In Defense of History

Let’s face it: everybody hates math. Most people would rather have an in-depth discussion about genital warts than even hear the word “mathematics.” Because we are outnumbered, math people have to stick together. Most of us have tried to explain math at some point, but our words fall on deaf ears, largely because mathematicians aren’t good with words. It usually sounds forced and trite, without any real bearing on reality.

Although I understand why most people never liked math, I do. In order to really explore the concept, I’d rather look at something I hate: history. What follows is my thoughts about history and how I have tried to resolve them. Keep in mind that I am not really an expert in this field, but I did what I could.

History is just names and dates.

If I just recited a list of names and dates to you, I doubt you would think I had learned any history. At its heart, history is about people and events. Anyone who fails to make the distinction has also missed the point. Some teachers treat history like a timeline, where events are just dates and people are just the names of those present. Those teachers don’t manage to teach much of anything.

If you treat history like something that is dead and gone, then you will inevitably confine it to a mental graveyard. On the other hand, if you see it as something active and ongoing, you might find a place in your life for it.

There’s no need to know history.

Really, can you describe anything that you “need to know”? Walking? Speaking? Flushing the toilet? What part of education is truly necessary? You could sit somewhere and breathe, with a feeding tube in your gut, shitting your pants, never thinking or moving, and you wouldn’t “need to know” anything.

All education is essentially optional; you do it for your own reasons. If you can’t find a reason to learn history, feel free to stay ignorant. However, if you want to be an educated person, remember that history is the context through which all other knowledge has emerged. No knowledge is independent from its historical context, no matter how objective it seems. Furthermore, history shows us the reasons why we should learn in the first place.

But history is completely useless.

“Useless” is a word with no meaning. There are many things worth knowing that you may never “need to use.” For instance, CPR, self-defense, swimming, fire safety, defensive driving, and the Heimlich maneuver are all things many people never use. Besides, if you only learn those things that are “useful,” you’ll turn out to be a real bore.

It’s cliche but true to say those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santanaya), although the cynic might argue that history repeats itself no matter what you know. In any case, there is nothing new under the sun (Solomon). Throughout the past are perfect examples of human behavior with endless applications. If you want to know how people will act, look at how they have always acted.

I just don’t get it.

History is not really a “thing,” but a complex process. No event is independent; events do not emerge out of nowhere. The names represent real people with flaws and strengths. But history is often oversimplified. Causes are reduced to broad strokes. People become stock characters with fixed behavior. The process is treated as a natural progression with a specific direction. Most significantly, it becomes something that is in the past. Again, history is not over, nor will it end any time soon.

Well, I’m just not enthusiastic about it.

Of course not. Nothing can force you to be enthusiastic about anything, because passion comes from within. Just give it a bit of a chance, but not by reading a textbook. Talk to someone who does have passion about history, or approach it from the angle of something you are passionate about. I doubt you’ll decide to become an historical expert, but if you discover an interest in history, pursue it. If not, you can always learn what you feel you need to know or want to use. If you don’t want to do that, give up on it. Just don’t pester the people who know what history really is.

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