The Importance of Understanding History (According to a Historian)

lizThis article was written by Liz Hill – writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

The first commonly stated reason it is important to understand history is, of course, the colloquial: “Learning from the Past.”

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This is a trite notion that supposedly sums up the importance of studying and teaching history: if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past we are doomed to repeat them. Well, even assuming the course of history is made by momentous individual decisions ( which it’s not), I still find this notion irritatingly simplistic. Present conditions never so closely mirror moments in the past that we could make some sort of prognostic art out of the study of history. Furthermore, how are we to determine what the “mistakes” of history even are and by whose standards? These are entertaining questions for time-travel fiction maybe, but not something to write a historiography paper on. As facile as the phrase is, however, I do see an element of truth in it. Knowledge and understanding of history can help us (individuals, cultures, societies) act better – more critically and thoughtfully – in the present for the sake of the future.

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Western culture has an unfortunate habit of isolating itself from its own past. Where we are now represents transcendent progress over the past. We pick and choose the good people and moments to memorialize based on perceptions of how they got us here, and reject the rest as superstitious, backwards, and undeveloped. Our isolation from the past is even embedded in the basic structures we use to talk about it – chronological periodization (while admittedly practically useful) chops the flow of time up into supposedly distinct chunks, obscuring the blurring and continuity that occurs in between and throughout. “Medievalism” – the process of placing what is no longer acceptable in modern society and culture into the past – is the little cousin of Orientalism. Both are processes of Othering by which cultures constitute identity and absolve themselves by projecting what is unacceptable within onto an external and radically different other. Medievalism is not just directed at the historical past, but at so-called “traditional cultures” which are very much alive and present.

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There is of course a flip side of the progressive view of history, which is reactionary traditionalism and the desire to make Golden Ages out of the past while viewing recent history as degeneration. This perspective has its own whole set of polemic uses and abuses, but to me it seems to represent a similar inability to meet change and difference as morally neutral, neither good nor bad in and of itself.

It still stands however, that to act wisely for the future one must understand the present state of the conditions in which one acts. And to understand the present state of anything – a person, a society, an idea – one must understand where it or they came from. History allows us to reconstruct the accumulation of existence that lies behind any present state of being. Good history is capable of uncovering the inner workings of social and cultural systems by understanding where they came from, revealing their implications and potentials. With clearer knowledge about the present we can better act in the present, and from that, we can hope for a positive future.

 

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