiming that the present one is her "last cigarette". But perhaps studying history can give us, as observers, the ability not to be cheated. This applies to politics, but also to the academic world, don't you think?

(And yes, in 2-3 generations most of us will be forgotten and in 10 all of us. The few names remaining are just exceptions, and they only regard a small fraction of the geographic world and a much smaller one of the historical one.)

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